My bit of town, Stoke Newington and surrounding areas, is known as being one full of lily-livered liberals, eating sandals made of tofu and old copies of The Guardian.
It is not, however, very good for getting decent vegan food when out and about – a situation that has bemused me in my 11 years here. If there’s a part of town where the vegans roam the streets in large packs, it’s N16 and E8. We have a big Whole Foods for getting ingredients for making vegan food at home, the incomparable Rio Cinema has Manna cakes for eating during the movies, and Harvest has some good cake to take away. But for a nice place to while away the hours with vegan cake (and maybe savouries too), it’s not the paradise it could be.
So you can imagine my joy when Mandelbrot Set of Love opened on Stoke Newington Road last year, advertising vegan tea and cake alongside healing and ‘curiosities’. Except I’ve been there a few times now, and it’s not the vegan dream I thought it would be. Though it may be vegan, it’s not a place you’d while away the hours, and that makes my vegan heart sad.
It’s a basement – that’s a surmountable issue if you light it well, don’t overcrowd it, and don’t make it feel like a dungeon. Unfortunately, the small space is crowded with handmade and vintage dolls, piles of cloth, cabinets of menagerie items, and a couple of old sofas. There’s not much space to sit in, and where you do sit, it feels like you’re intruding on a crazy old woman’s living room – a woman who’ll come out and berate you for looking at her life-size knitted doll any moment.
This sounds cool, right? Very Dalston. It would be if there was ever anyone else there – the absence of actual customers makes it feel like an eerie pentangular relationship between you, the dolls, the staff, the healing machines, and the people on the videos.
The videos. Let me tell you about the videos. Let me tell you why I think there’s never been other customers in there on all my visits – because one wall of this small basement is taken up with bizarre videos of men telling you about how to heal yourself and your children. Nightmarish pseudo-scientific informational films about wild theories on health. I’m not begrudging anyone believing in this hocus-pocus – whatever makes you feel fulfilled is fine by me if it doesn’t hurt anyone – but if you project old videos of it on almost the entire public space of a cafe and play the audio so loud that it’s the thing you hear when you enter and all you can hear during your entire stay there, you’re going to alienate a lot of visitors. Especially if you actually pay attention to the videos and try and follow their strange conspiracy-theory logic.
I want to say again that I have nothing personal against people into healing and alternative therapies but it’s an intrusive presence when you’re wanting to eat some cake and it’s not somewhere I could ever suggest meeting someone. The atmosphere in there feels gloomy and oppressive, despite the staff being friendly enough when you address them directly, if also entirely standoffish about your entry into their den of healing.
As for the food…well, it’s pretty good. The food is all homemade and very good value. You get massive slices of cake and big pots of tea served in pretty mismatched crockery. That side of things is great, but it’s completely wasted in a venue that obviously wants to be a healing and alternative spirituality centre for the converted to congregate rather than a public space for all to eat vegan food at leisure.
No-one seems to write about “MSET of Love” despite all vegan establishments in London normally getting a whole lot of press thanks to their small number. Perhaps it’s better to say nothing than to be critical, but I’d rather be honest that this is a missed opportunity to create a welcoming and cosy vegan food joint in London’s main hipster and alt-thinking strip.
You can go to a Hare Krishna restaurant and enjoy your food and the atmosphere without feeling you have to be a follower. You can go to Pogo without being an anarchist or a squatter. Mandlebrot needs to turn off the videos, turn up the lights and shout about its good food rather than shoving it in with a wooly spiritual agenda which suffocates customers.