Wow – you certainly get some unexpected results when you run an internet search on "vanilla". Not since I wrote a travel article about the Greek island of Lesbos have I turned up quite such a racy selection of links. I'm sure that, as a sophisticated Independent reader, you already know that "vanilla" is a disaparaging term used by the gay and fetish community to connote an unadventurous sexual partner. It's now also a disparaging term for a restaurant.
Vanilla is the latest London opening to pair cutting-edge design with high-end food, like an amateur sketch of Sketch. It's located in the dull northern part of Fitzrovia, an area not known for its nightlife, despite the many media, advertising and fashion businesses based here. There used to be a strange and stylish restaurant down the road called Firevault, housed in a designer fireplace showroom. As exotic as anything in New York, only with much worse food, Firevault blazed briefly and then closed down. Now its former manager and head chef have reemerged at the helm of Vanilla.
Hiding underneath an anonymous office block, Vanilla is accessed via entryphone and subterranean staircase, like some illegal drinking den. Then, as though in a Kubrick fantasy sequence, the visitor erupts into a bar entirely done out in eyeball-searing white, from shiny floor (already slightly scuffed) to sofas, tables and chairs. Each table is shielded from its neighbours by retractable screens, and on the midweek evening I visited, each was occupied by a slightly sad looking female of a certain age, the sort of woman who once would have been tucked up cosily at home with the latest Anita Brookner, but now feels obliged to wait out her middle years in fatuous style bars.
Still, it's dramatic and effective, even if the blue LED lighting which bathed the sleek white surfaces as we drank our aperitifs made the room feel like a particularly roomy tanning booth. Much less exciting is the adjoining dining room, a tunnel-like space decorated entirely in black and white, with the temporary and slightly unreal feel of an exhibit created by a TV designer for a trade show.
The low lighting may be designed to flatter the clientele, but it doesn't do the menu any favours, rendering it, to all intents and purposes, illegible. Shame, because it's one of those lists which combines some sensible and well-prepared dishes with a few lurking modern European horrors. Like the line-caught sea bass with shaved artichoke hearts, edamame beans, Amaretto and vanilla sauce, which my friend accidentally ordered, having obviously stopped reading before she reached the end of the description. Slather it over fish, and the effect is positively obscene.
Some of the other, simpler dishes we tried were good, particularly a rich and silky courgette risotto, fragrant with white wine and spiked with fried courgette flower. But a twice-baked Comté cheese soufflé had given up the will to live, reduced to a withered and musty corpse by the second baking; and a well-balanced fricassee of black-leg chicken, morels and sautéed asparagus was served at a temperature that indicated it had been hanging around for a while before leaving the pass.
We started to feel that way ourselves towards the end of what turned out to be an endurance test of an evening, when our pleasant waiting team melted away, and we were left waiting for our bill for what seemed like several hours. When I finally left the dining room in search of someone I could pay, I passed the kitchen, which the chefs had long since cleaned up and left to go home, possibly to polish up their CVs.
With dinner priced at a set £30 for three courses, Vanilla isn't grossly expensive, but it struck me as utterly misconceived. The style bar part of it would probably work fine on its own, but what was the thinking behind throwing an ambitious restaurant with serious gastronomic pretensions into the mix? Why locate it in this dead zone? Who is it for? And who is behind it?
The answer lies in those anonymous offices upstairs. They're owned by a company which operates business centres. In a hubristic bit of brand extension, they've taken their basement canteen and turned into a style bar and "destination restaurant", presumably hoping that, as well as giving their employees somewhere cool to eat and drink, the space will carry on making money after office hours.
It goes without saying that this isn't how great restaurants come into existence. They're the product of dreams, drive and passion, of a crazy obsession with food and a manic desire to entertain and satisfy your customers. They don't come about as a by-product of vertical integration by a company supplying serviced offices.
Lacking a restaurateur to animate it with passion, blood, sweat and tears, Vanilla just doesn't feel like a restaurant, and for all its black and white chic, it will never be more than a pale imitation. Vanilla indeed.
Vanilla, 131 Great Titchfield Street, London W1 (020-3008 7763)
Around £50 a head