Vanilla Black, 17-18 Took's Court, London EC4
Saturday 25 October 2008
It's hardly surprising that the churn rate among newspaper restaurant reviewers is slower than the industry average. Why would anyone voluntarily give up a job that allows them to travel the country, eating and drinking? You'd have to prise this gig out of my cold, dead hand.
There are exceptions, though. Take my friend Andy, who accepted the position of restaurant critic with a Sunday newspaper, but omitted to tell them that for ethical reasons he didn't eat meat. After a couple of anguished months of subterfuge, of florid overwriting about fish dishes and wine lists, he threw in the scented hand-towel and resigned.
If only he'd hung on. Because at last, a restaurant has arrived that Andy could have written about with authority. Somewhere that doesn't assume that just because a person doesn't eat flesh, they don't really care about food.
Before I start getting hate mail, I completely accept that there are loads of great places for veggies to eat, such as South Indian restaurants, and ... oh, there must be some others. But where do non-meat-eaters go when they want to dress up and eat posh? Either they have to settle for the token "and finally" vegetable dish on a regular menu, or go to a specifically vegetarian restaurant and risk being served seven shades of slop.
Can you sense an "until now" approaching round the bend? And here it comes ... because Vanilla Black is without doubt the best vegetarian restaurant I've been to in this country. It's certainly the poshest. Tucked away in London's law quarter, off Chancery Lane, it's an elegant townhouse restaurant, whose chandeliers and double-napped tables give no hint that you're entering a flesh-free zone.
And here's the amazing thing: not only does the stylish interior offer no hint of scrubbed pine, but the chef really knows what he's doing. The cooking is refined, adventurous and presented with an artist's eye for shape and colour. Heritage vegetables and artisan British cheeses are lovingly incorporated into dishes which – oh happy day – are hardly brown at all, and completely sludge free.
Of my two guests, it was Alexei Sayle who approached the occasion with the most enthusiasm: being a carnivorous Marxist in a vegetarian restaurant in the City probably appealed to his sense of the absurd. My other guest, veggie Helen, was more reluctant. But she perked up when she saw the menu, which reads so temptingly it provoked bickering. Alexei won round one, with a superior take on the cheese toastie, featuring Fosseway Fleece sheep's cheese, and home-made piccalilli. You have to love a menu that offers piccalilli on the same page as "watercress and truffle oil purée"; the latter came with a terrine that combined sweet sweated leek with chunky potato, showcasing what can be achieved with the simplest of ingredients.
From the dustier end of the seed catalogue, candy-striped beetroot looked amazing on the plate – vividly whorled in red and cream, served raw and sliced thin, to underpin a starter salad. The rare-breed vegetables are supplied by Secretts, we were told, which as Alexei said, sounds like a certain sort of gentlemen's club.
Two of our three main courses were knock-out, particularly a weird-sounding but brilliant combination of Caerphilly cheese pudding, smoked-potato croquette and pineapple chutney. Beetroot and red onion tatin had been carefully cooked, with real depth of flavour coaxed out of the beetroot; an accompanying mousse delivered a gentle horseradish afterburn.
A sweet potato "vindaloo" worked less well: it wasn't a curry, but roasted sweet potato on saffron rice, with an onion-sweet pakora supplying some needed bite.
Given that most of what had gone before looked like dessert – Alexei described it as looking like food from a movie set in the near-future – the desserts were predictably easy on the eye. Unctuous almond cake came with slightly sour yoghurt ice cream, while the kitchen indulged its propensity for little jokes with a "fig roll" – caramelised figs sandwiched between shortbread – on a tracery of tea-flavoured syrup.
There's a humility about Vanilla Black that bears out the theory that vegetarians are nicer people than the rest of us. Nowhere on the menu or website does the chef's name appear. He's actually chef/ patron Andrew Dargue, whose partner Donna takes care of front of house. The couple moved to London earlier this year from York, where Vanilla Black was a hugely popular local phenomenon. Their new – and much larger – premises aren't yet generating the same kind of buzz, though there is clearly a potential constituency of legal and City people with restricted diets for whom this kind of menu would be a godsend.
It's certainly somewhere I'll be recommending in the future, and not just to vegetarians. I might even take Andy. Poor guy could do with a decent meal.
Vanilla Black, 17-18 Took's Court, London EC4 (020-7242 2622)
Set menu, three courses £30 a head.
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, and 100 per cent of it goes to staff; all tips go to the staff"
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