Veg and two veg: Can Vanilla Black convince a carnivore that its meat-free menu is more than just a list of side dishes?
Vanilla Black, 17-18 Took's Court, London EC4, tel: 020 7242 2622
Sunday 20 September 2009
Vegetarian fine-dining. I know it's narrow-minded, but those two terms just don't go together in my mind. Vegetables are lovely – alongside a plate of roast chicken or a tranche of sea bass, or, or, or... However, I'm prepared to be persuaded, after the folk from Vanilla Black get in touch. They've seen my recent review of a steak house and want me to try the opposite end of the spectrum – a smart restaurant that's entirely meat-free.
I visit without alerting the owners, but wish I'd asked someone how to find it, as it takes a while to locate in a tiny cobbled, blocked-off street tucked away near legal eagles' haunt Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Once found, I expect the place to be deserted, but the convivial chatter of an almost-full room is reassuring. The austere dining space, a symphony of Farrow & Ball neutrals, is broken up by half-walls and steps. We're put on a raised area with four other couples. Is this the romance ghetto? Down the steps are a couple of jaunty tables of four and six.
The restaurant's intention is to show the world that meat- and fish-free dining doesn't mean brown rice and nut roasts. That it is possible to execute exemplary cooking with vegetables as the stars. The menu – which offers two courses for £24, three for £30 – certainly means business. Each dish is exhaustively described, in that way that's either to show off the provenance or to prevent diners from complaining about an unadvertised garlic clove. Take a deep breath: candied chilli-stuffed black olives and lemon and avocado cream, with basil, poached tomatoes and bread crisps. Wensleydale cheesecake and toasted orange bread, plus peach chutney and cornichons. Phew.
Luckily, each of the above starters is a symphony of flavours that works beautifully. The savoury cheesecake is a show stopper – Wensleydale has just the right crumbly, creamy texture and, though curious, citrus-tinged bread is a heavenly accompaniment. The olive dish is, reports Mr M, perky and polished and a jolly good start.
Now the real test for a committed carnivore: will any of the big dishes sate me? The most "meaty" of the mains, mushroom duxelle torte with burgundy sauce, button mushrooms and vegetables (isn't that tortology, I mean tautology?) is a no-go, because I'm not keen on mushrooms.
Mr M dutifully orders it and despite the fact that the dish looks bulky, and a bit like beef Wellington without the you-know-what, it's made complex and satisfying by the velvety burgundy sauce. It's certainly a more coherent dish than mine – truffled potatoes with buttered savoy and chicory, and peppered swede and roasted beets. All are superbly prepared, zingily seasoned and beautiful to look at – but it feels like a cast of supporting actors without the lead. If you think that's because I'm not veggie, I checked with a couple of long-termers, and they, too, said it sounded not quite the full ticket.
We've decided to share another main: pea, lettuce and tarragon "dim sum" with wilted greens and tomato and ginger sauce – and it's in a different class. The parcels of fresh greens are tender, with a punchy sauce that wows but doesn't overwhelm. Now this, I imagine, is what vegetarians come off the beaten track to eat.
More in greed than necessity – because although the plates are painstakingly styled, they're fully loaded – we share grilled pineapple with chilli syrup and white chocolate ice-cream (the last being surplus to requirements, we decide), and peanut butter-and-chocolate parfait with iced banana and butterscotch sauce. I fancy marzipan cake with poached cherries, too, but, well, you can't have everything and if there's no nut roast, I'll have a nut pud instead. It's as tooth-rottingly sweet as you might imagine, and totally scrumptious.
After my visit, a friend asked me if I'd recommend it as a good place to take his vegetarian teenage daughter for a special occasion. I certainly would: it has a gravitas and elegance missing from the rest of the "brown rice brigade".
A bland name, an odd location and an uncompromising menu – Vanilla Black doesn't make life easy for itself, but it confirms for me that there is such a thing as vegetarian fine-dining.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help, 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Vanilla Black, 17-18 Took's Court, London EC4, tel: 020 7242 2622. Lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday. £100 for two, including wine and service
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2009'
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