“Apologies in Advance: No Pasta Bake or Vegetable Curry..”
With meat hogging the restaurant limelight, our resident foodie spreads her wings to hunt down places to tempt the vegetarian
Review by Sophie Aghdami
In a restaurant world of burgers, steak and all things meat, I have set out on a journey of discovery of vegetarian food in London. As well as having always been central to Buddhism, vegetarianism has been present across the world since the beginnings of time; most notably in ancient Indian and ancient Greek cultures, which leaves me intrigued to find the hidden gems serving up our historic cuisine.
In antiquity, as the Vegetarian Society states, “vegetarianism found favour with some of the great figures of the classical world, most notably Pythagoras (580 BCE). Well known for his contributions to mathematics, Pythagoras was an independent thinker, the first to admit women to his intellectual circle on equal terms and to argue that the world was a sphere. His teaching that all animals should be treated as kindred included the abstinence from meat.”
Working in the food industry surrounded by the challenge of creating compelling dishes to draw in guests, and with a large proportion of my family and friends being vegetarian, I am constantly on the look out for creative and exciting vegetarian food to entice, excite and satisfy.
Vanilla Black has a reputation as one of the finest vegetarian restaurants in London. The menu challenges the bland, uninspiring misconceptions about vegetarian food, confronting customer expectations with the menu proudly stating ‘apologies in advance: no pasta bake or vegetable curry”. As meat-eaters, the owners of the restaurant were fed up with coming across boring and repetitive “veggie options” when dining out, and decided to open a restaurant proud of its creativity with vegetarian food.
This restaurant looks smart. Tucked away just off Chancery Lane the entrance is low key, sultry and inviting. We open the large glass doors and walk into the unpretentious and elegant restaurant, immediately greeted by a friendly hostess before being taken to our table.
Service is attentive and formal yet still relaxed. After choosing a very reasonable priced bottle of white wine (£24.50) our drinks are continuously kept topped up: just as we like it. The wine list has a great selection of tipples including a few classic cocktails as well as some tasty looking organic beers and ciders.
Food is outstandingly presented on an array of different plates, crockery and all bursting with colour and texture. We choose three starters; the first being whipped jacket potato, crispy onions, tomato syrup and Wensleydale cheese, which is an absolute triumph. The roasted, smoky flavour of the potato has been transformed into silky, rich pomme puree, encasing melting, bursting hot pillows of Wensleysdale cheese and topped with a pile of crispy onion rings. I could have eaten three times as much and almost encounter a fistfight with my dining partner for the last bite (I would have won – recent boxing lessons have unearthed quite a right hook).
Yorkshire blue cheese ‘toastie’, crisp rye, grapes and puffed wheat is interesting: rather too rich even for my usual inner greed for blue cheese. The puffed wheat is a little too odd for my liking and seems a little ‘try hard’ in the creativity department. Watermelon, red pepper and tomato with shallot cream, mustard ‘yolk’ and caper cracker followed a similar suit of strangeness, making us question ‘why?’ to the way in which the components had been put together. Although the dish looks exquisite, we can’t help feeling that the chefs had gone a little overboard on the creativity and almost make the dish too complicated in its presentation and textures.
With our stomachs filling quickly from the richness of the starters we wait with apprehension for the main courses. The first dish of fried mushrooms, sweet corn, tarragon sponge, pickled mooli and crumbs is… interesting. The mushrooms and mooli are deliciously simple, however the crumb and tarragon sponge are, again, rather odd. Thankfully the second main course of double-baked Ribblesdale pudding, smoked croquette with pineapple pickle and poached hen egg is more up our street; full of flavour and textures that dance on our palettes.
The dishes beat our stomachs into submission and leave no room for dessert, however had there been room left, we would have quite happily tried some of the interesting sounding sweet dishes, which include smoked paprika fudge, malt loaf, builder’s tea ice cream, crispy pear and smoky pear. Another rather unusual offering is roasted white chocolate and Cep mushroom custard, tarragon cream cheese, toasted meringue and caramelised rice.
In hindsight we would have looked at, and probably tried, some of the dishes from the gluten free or vegan menus simply because the majority on the a la carte were predominantly built around cheese. This is no bad thing for the dairy lovers, however results in a very full feeling not dissimilar to the feeling one gets after an evening out at Hawksmoor or even MeatLiquor… a slightly ironic statement considering vegetarian food is often seen as the healthy alternative to gorging on meat.
Refreshingly different and no doubt one of the leading innovators in creative cuisine, this certainly is a restaurant to try whether you’re vegetarian or not. Even the biggest lover of meat would leave satisfied; perhaps more so would the vegetarian diner, elated by a menu with no pasta bake in sight.