At the beginning of the year I promised myself I would start writing more restaurant reviews. However, at the beginning of year – and looking at my gut and my wallet – I also promised myself I would visit restaurants less frequently. I think you will have spotted the conflict.
In addition to this, I had a couple of fairly horrific dining experiences in January so I’d been waiting for an occasion that demanded going somewhere decent. And what better occasion than the day before the day before Valentine’s Day? On a recommendation we went to Vanilla Black, just off Chancery Lane. My wife had been perusing the menu for a good five minutes – as always, I’d already chosen – when she looked at me quizzically and said: “Where’s all the meat?” Yes, Vanilla Black is a vegetarian restaurant; I am such an incurable romantic that once a year I will forgo the usual pleasures of eating out (ie eating as many different types of pork as possible) in favour of something that provides more options for her. Not only that, but it was interesting to be presented with a completely non-hierarchical menu.
I started with Yorkshire feta cheesecake with pear and vanilla chutney, cornichons and brioche crouton for no other reason than I desperately wanted some cheese. Actually, I’m not usually a fan of feta, too dry and bitter. This was the opposite: soft and creamy and just cheesy enough for me. However, it was all a bit too much like pudding; the chutney and crouton adding to the sweetness rather than contrasting with it, leaving only the tiny slivers of gherkin to cut against it.
I managed to resist going for a double whammy of Yorkshire cheese by ordering the poached duck egg and Ribblesdale pudding and instead went for baked mushroom duxelle and burgundy sauce with butter onions, creamed salsify and Jerusalem artichoke crisps on the grounds that I didn’t know what a duxelle was and it sounded exciting. It turns out a duxelle is essentially beef Wellington sans beef which was lovely but I’m afraid it is hard for me not to see that lack of meat as an issue. I’m a big fan of salsify and Jerusalem artichoke so their presence was welcome but the dish also came with a couple of tiny carrots and a bit of brocoli which added nothing in terms of flavour and seemed a bit unnecessary and out of keeping with the rest of the plate. They did make a handy delivery vector for the remainder of the sauce though.
The missus went for red wine braised puy lentil ‘dhal’ with potato mousseline and curry oil. I’m glad to see this sort of Mediterranean ‘dhal’ is a real dish that is served in real restaurants rather than something I invented because I don’t like proper dhal. It is the perfect food for a freezing February night but unfortunately the generous dollop of curry oil slightly overwhelmed the taste of the dhal. Much enjoyment was had over the fact the piles of mousseline looked like vulvas though. This was followed by whipped celeriac with apple and kohlrabi salad, butternut squash, sage gnocchi and toasted hazlenut. The problem here was that this was more like a starter and the dahl was more like a main. On its own terms, the celeriac was amazingly intense and well complemented by the freshness of the salad but the gnocchi were stodgy and over salted.
For dessert we had peanut butter and chocolate parfait with iced banana and butterscotch sauce and Valrhona chocolate truffle cake and espresso syrup with white chocolate and tarragon ganache. If my cheesecake was a bit too sweet to start, the parfait was a bit too sweet to end. The truffle cake and ganache were just perfect though. This is pretty much classical indulgence with the nice added twist of the tarragon, it was the star of the evening.
A qualified success then but concerns over the success of some of the arrangements were wiped away by the quality of the individual mouthfuls. The experience was more than the food though, because although the restaurant itself is rather bland (it is decorated like a mid-range chain hotel without much in the way of character) this is more than made up for by the friendliness of staff and the service itself was impeccable; attentive, discrete, everything you could ask for. Having the world’s greatest dinner companion helped too.
Fifty five pounds a head, including service, wine and two possibly unnecessary glasses of Sauternes.