Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

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The Chancery

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There was an article in the paper last week about the increasing popularity of vegetarian restaurants in UK as well as increased number of “meat-reducers”. In particular, they talk to the head chef of Vanilla Black and mention that “between 50% and 60% of its clientele are meat-eaters”. Now, I’ve eaten at Vanilla Black and very nice it was too but the cynic in me wonders if most of that 50%-60% consists of blokes taking their birds out for dinner. Because yes, although it pains me to type it, I am a meat-reducer; this is the inevitable consequence of being married to a vegetarian (well, technically a pescatarian). This means that usually the only place I get to eat meat is restaurants so I was pleased that last night we went not to Vanilla Back but right next door to The Chancery.

Actually, our original choice had been The Terrace. Did you know there was a Caribbean restaurant in Lincoln’s Inn Fields? I didn’t but unfortunately its kitchen closed at eight. This was too late for us because we were at an Iain Sinclair talk at Somerset House beforehand. This was part of a series of talks and films to coincide with Bill Fontana’s River Sounding installation in the lightwells and tunnels around and beneath the courtyard. If you happen to be going passed it is worth popping in because it is a transportive experience and just the exploration of this usually unseen space is worthwhile. As for Sinclair, he is someone I’ve always admired rather than actively liked but he is a far more engaging speaker than he is a writer. His discursive style is perfectly suited to addressing a roomful of engaged punters.

Then it was a short walk up Fleet Street and Chancery Lane to The Chancery which is a bit of a stark prospect from outside. The area is Lawyer Central and there was an unmistakably corporate feel to the decor and clientele. We had been worried about this possibility in advance but there was enough warmth in the lighting and the staff to make it welcoming. In fact, the service was the opposite of the fussy, high pressure waiting I had feared, top marks for mixing attentive service with a relaxed atmosphere.

Inevitably there was an amuse bloody bouche and inevitably it was orange soup in a small glass bowl. This time it was butternut and very nice it was too but I could have done with a spoon, rather than being left to slurp it. Then, to start properly, I almost went for the aubergine, basil and mozarella schnitzel – vegetarian indoctorination – but then decided on the pressed smoked haddock. This was essentially a terrine of haddock, potato and leek with an unadvertised but entirely welcome trio of soft boiled quails eggs and a drizzle of hollandaise. N stayed with the ocean for a fluffily delicious tian of crab, crayfish and avocado. Two small problems just took the shine off them though: my potatoes were just on the raw side of al dente and N’s penultimate mouthful contained a small chunk of shell.

Nothing took the shine off the mains though. Despite me protestations about being a poor, hard done by meat-reducer I actually spent the weekend gorging on lamb and beef. I’m sure my colon will thank me later. So, my urge for red meat sated, I did something I never do: I ordered the chicken. This came as a substantial little tower of peas, braised gem and dark meat surrounded by battlements of gnocci. On top sat two cuts of white meat, the skin perfectly crisp, and round it all a moat of truffle jus. It was just absolutely faultless. It was similarly coastal on the other side of the table with roast halibut rising out of a foamy sea of tomato and mussel veloute. I didn’t try it, I’m not sure I would have been allowed so jealously was it guarded.

Let’s skip over desserts because that’s what we should have done. Not because they were bad, although they were both much too sweet, but because we didn’t need them at all. What we did need – to our surprise – was a quite startling glass of muscat with really vivid violet tones which perked us up and salvaged this stage of the meal.

£34 a head for three courses (although this was another Taste London restaurant and hence we paid that for two) with another £30 for service, a lovely glass of Sauvignon Blanc, an okay glass of rose and that muscat.

Written by Martin

5 May 2010 at 13:35

Vanilla Black

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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.

Written by Martin

14 February 2010 at 17:31

Posted in food

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