February 05

GUEST POST: Vanilla is the new black

Here’s a post by my friend the very talented Mark Brandon, who writes regularly for legal publications on the business of law firms as well as working in PR. Mark is clearly wasted in that role and needs to think about a career in food. 

Vanilla Black, Took’s Court EC4

There must come a point, in designing the menu for a new restaurant, when chefs simply run out of ideas, and instead have to resort to the old-fashioned method of writing food items on small pieces of paper, putting them in a hat, and pulling them out in combination.

This kind of experimentation sometimes results in genius, but, as with any attempt at food alchemy, failure to result in genius inevitably leaves one with a faint taste of disappointment, like one of those flavours you can never quite shift from memory (tarragon).

Vanilla Black, a Michelin-recommended vegetarian restaurant squashed down one of the narrower streets on the City side of Holborn, aims for the stars, offering a menu positively bristling with eclectic food combos – “apologies in advance, no pasta bake or vegetarian curry”, trills the website – but only attains them sporadically.

When it fails, the food – like the tired décor – feels slightly artless, almost unloved, as if its vegetarian worthiness is supposed to make up for its often pallid colouring and brutalist arrangement, features only worsened by the terrible, 80s bistro lighting reflecting off the thick, stippled Artex on the walls. Artex? You could still get that in 2004? Who knew?

Following a pleasant but insufficiently saliva-producing amuse-bouche of blood orange jelly with a blob of something cream-cheesy on top, I started with Yellow Pea Soup and Marmite Dumplings and Sweet Onion Purée. Its description did have me salivating, but when it arrived, my mouth could not help but feeling a little dry. The onion purée was bitter, not sweet, a doleful splodge of pale brown in a wan yellow pool. The tiny ‘dumplings’ had simply crawled out of the end of an icing bag and set, for all the world looking as though three brown-hatted gnomes had drowned in the soup. Their texture was unappealing, the Marmite flavour somehow lost in the mix. My companion’s Whipped Jacket Potato and Crispy Onions with Tomato Syrup and Wensleydale Cheese, though of nouvelle cuisine proportions looked and seemed tastier.

Memories of the dank soup were swiftly banished by the arrival of my main, the Double-Baked Ribblesdale Pudding and Smoked Croquette, with Pineapple Pickle and Poached Hen’s Egg, which was the highlight of the evening. This – I had asked one of the lovely waitresses, for there was no explanation on the menu – was a kind of macho soufflé, made with ewe’s cheese. The pudding itself was smooth, tangy and filling, the pickle cutting through any suggestion of over-creaminess or richness from the soft yolk, and the subtle smokiness of the croquette chimed in where needed. Altogether a perfect winter-warmer, effortlessly dismissing the idea that vegetarian cuisine is either stodgy or insubstantial. My companion’s Seared Seaweed and Cabbage with Pickled Potatoes, Soda Bread Sauce, Pickled Mustard Seeds and Foraged Seaside Vegetables would appeal more to those looking for a lighter, fresher feel, with hints of real pizzazz.

I could hardly wait for what I thought would be the pièce de résistance, the desserts, but once again, my sense of expectation had run away with me. My Smoked Paprika Fudge, Malt Loaf and Builders Tea Ice Cream with Crispy Pear and Smoky Pear again promised me the stars, but the see-saw of brown goo stuck to my plate was the disappointing consistency of fudge icing, rather than the enticing, teeth-on-edge talc-hardness of real fudge or the satisfying chew of the cheaper stuff. At one end of the fudge plank, the ice cream was the highlight, tea and sweet balanced perfectly without the acridity of the kind of over-tannic brew found clamped in a builder’s paw, but the too-crumbly balls of spiced whatnot on the other end were more like left-over Christmas pudding than the fudgy, fruit-stuffed and malty loaf I remember slathering with butter as a kid. My single slice of crispy pear sagged rather like my hopes and dreams, while the smoky pear, sat atop the Builder like a bad toupee, did a fair impression of the sweet onion purée from the first round, certainly in colour and consistency. My companion had the Roasted White Chocolate and Cep Mushroom Custard and Tarragon Cream Cheese with Toasted Meringue and Caramelised Rice, which when it arrived looked as if a banana had been run over on its way to a banoffee pie and tasted scarcely less curious than it sounds. Tarragon. Nuff said.

For dinner, Vanilla Black was, for a grizzly old carnivore like me, something of a chore. The staff are wonderful, friendly and helpful, but the bistro furniture, inappropriate lighting and sparse portioning make for a less comfortable experience than one needs on a cold winter night, and the sparse evening clientele suggest this is perhaps more of a lunchtime favourite for Holborn herbivores.