As you all know, it was Mother's Day this past Sunday. So the boyfriend (R) and I had planned a special treat for his mom. The boyfriend's mom S, is a jolly good sport and she certainly appreciates the finer things in life.
Vanilla Black is a restaurant that I've recently been reading rave reviews about; so, we looked at the menu listed on its website. And right from the word go, VB was a winner. The menu was entirely vegetarian (I was delighted !), the venue was clearly rather cool and posh (that would certainly suit S) and it offered a cheese toastie for starters (what more could the philistine boyfriend ask for?).
The lady taking the bookings was pleasant and helpful. We wanted to visit on the Sunday. VB isn't open at weekends, so she suggested other dates and times when there was availability.
We called again to revise the timing on our reservation. Again, the response was prompt and courteous.
When we arrived, the seating had been arranged for 3, as per our booking . I think that's a nice touch - mostly when I order a table for 3, I tend to see 4 chairs with 3 place settings, here it was 3 chairs and 3 place settings, which made it feel like they had made a special effort. The tables themselves were set well-apart, giving a feeling of spaciousness and comfort.
The restaurant is located near the Royal Courts of Justice and is tucked in a really unusual back-lane that is a couple of minutes walk from Chancery Lane tube station; so its easy to get to on public transport. We asked the front-of-house manager why the place was called Vanilla Black . She was refreshingly honest and said that she's made the name up herself. Later we found out that Donna (our maitre'd) co-owns the place along with the talented chef Andrew Dargue. Apparently they wanted a memorable yet simple name, that had no particular references to anything (" Not every meat-serving restaurant is called The Pig's Trotters ", Donna un-selfconsciously pointed out. "We want to be known for being a good place to eat and not for a vegetarian-sounding name". Made sense! )
The waitress took our drinks order promptly and offered us some freshly baked bread-rolls . On the table, they had placed 2 types of butter (one sea-salted and the other encrusted with pepper). The decor was simple and fairly minimalist and sophisticated The table-ware was clean and un-fussy. Best of all, the restrooms were spotless and had really good-quality, thick paper napkins. Not the ones that disintegrate at the first sign of any moisture. That served as an early sign that that this was certainly a classy act!!
We caught up on S's recent trip to visit R's sister in Australia, and not long after the waitress arrived with the starters.
R had ordered a potato and watercress-soup with goat's cheese crouton. I had the tomato pain perdue with grilled paneer and pickled vegetables and S had the Wenslydale cheesecake and toasted orange bread with peach chutney and cornichons (that's gherkins to the uninitiated).
S's starter was definitely (and exquisitely) the winner in that round. The cheesecake was perfectly cooked and the gherkins added a really nice and unusual twist. The orange bread was strangely delicious to say the least and complemented the cheesecake perfectly.
R enjoyed his soup, but to be quite honest it was simple and rather basic and I've managed a similar standard at home (or so, I believe).
My starter was a bit of a let-down. For my palate, the paneer could have been seasoned better and was a bit bland. The pickled vegetables - I got pieces of cauliflower - provided a huge burst of wasabi-paste like flavour and worked well with the paneer by giving it the kick it needed to take this dish away from very being very boring and ordinary ; as for the tomato pain perdu - hmmmm I didn't care for it very much at all.
On reflection though, all 3 of us demolished our starters but I can safely say that S's starter was head and shoulders above the rest.
Our plates were collected promptly once we were done (A very pleasant change compared to some of the pretentious places in London - Don't you hate it when you pay loads of money and the service is still inattentive?). The service at VB was attentive yet fairly unobtrusive . It was not particularly smiley and obsequious but not surly either and some people like me might prefer that.
We were given time to relax and talk and digest our starters and just as we were getting peckish again, the mains arrived.
S had the Poached Duck Egg and Fossway Fleece Pudding with Hickory Smoked Potato Croquette and Pineapple pickle. The egg was beautifully and perfectly cooked and although it does gall me to call a main course a pudding, the cheese-y ensemble was gloriously executed and thoroughly enjoyable. S seemed to really enjoy it and I admit I felt very relieved . When I booked the meal, I had been fretting about whether S would really enjoy the food given that it was entirely vegetarian, but I needn't have worried; she enjoyed it thoroughly.
I had the mushroom Duxelle Torte with a burgundy sauce and button onions and vegetables. Ooo-la-laa, this was fantastically fantastic. The pastry was perfection itself - crisp , soft and flakey, all at the same time. The mushroom stuffing was beautifully cooked and, all-in-all this stole the show. The burgundy sauce was unbearably good. My only slight suggestion would be for them to serve a wee bit more of the sauce than the small quantity originally dotted on the plate. That said, they gracefully brought me some more of the sauce when I requested it.
R had the Truffled Potato Bubble and Squeak with Red cabbage, cumin-spiced parsnip crisps, carrot puree and brown sauce. The main part of this main course was competently executed and R thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm personally not entirely sure that I could recognise a very strong truffle-flavour but the dish did taste rather good. The tiny parsnip crisps were neither here nor there and tasted of nothing while the red cabbage had a really strange and implacable kind of flavour that I did not care for much at all.
For pudding we went with one sticky toffee pudding between the three of us. The portion was generous. The pudding itself was well-made and satisfying but I've certainly tasted better. In sum, pudding was nice enough but not exceptional in any way.
When we finally settled our bill, the meal had set us back £87 . There are 2 menus on offer. Depending on the menu you use it costs £18 for 2 courses and £23 for 3 or £24 for two courses and £ 30 for 3. Our bill also covered 3 soft drinks and a 12.5 % service charge. The service charge was probably the only thing I would quibble about, but that would be anywhere else too. I don't care much for restaurants pre-including a charge such as this on the bill, when the food itself is not particularly cheaply priced and the service team consists of 1 waitress and 1 front-of-house manager who provide fairly competent (but not exceptional) service and particularly because I would rather put in a discretionary tip of my choice , and I will usually plump for at least 10% but I'd like to make the decision myself , thank you very much. When one is paying top whack, I think a pre-added service charge smacks slightly of avarice (and I feel the same way of all restaurants that behave in this manner) ; service to my mind should really be included within the price of the meal rather than as a separate add-on. In a place like this, having a pre-included, supposedly discretionary service charge feels like one is being held to ransom because questioning it might suggest one was unhappy with the service in the first place (which I clearly was not).
So, the verdict - This restaurant is certainly in a league of its own when compared to other mainstream veggie restaurants in London. It is definitely a really good and much-needed veggie destination. The chef is clearly very skilled and the food quality is high throughout. It's on the expensive side; I did struggle to assign a value-for-money score in terms of how one judges that in a place like this . So unless you're loaded, this is not a daily lunch joint and it doesn't really aspire to be; it's somewhere to go to for a special occassion, with family / friends visiting from out-of-town or with senior / well-heeled business colleagues. On the other hand, given its mainstream fine-dining peers which tend to offer the staple mushroom risotto as the vegetarian option, I'd rather be at Vanilla Black than anywhere else when I pay this kind of money.
It's a place where one can savour delicious flavours in a very relaxed setting. There is no pressure on turning tables ; the service is of a high standard. Other than small-ish quibbles, there is virtually nothing I could fault with our experience on the day (Wow, that's a first !!)
We had a fantastic time. This is an independent business and in today's times, I'm keen to patronise non-chain places like this (when I can afford to) and I reckon many others amongst us are too. Vanilla Black is not your run-of-the-mill cheap-and-cheerful hippie-style veg cafe. It's a grown-up restaurant and deserves its well-earned reputation of being a fantastic place for all foodies (vegetarian, vegan or carnivore). Its a very fine example of fine dining that finally takes account of vegetarians.
Note for vegans : VB offers a well-structured vegan menu, which even includes freshly-baked vegan bread. The menu must however be requested at the time of booking to ensure they have all the ingredients available on the day. I have also been notified by a reader that the vegan wine selection is limited to 2 choices.
17-18 Tooks Court, London. EC4A 1LB