This week Ben visits a plant based London restaurant that can’t fail to make your mouth water.
Vanilla Black is one of London’s highest-decibel manifestations of a rising voice within the vegetarian/vegan culinary world. It takes the concept of accessible fine dining to a dietary group that, previously, has often found dining out an awkward and stressful experience. Both website and menu come with the following caveat –
“‘Apologies in advance, no pasta bake or vegetable curry’. We didn’t think we would have to put that warning… but we did.”
As such, Vanilla Black is attempting to make the absence of meat totally inconsequential. Therefore, I took my coeliac, vegan pal Emily (here’s a challenge that might test their philosophy of culinary inclusion and intelligence, I mused), and offered them myself, a confirmed meat eater, but one who enjoys vegetarian food at its best, is obsessed with cheese, and was keen to see what would be on offer.
Attentive and polite waitresses showed us to our table, and struck a great balance between availability and not being overbearing. A gluten free menu was provided for my friend, with vegan options pointed out clearly. The menu was very clear about what was in each dish, and everything was offered in a way that suggested it was palateably accessible: no straining through muslins, tribute of tomato or anything horribly confusing. Just a collection of ingredients respectfully blended to create a balanced culinary experience.
Our first offering was an amuse-bouche: apple and celery foam. There was real celery in the bottom too: this is a place that has a relationship with food, not the concept of food.
Premises-baked bread and accompaniments followed – gluten-free multigrain and olive oil, and cherry sourdough with Marmite butter. A delicious and gratefully-received detail.
Emily ordered cucumber, sticky rice (gluten free option) and ginger purée, and I ordered the Jerusalem artichoke cake. Both were elegantly, but simply presented, but contained real depth of flavour. The Brazil nut milk offset beautifully the ethnic Asian influences of curry leaf turmeric, creating a multi-faceted dish that improved and challenged with each mouthful. Delicious.
After a palate cleanser of something fizzy, we moved onto mains. The coeliac/vegan department went for the vegan “option” on slow cooked “egg” (insert vegan cheese), with black sesame and fried gram flour, peppercorn crisp and radish. I plumped for High Cross cheese (a young cheese most resembling a semi soft, crumbly goats cheese) with various incarnations of onion cooked with sherry.
Both felt like highly decadent takes on childhood classics; egg and soldiers, and cheese and potato pie, respectively. All I can say is that they were much more delicious than I remember, and that any lack of subtlety in the flavour balancing would be compensated for by the feel good factor that these dishes, and the memory, created. I now recognise how swathes of Xennials must have felt at the reforming of Take That… Happy days.
Desserts continued along the “feel good” factor, again perhaps eschewing the “fine dining” shackles in favour of creating an honest crowd pleaser. I picked up on a Gianduja chocolate brownie, roasted hazelnut ice cream, with tiger nut milk, salted caramel and Nutella powder. Emily went for banana ice cream, whipped toffee and banana biscuit. Emily described her dessert as “very banana-y”. My dessert was also very decadent and hot the spot, but I couldn’t help wondering if the flavours were SO well merged that I had been robbed of the individual punches of the components. I didn’t pick up a roasted nut element especially, or the luxurious depth of Gianduja. But it did put a smile on my face, and that, to my mind, is what good food should do.
Vanilla Black should be applauded for creating interesting, elegant and thought-provoking menu. The atmosphere is cordial, and the price range (£31 for 2 courses, £41 for 3) isn’t bank-breaking by Central London standards. If you are thinking about life after meat, this is a tremendous place to start a vegetarian or vegan journey. For those of you already on the path, it’s just a good night out!