Saturday, 6 November 2010

Vanilla is the new Black

Well, it's been a few days since we came back from London now, boasting a few new pounds in my paunch. But since we had some absolutely lovely food – and some very necessary (to soak up the alcohol) deep fried bits and pieces, I can’t complain at all.

Tomorrow sees the launch of the new Weight Watchers plan, which of course is all very exciting, but in the meantime, a little bit more food porn.

Monday lunchtime found us meeting up with an old friend. Sort of. You see, Vanilla Black is a restaurant that used to be located in York. Much as I love my home city, it doesn’t boast the greatest selection of eat-outeries in the world, but Vanilla Black was something rather special. It is a vegetarian restaurant – but one doing food that non vegetarians actually want to eat. Even ardent meat-loving males.

Anyway, a few years ago, it decided, a la Dick Whittington, that all the streets in London were paved with gold and packed up all its wordly belongings in a red spotted hankerchief and headed down South - much to the disappointment of the York clientele; especially me, who had only managed to eat there once and been totally bowled over by the quality of the food. And so, finding ourself in the Big Smoke for the weekend, we resolved to go along and pay it another visit to see if it lived up to our memories of the place.

The menu which we examined carefully in advance, looked pretty good – although we wondered (and here our aged memories could be playing tricks with us) if it was slightly less “fun” than previous incarnations. I’ve probably said it before, but D and I are suckers for playful food which is probably why we adored the Fat Duck so much, and why J. Baker’s continues to be one of our absolute favourite places to eat. Vanilla Black had grown up and become a little more po faced. But then, it is now situated within spitting distance of Lincoln’s Inn and probably has to take itself as seriously as all the pinstripe clad lawyers wandering around.

When we came to make notes on the food afterwards a lot of little nitpicks started to emerge. “It sounds like I didn’t like it,” D observed, “But I actually did.”

Observation 1: The portions were small. I would freely admit that I am greedy, with a capacity for food that would put many a rugby player to shame. But if it hadn’t been for the fact that I got through two slices of bread and the best part of a jug of water over the course of the meal, I think I would have left with quite an empty stomach.

Lentil dahl with potato mousseline
Yukon potato cakes with smoked olive oil mayonnaise
Observation 2: Most of the individual component of the dishes we ordered were well cooked and tasted good. I just wasn’t always entirely sure whether they all belonged together. Sometimes it felt like something had just sidled onto my plate from the plate next door. Take the lentil “dahl” with curry oil and potato mousseline. I just don’t quite understand what those pale smears of potato added to the very flavourful, beautifully textured beluga lentils. And my dessert, a Valrhona chocolate truffle with cherries, coconut ice and mint crisp…that wasn’t so much an individual componet gone wrong as three puddings that had all accidentally fallen into one bowl together. I like chocolate and cherries, chocolate and coconut and chocolate and mint. I am less keen on cherries, coconut and mint together.

Cauliflower "cake"

Cheese pudding with pineapple chutney

Observation 3: Some of the flavours lacked oomph. There was a bit of the Southern Softie to them – especially the smoked olive oil mayonnaise which accompanied D’s potato cake starter (“very subtle” he said, a little mournfully) and also his peanut butter parfait which looked rather wan.

Peanut butter parfait

Valrhona chocolate truffle

But don’t get me wrong – overall, we ate well; £30 for three courses is not at all bad for decent quality food and it would be a brilliant place to take a vegetarian friend for lunch. I think possibly it has got a little more starchy and lost some of the quirkiness it displayed in the York Years, but I guess such things happen to people, and restaurants, when they cross the Watford Gap…

 Vanilla Black
17-18 Tooks Court

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