Set lunch menus are often a great way to experience London’s fine dining establishments for a fraction of the price of an à la carte dinner, but many of the best deals are only available Monday to Friday. Such was the case with renowned vegetarian restaurant, Vanilla Black – until now. On Saturday 15 March 2014, Vanilla Black started serving Saturday lunches and we at Forks-Up were straight in there to see what was on offer. Tucked down a narrow side street off Chancery Lane, and just next door to the excellent The Chancery (a firm Forks-Up favourite), Vanilla Black describes itself as aiming “to elevate meat-free cookery to a level that delights discerning palates of all tastes, whether vegetarian or committed carnivore.” With its muted grey walls bedecked with black and white photos, dark wood tables and chandelier style lighting, the dining room has the air of a Victorian era parlour, but the low volume popular music and friendly welcome from the waiting staff stopped it from feeling stuffy.
To begin, both my dining partner and I went for Brie Ice Cream and Blackberries. Presentation was flawless – like art on a plate – and the flavours were fabulous in their intensity. The brie ice cream was smooth and richly creamy, cut through sharply by an almost painfully tangy onion chutney. The blackberries (of which I had two) added a pleasing touch of sweetness, while the crunchy toasted quinoa brought some textural interest to the plate. Whilst both of us enjoyed the dish, we could certainly see how the more pretentious elements could irk some diners – as well as the fresh blackberries, the plate was dotted with small purple globules of “spherified” blackberry puree – essentially liquid blackberry encased in a globe of gelatine that bursts when you bite (or, rather less fortunately, cut) into it.
For main course, my dining partner chose the Seared Seaweed and Cabbage with Pickled Potatoes,Soda Bread Sauce, Pickled Mustard Seeds and Foraged Seaside Vegetables. Painstaking presentation was again in evidence, and the phenomenal flavour did not disappoint – the saltiness of the seaside vegetables, combined with a velvety sauce and peppered with the heat of the mustard seeds made for an immensely satisfying main. I plumped for the other offering on the set menu – Double Baked Ribblesdale Pudding and Smoked Croquette, Pineapple Pickle and Poached Hen Egg – and was absolutely bowled over. The Ribblesdale Pudding was in fact a feather light mature cheese soufflé, its tangy, slightly nutty taste complemented perfectly by a quenelle of sweet quince jelly. The smoked croquette was astonishing – wonderfully soft potato encased in a light, crisp breadcrumb, but somehow infused with an intense smokiness, and topped with a perfectly poached egg whose runny yellow yolk was a delight to behold. There were some slightly odd elements to the dish – the pineapple pickle was a vibrant shade of pink and tasted suspiciously similar to the onion chutney of the starter, while a green, plant-like vegetable I couldn’t identify had such a mild flavour that I wondered what it was doing on a plate that was otherwise such an assault on the senses. Overall, however, the dish was thoroughly enjoyable.
By the time it came to dessert, we were both nearing fullness, but we couldn’t resist a little something sweet. My dining partner’s Baked Black Treacle Sponge and Cardamom Milk with a Mandarin and Parkin Crumb was generally excellent – the sponge was beautifully light and the sauce decadently sticky, but some elements did get slightly lost: the Cardamom Milk came in cubes that looked rather like tofu, and the cardamom flavour was so subtle as to be almost undetectable. It seems the kitchen were quite concerned not to over-spice their desserts, as the smoked paprika flavour in my dessert of Smoked Paprika Fudge, Malt Loaf and Builders Tea Ice Cream, Crispy Pear and Smoky Pear was also conspicuous by its absence. That said, the Builders Tea Ice Cream was a small scoop of genius – as true to the taste of a strong, milky mug of PG Tips as it’s possible to imagine, and the perfect way to cut across the tongue tingling sweetness of the fudge. The Malt Loaf was pleasant enough, if slightly dry, and while the Crispy Pear added another layer of texture, its flavour did get slightly lost in the process. My main issue with the dish though were the dainty dots of gratuitous foam, whose flavour I couldn’t quite place and whose purpose I utterly failed to identify – it almost seemed as if the chef was out to demonstrate as many techniques as possible in the same dish.
In terms of wine, Vanilla Black offers a fair few whites and reds, plus one rosé, by the glass and a far larger selection by the bottle. My dining partner played it safe with a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (£7.25 for 175ml), while I decided to branch out and try an Austrian Grüner Veltliner (£7.00), which turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable, dry, mineral-y white that went well with all three courses. Our decision to opt for tap rather than mineral water was happily accommodated, and the large jug we received was delicately flavoured with a sliver of fresh cucumber. Service throughout our meal was friendly and attentive, without being overbearing, and when the bill came we were pleasantly surprised by the total cost of just under £36 per head (which for 3 fine dining courses, a glass of wine each, and service, seemed eminently reasonable). I have, however, found it difficult to work out an overall score for Vanilla Black – whilst the pretentious elements of some of the cooking did grate slightly, I can’t deny that the general result for each course was fantastically tasty, and the set lunch menu does offer great value for money. Taking all of that into account, Vanilla Black doesn’t quite get top marks, but does come out with a very respectable four Forks-Up.Vanilla Black 17- 18 Tooks Court London EC4A 1LB T: 020 7242 2622