Vanilla Black is the only vegetarian restaurant in London to make it into the Michelin Guide. Pairing posh and veggie, it’s doing a fine (dining) job of modernising meat-free meals out. About time, too.
It merits a more visible spot than a court off a Chancery Lane side street but there it silently sits among the imposing stone buildings of London’s historic law capital. Inside is suitably sober - elegantly so - with a large 1930s mirror, Chesterfield sofa and glowing chandelier near the entrance lending a homely touch to business-y dark green walls and neat, formal white tables generously spaced across three angular sections, one raised for a sense of privacy.
Weekday lunchtimes can be so quiet that you’re eating alone, whispering for fear of being overheard above the background pop music by the all-female waiting staff. Dressed in a black shirt and trousers, they offer a polite, professional, efficient service with a welcome gentle touch. That said, evenings are often busy with not just a confident crowd from the local law offices but meat-free friends and families alongside the occasional celebrity vegetarian from further afield, making Vanilla Black a bit of a destination restaurant.
Non-vegetarians (and quite possibly veggies themselves) should prepare to be bamboozled and delighted in equal measure by a brave new world of meat-free marriages, like candied chilli stuffed black olives and avocado cream or unctuous, perfectly-warm bubble and squeak cakes with homemade brown sauce – sharp, sweet and alive with the singing health that characterises homemade food. An acidic sweetness to the accompanying fried shallots cuts through the earthy cheesiness of the vintage cheddar creamed cabbage sat squat beneath. Yes, there’s a lot going on – not least for a starter - yet the result is not cacophony but harmony.
A simpler and almost as impressive leek and potato soup slips like silk down the throat, a pale green so attractive it seems worthy of a place in a Farrow & Ball paint palette. That old school veggie classic - the lentil - is here, but Vanilla Black-style as a deconstructed puy dhal starter.
To the uninitiated, mains aren’t easily differentiated from first courses, and in fact, portion sizes don’t significantly differ. Not that they’re at all mimsy. Take the three thick slices of mushroom duxelle torte surrounded by colourful winter vegetables – so cheery and carefully presented it could be modern art. Despite looking disconcertingly like a sausage roll, the mushroom filling is surprisingly sweet and light and well-paired with a deep burgundy sauce. Disappointingly, despite a good start the dish soon tastes, well, boring. Samey.
Happily, dessert livens things up afresh with a making-faces whoosh of peanut tempered by rich cocoa in a frankly brilliant Snickers-inspired peanut butter and chocolate parfait teamed with a perfectly-pitched butterscotch sauce. Classic British puddings like lemon meringue pie and treacle tart are playfully desconstructed, while the likes of marinated goats cheese and green olive puree offer something distinctly new and intriguing to potentially even the seasoned vegetarian foodie. A set lunch of two courses, Tuesday to Friday, costs £18 and £23 for three. The a la carte menu costs £24 and £30, respectively.
Forty one vintages makes for a neat, quick-to-decide international wine list priced on a smooth sliding scale from £15 to £150. Both red and white divide into France, rest of Europe, and new world. Included are two rose, and three Champagne, maxing with Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Vintage Reserve 2002, £82. One from every section is offered by the glass from between £4.50 and £7. There’s one mineral water, Blenheim, for £3.95 a bottle. Cocktails don’t feature.
A zesty, clean Gruner Veltliner proves the food-friendly wine it’s famed for being and the Merlot is a soft, plummy, easy-drinking affair. The coffee is good and not too strong, while for the healthy, a palate-cleansing fresh mint tea served from dinky white porcelain teapot is a must.
The Last Word
Vanilla Black is a glamorous treat for the veggies in your life – and the place to shock meat-eating mates out of their pigeon hole daze that decrees veggie food is boring brown rice, smocks and ethnic wall hangings. This is haute cuisine.