First opened in 2004, Vanilla Black is a contemporary fine-dining vegetarian restaurant that turns the challenge of a meat-free kitchen into an opportunity for innovation. The result is beautiful, inspired and, at times, completely unexpected food that has the power to convert even the most committed carnivore into a vegophile.
Our most recent (and best) visit came after its New Year makeover, which has made the space feel much warmer. Big, chocolate-coloured light shades hang from the ceiling, dark wooden lamps illuminate corner tables, the walls are an apt shade of vanilla and antique treasures chosen by owners Andrew Dargue and Donna Conroy are dotted around the room. The duo do everything themselves, from interior design to choosing menus and commanding front of house; together they create a personal and welcoming feel to Vanilla Black (Donna even remembered where we sat on our first visit six years ago).
Dinner starts well with a lip-smacking blood orange and ginger foam amuse bouche, so sharp and warm, the flavours concentrated and intense. Warm fennel and sultana bread goes beautifully with sweet, caramelised lemon butter and a starter of yellow pea soup with Marmite dumplings is so smoky that the aroma alone brings tears to our eyes. Those choux pastry dumplings, filled with smooth Marmite fondant and topped with sweet onion purée, are impossible not to love (unless you’re a Marmite-hater, of course!).
Watermelon, red pepper and tomato with shallot cream is reminiscent of steak tartare with its mustard ‘yolk’ on top – how the texture and richness of raw beef is achieved with watermelon we’ll never know. Although it should be said, Vanilla Black isn’t about meat substitutes or impersonations (it’s up to you to guess the steak tartare similarities, as it’s not alluded to on the menu) and there’s certainly no mycoprotein for sale.
Vegetables are at the heart of the main course menu, cooked using an endless repertoire of techniques (salt-baked celeriac, for example, or artichokes in hay) and accentuated with cheese and eggs. Dishes change regularly, bar one steadfast favourite: the double-baked Ribblesdale pudding with smoked croquette, pineapple pickle and poached hen egg. It’s a warm, wobbly hug-on-a-plate that couldn’t disappoint – we remember eating it on that first visit six years ago. The Ribblesdale pudding itself is silky and soft like a soufflé and is made from North Yorkshire sheep cheese, courtesy of The Ribblesdale Cheese Co.
Donna’s recommendation led us to another main of goat’s cheese with fennel pollen, pistachio and rainbow chard. Presented in delicate slices, the goats’ cheese is irresistibly smooth and light (akin to what happens to feta when you bake it) and is offset by the crunch of Romanesco broccoli and braised fennel.
Desserts are even more eccentric. Think smoked paprika fudge with malt loaf and builder’s tea ice cream; pineapple with Tabasco biscuit and roasted cocoa; or roasted white chocolate and cep mushroom custard. It’s hard to imagine what such dishes will look like, let alone taste like. But we revelled in not knowing what to expect from caramelised milk, black sesame ice cream and yogurt crisp and were happily surprised by a plate of dense and creamy caramel milk puffs; purple pansy petals; smooth black sesame ice cream and salty yogurt wafers. A true balancing act of sweet and savoury, smooth and crisp. Chocolate brownie crumble with marmalade parfait and Cointreau tastes like an extreme Terry’s chocolate orange – in a good way.
From atmosphere to service, food to wine (a bottle of crisp and mineral Spanish Alma de Blanco was great value at just under £25), it’s difficult to find fault with Vanilla Black. And if there’s a better vegetarian restaurant in London, we’re yet to find it.
Written by Charlotte Morgan, February 2016
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