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My husband and I had been saving up our trip to Vanilla Black, an upmarket vegetarian restaurant, for several months, and finally decided that the dark days of January would be the perfect time for a cheering night out. We rarely get the chance to sample high end cuisine, as it is a general rule of thumb that the posher the restaurant, the more meagre the vegetarian choice.
Our booking was quite an early one on a Saturday night, and as Vanilla Black is situated in the heart of the City of London (the banking quarter), it was generally quiet. But we were not alone in the restaurant and it filled steadily. We were impressed by the decor, gently understated and pulling off the trick of being modern and honestly in tune with the age of the building at the same time.
The menu is one of those full of words you barely understand and is served as either a two or three course meal, so we quizzed our waitress before making our decision. The portions were ‘middle-sized’ she told us, so we decided on two courses each, with one starter and one dessert to share. We should perhaps have been warned by her description of one dish as being like ‘a sausage roll with different kinds of mushrooms’, that she was not fully on top of her game.
Bread rolls were offered while we ordered, and these were home made, still slightly warm and lovely with the salt and black pepper butter. The starter of parsnip foam with mustard crips was also very good. Not being a regular of Heston Blumenthal’s place, this was my first experience of a ‘foam’, and I was impressed. It was light with a subltle, sweet flavour that complemented the ‘crisps’ of toasted cheese and mustard perfectly. We were enjoying ourselves.
The next course however, was not so successful. My dish – a cauliflower cake with mustard bhaji on a bed of red cabbage was good. I would have liked the red cabbage a little more robust as the cauliflower cake was only midly flavoured, but on the whole the dish worked.
My husband though was not at all happy with his offering – truffle celeriac with hazlenut duchesse potatoes. For a start the portion was tiny, even by the standards of nouvelle cuisine. A small square of the celeriac and two baby duchesse potatoes with a light dust of hazlenut powder. A couple of swirls of watery puree completed the plate. The celeriac was oily, but oddly tasteless, given that truffle has such a strong flavour. And the duchesse potatoes were just like the thing we made at school in home economics classes, only you needed a magnifying glass to see these! On tasting, the hazlenut just didn’t feature.
We mentioned our disappointment when the waitress collected our plates, but she just said ‘oh’, a response which annoyed my husband even further. We noticed incidentally, that the couple at the next table had the ‘sausage roll with different kinds of mushrooms’, which was a much bigger portion with more substantial ingredients!
The waitress did eventually offer to bring my husband something else to eat, but we decided to move on to dessert, requesting that she pass our comments to the chef. Unfortunately the dessert was also a disappointment. We didn’t think it was possible to go wrong with a Valrhona chocolate truffle cake (your mouth is watering isn’t it?), but apparently it is. I was expecting something rich, dark and with the explosion of taste you get with really good chocolate. But the word I would use for this dish is ‘milk’, you know, like in Cadburys. In fact, again, there was very little flavour to the cake. It was also topped with a squirt of something which tasted like cheap frosting, and which I left on the side of the plate.
So we drank our (nice) coffees in a stunned silence and asked for the bill. My husband went up the till to pay, and once he had done so the manager approached him and told him off! She was sorry that he wasn’t happy with his meal, but those are the portion sizes they serve and he should have told her earlier – a theme she repeated. A curious thing to say given that he hadn’t spoken to her at all, but had talked to the waitress in the middle of our meal. He was too stunned to mention that other dishes on the menu came in better portion sizes. And we certainly noticed that all this only happened after the bill was paid!
So, at the end of the day, a meal of two halves. And the service really needs to improve, as a better response would at least have helped.
Vanilla Black, 17- 18 Tooks Court, London, EC4A 1LB
Telephone: 020 7242 2622