This is the kind of vegetarian restaurant where it’s OK to wear leather, in fact you don’t have to be a non-meat eater to enjoy the food here. There are no mushroom burgers, mung beans or pasta bakes on the menu in Vanilla Black, a rather plain looking restaurant in the city of London, but then again looks are deceiving.
You might be interested to know, or not, that Andrew and his partner Donna Conroy are both vegetarian and moved their restaurant from York to the capital seven years ago and there’s a lovely story about how they found the current premises. After a couple of visits looking at property, they were deciding on their final choice and loved the Tooks Court site right in the heart of London’s legal district. Home in York, Andrew’s A-Z cover had a highlighted section of London. Guess where? Tooks Court. In effect, he’d had his finger on ‘it’ all the time.
I was keen to visit Vanilla Black because I was sent the cookbook. Vanilla Black, Fresh Flavours for your Vegetarian Kitchen is their first and I got a little hooked on the Marmite Jersey Royals recipe. I struck up a social media relationship with Andrew (@vanillablack1) and threatened to visit. When I meet him I realise he’s got an incredibly dry sense of humour and that the cookbook doesn’t reflect the food I see on the menu. A technically challenging book just wouldn’t have been popular with regular home cooks but it’s got a great selection of savoury and sweet recipes, nonetheless. The restaurant is large, no downstairs and has grey walls, filled with art and a cornucopia of mirrors, dark wood and muted lighting.
So, as meat eater and a pretty good cook, what do I choose from a menu to challenge the kitchen? I’m on my own, but seated with my back to the rest of the diners so feel less obvious I’m actually ‘Billy No Mates’ on my day off. What there isn’t here are dishes that rely heavily on pasta as their main ingredient, heavy spices or meat substitutes. There are six starters, all playing on your imagination, a carrot cake, ice cream and a toastie. The six main courses included a sponge, sea asters, seared seaweed and hay-baked artichokes. A slate of butter arrived, smoked, salted, whipped and creamed with a hint of lemon, along with basket of bread with warm poppy seed and sourdough and fennel and raisin.
I love a toastie but as I expected my Yorkshire Blue Cheese toastie with crisp wheat, puffed rye and crushed wheat had been nowhere near a Breville, thankfully. This generous log of baked cheese came with sweet black grapes which were soaked in Sauternes wine, croquantes of puffed wheat, with a wheat cracker and a delicate cucumber gelee.
For my main course it was the cornmeal, beetroot and horseradish with aged garlic oil, artichokes in hay, caramelised chicory and hazelnut milk.
The garlic oil was dehydrated and was pungent but not overpowering, in fact it melted in my mouth like a savoury popping candy.
The cornmeal (fine, Italian) was so light it was pudding like, cubed and dotted with an earthy beetroot lid and grated horseradish. The hay-baked artichokes were simply delicious with deep nutty and toffee notes and the chicory added a sweet and bitter bite. The hazelnut milk dominated the plate but was merely a gravy to bring the plate together. I inhaled it and wanted another. Not because I was hungry, I was greedy for that delicious artichoke and could have eaten a bowls. No dessert for me as I was stuffed to the gills. That said, Andrew wouldn’t take no for an answer. Up came a plate of caramelised milk, black sesame ice cream, and yogurt crisps with a blueberry and sheep’s yogurt. Andrew came up too and we chatted, about music, food, sourcing the produce and his cookbook.
Vanilla Black has to be one of the best vegetarian restaurant’s I’ve been too. Ever. The service is brilliant, the staff know the menu back-to-front and it shows. I’m dragging the meat-eaters back, kicking and screaming. I have to apologise for the melting ice cream image, that’s how long we were chatting for, it arrived in perfect condition. Michelin Guide-recommended but I’m not sure what’s keeping the inspectors from coughing up a one star.
Vanilla Black, 17- 18 Tooks Court, London, EC4A 1LB