Friday, 30 March 2012
Vanilla Black, Chancery Lane
Yes, it's true. I, Chris Pople, being of sound mind and acting of my own free will, paid for a meal in a restaurant that deliberately offers no meat or fish of any kind. And you may not be completely surprised to learn I absolutely hated it, but hold your horses for a second because this is not (for once) simply reactionary prejudice. I did not go to Vanilla Black expecting to hate it; the venue was a suggestion from a close friend who for various laudable reasons was trying to cut down on her intake of animal product and was curious to know what a "high-end" vegetarian restaurant was like (as indeed was I). And I had heard good things, from sources I trust, and was reasonably convinced this was the one least likely to disappoint amongst the all-veggie joints in London. More importantly, the reason why our evening was so miserable was not at all because the menu suffered from a lack of protein; it was just because the dishes were hugely ill-judged and incompetently prepared, the prices were sky high, and the service was some of the worst I've encountered in recent years.
But let's begin at the beginning. The greeting from the door staff was prompt, if a little cold, but perhaps I'm only finding fault now in the light of what happened later in the evening - it was probably fine. They also gave us a choice of tables, which is always appreciated, but for some reason none of them looked particularly inviting. The room is rather harsh and functional - think Roganic but bigger - and much as I love the food from our friends in Marylebone I'm sure they'd be the first to agree they're not about to win any interior design awards. So far so unpromising.
We sat down around 6:55 and were shortly given a choice of dull house bread (one white roll, one seeded, each dry and crumbly and faintly unpleasant) and a menu. Balking slightly at the prices - £26 for two courses is quite a lot for any restaurant, never mind one that must make more of a profit on their raw ingredients than most - we decided to go for just a main course and a dessert, as common sense would indicate that as most desserts are vegetarian anyway, these should be their strongest suit. We ordered around 7pm. Take a note of that time, because it is significant.
At 7:15pm, an appetiser arrived, described as something like "sour apple and yoghurt". It tasted of old apple sauce, the kind you'd have with your pork chop, and yoghurt, and was unpleasant. I finished mine because I was starving hungry, but my friend took one tiny mouthful and left the rest. For the next 25 minutes - yes, nearly half an hour - we nibbled on the dry bread and tried to keep our spirits up with a bottle of expensive wine (£30 for a New Zealand chardonnay which admittedly wasn't the cheapest on the list but there were only a couple of bottles under £25), but we were fighting a losing battle. Staff rushed to and fro, but empty wine glasses were ignored and no mention was made of the wait. Food appeared and disappeared, none of it for us.
At 7:40pm, the main courses finally turned up. I wish I could tell you they were worth waiting for, but my ash-baked celeriac was a sad, pale imitation of the majestic Roganic version. Although the bits of celeriac were fine, and seasoned well, they was surrounded by chewy sprigs of boiled broccoli and chunks of bland "curd" (imagine supermarket feta, only not as interesting), and nothing was even lukewarm. My friend's "poached organic hen's egg" was at least hot, as was the strange cakey soufflé thing it came with (presumably the "Ribblesdale pudding") but there was absolutely nothing here to get excited about, and a good amount of wobbly, watery undercooked egg white was left untouched.
Forty minutes later, at 8:20pm, we were brought our desserts. I don't know if Vanilla Black normally operate at a rate of one dish an hour, but I'm afraid that's not quite fast enough for a couple of people who are hoping to get dinner finished before the last tube home. While the main courses had been disappointing, however, the desserts were truly revolting. My friend's "cheesecake" was nothing of the sort, and whilst I imagine there is a germ of a good idea in "banana and thyme bread", the reality of bitter chunks of thyme studded in sweet banana cake was just all kinds of hideous.
But nothing could prepare us for my own choice, "Iced Malt and Burnt Orange Marshmallow Muscovado Sugar Meringue and Parsnip Purée". I don't know how I missed the parsnip when ordering it - I suppose I liked the sound of 'burnt orange marshmallow' and stopped reading after that - and there is an argument that I only have myself to blame for ordering a dessert with parsnips in it and then moaning about being given a dessert with parsnips in it. But for the love of God, Vanilla Black, why!? Did anyone even try this dish before putting it on the menu? Did anyone even consider that putting parsnip mash next to marshmallows on a plate and charging people for it was even a teeny bit of an odd idea? There is just no reason, no explanation, no excuse for this bloody awful plate of food - without the parsnip it would have been a sickly, one-dimensional arrangement of various forms of sugar, but with that dollop of root vegetable purée it became a colossal, horrible mistake.
So I hope you see what I'm getting at. Nothing about Vanilla Black is worth bothering with; not the elusive, cold service (there was even quite a wait involved in paying up at the end and getting the hell out of there), not the stupidly high prices, and certainly not the random-chucking-together-of-wildly-incompatible-foodstuffs-on-a-plate they called the food. But the crucial thing to remember is that none of these issues are anything to do with the fact that they don't serve meat. I know I can be a bit of a steak and burger obsessive but I am just as much of a fan of Tayyabs' tinda masala or Silk Road's hand torn cabbage or Chilli Cool's smacked cucumber, all great dishes not because they do or don't contain meat but because they are just great. The vegetarian gimmick at Vanilla Black is just a distraction from the real problem, that they serve bad food, and take way too long to do so. I only wish it hadn't cost me £45 a head to find that out.