A veggie restaurant worth its weight needn’t be apologetic. Many regional cuisines across the globe are defined by masterful use of local roots and greens, of beans and brassicas. An upstanding, meat-free option is no longer the elephant in the room, or a pale imitation of a ‘proper’ meal. And so to vegetarian stalwart Vanilla Black, with such high hopes.
Despite the occasional chandelier adding razzle dazzle, the room is decked out in bleak, austerity tones. It’s crying out for a focal point; a statement painting; anything to offset the endless DRAB. It’s like the most demeaning caricature of vegetarianism, hauled from less enlightened times.
You don’t have to flirt with naff themes or clumsy styling to give a room a coherent concept, and this space is yearning for some aesthetic love. The wealth of retro over-mantel mirrors nods to ‘50s/‘60s suburbia, yet has no connection whatsoever with the food or ambience. It didn’t make sense to us, and I suspect other diners were equally befuddled because the clientele seemed mismatched. (The website is notably bereft of interior snaps, offering little to go on when gauging the dress code. I got dolled up in line with the extravagant menu, but was in the minority). At risk of sounding precious and as the birthday girl that night, I’m sad to say I walked in and felt disappointed.
An amuse bouche set the tone more fittingly than we initially realised. The blackberry puree was a rich, sweet-sharp jolt straight from the hedgerow; the kind of thing that demands your tastebuds stand up and take notice. Why then top it with a ruinous lilac creme, akin to licking a talc-laden powder puff? A riff on palma violets, or just a mistake?
My starter showed promise. Heaven knows what a roasted onion curd is, but I loved the taste. And I found it exciting, too: an intriguing, textural fiesta of fatty, smooth chestnuts and crisp, crackling sage bread. (One to divide a table though, I think). My main of Ribblesdale pudding was a gorgeously rich souffle, in contrast to the rib-sticking cobbler I’d imagined. It didn’t belong with the floury, stodgy croquette on the side, so I found myself longing for a side of humble, untouched green beans or the like.
There was certainly a lot of trickery behind each dish, but surely the only reason to give an ingredient the full gastro-experimental treatment is to better its original state? Taste is subjective, but no amount of skill compensates for an ill-conceived idea. Let’s take my partner’s dishes – firstly, the savoury ice cream starter – as our case study.
I recall footage of a festive Delia hovering over a pongy car boot, reminding us to free our cheeses from the shackles of the fridge to enhance their flavours. While a soft-rinded wheel shouldn’t exactly swim around your plate, releasing that pungent aroma and natural ‘ooze’ nearer to room temperature is a vital sensory step. In that case, why take a fine Brie and a hint of mustard, mash them firmly into a shell-like mould and then banish them to the chiller so the individual components are lost forever? Plenty of time-honoured taste combos work, but isn’t it a joy to discover them bite by bite and in tune with your own palette? It was a pretty plate but the cool, homogenised smoothness was unnerving.
I’d fantasized about the moment I'd be able to say: ‘POW! Take that, burger-chomping boyfriend!’ but his chippy-inspired main of deep-fried pickled egg sadly didn’t succeed in socking it to him (or carnivore kind). It was telling that we weren’t particularly fussed about dessert. As this was the course where the playing field was completely level with a ‘conventional’ restaurant, and in the interest of fairness, we got stuck in.
You might wonder how paprika fudge with builder’s tea ice cream can come together as a delectable pud, as I did. Just so you know, it didn’t; and I fear it never should. The dish arrived aggressively dusted with pepper, and a mere spoonful later had acquainted me with the full horror. Which focus group casually waved this on to the menu, and why? WHY?! It was awful, and trashed my palette for anything to follow. I still can’t comprehend how a fat ‘pipe’ of fudge became the body of a dessert; alas the chef was dead-set on walloping diners with a riot of angry flavours and cruel sensations: play-doh, gummy malt loaf and an ever-decreasing Horlick’s foam. As for the other half’s ‘liquid donut’; the concept eluded us completely.
I realise this is controversial – perhaps we chose the wildcards? – but Vanilla Black was not for us. This meal weaved from the sublime to the ridiculous and resulted in grimaces all round, plus it cost an arm and a leg. If you’re splashing the cash, go to Nopi instead where you can bask in real splendor and an upbeat atmosphere to match. Go to Mildred’s, where there’s always a reliable pie, burger and curry to please alongside the wholesome seed and sproutery. I even think veggies get a more consistent offering somewhere like Wahaca, where veggie dishes stand proudly alongside meat, fish and good times. We won't be back.