I had the opportunity to speak to Head Chef Andrew Dargue when I visited Vanilla Black, and I have so much respect for him and his team.
Not many restaurants have managed to survive in the fickle world of food and food fads. Not only that: staff retention in the restaurant business is very low, but Andrew has found the key to keep his staff by offering plenty of development opportunities. It gets better: anyone, whether in the kitchen or front of house, can make suggestions for new recipes. This means that the menu is revised on a regular basis and new dishes are added to give everyone (and all available seasonal ingredients) a chance to shine.
In fact the menu changes on the basis of what ingredients are in season, particularly foraged foods. I am a big fan of wild food and I could have talked to Andrew for hours about foraging and how to cook with wild ingredients. He has developed a good working relationship with Martin, his trusted forager, who will pick ingredients in season for the restaurant.
I am a meat and fish eater and my first thought when I made my booking, like probably many other omnivorous people, was “will I miss meat?”. I shouldn’t have worried: not only did I feel full after the meal (I didn’t even have any space left for dessert!), but my taste buds were truly satisfied with so many different flavours and textures.
Andrew explained that he didn’t want to offer the usual vegetarian dishes (risotto, pasta, curry etc): it’s just too easy to make a soup and add spices! Most importantly, his philosophy, which I totally agree with, is “why should I go to a restaurant to eat something that I can make easily at home?”
The real challenge is to give a fulfilling dining experience using plant ingredients to anybody who loves food – it doesn’t matter whether they are vegetarian or meat eaters. It’s all about breaking the boundaries of vegetarian restaurants, tearing away the label of sectarian eating and cooking (who said that vegetarian restaurants are only for vegetarians anyway?).
Forget Nut Roast
Forget nut roast, mounds of hummus or veggie burgers: say hello to smoky flavours reminiscent of meaty treats like bacon but without the unnecessary gimmicks.
Take gammon, egg and pineapple for example: by de-constructing this meal and using vegetarian ingredients, Andrew can make a sumptuous double baked Ribblesdale (Yorkshire cheese) pudding and smoked croquette with pineapple pickle and poached hen egg. Although I didn’t have this dish, Andrew described it to me in its minute details and I could almost taste it.
What I did eat was my pick of two dishes from the menu:
– the seared seaweed and cabbage with pickled potatoes with soda bread sauce, pickled mustard seeds and foraged seaside vegetables for main course.
I was so surprised at how satisfying the yeast ice cream was: it tasted deliciously nutty, creamy and salty.
The seaweed and cabbage were presented in a small loaf and it was flavoured with a hint of truffle, giving it a beautiful earthiness and smokiness. And what about the pickled potatoes? That was an idea brought back to London from Sweden by one of the chefs, who tried this popular Swedish dish and convinced Andrew to add it to the menu.
I can only describe the pickled potatoes as a better version of salt and vinegar crisps without the tartness and with a beautiful, rounded flavour and texture (crispy exterior and soft inside). Again, Andrew and I talked at length about how to prepare the potatoes and I was fascinated by the whole back story.
I also devoured the delicious bread: a slice of multi seed bread and one of sultana and fennel bread with a lemon peel flavoured sliver of butter (at room temperature, for easier spreading).
There’s no feeling of deprivation at Vanilla Black: it’s all about celebrating food in all its glory.
Vanilla Black is in Central London near Chancery Lane station.
Do you want to have a go at making Vanilla Black’s recipes at home? Andrew has published his cookbook: Vanilla Black – Fresh Flavours for your Vegetarian Kitchen. (affiliate)
Related article: 10 vegetarian wild food recipes for National Vegetarian Week