Editor's note: in August 2020 it was announced that the restaurant would not reopen after the pandemic shutdown.
Vanilla Black is that rarity, a specialist vegetarian restaurant that relocated from York to London in mid 2008, with Andrew Dargue the head chef and owner. It is tucked away in an obscure side-street not far from Chancery Lane tube. Inside the décor is smart and modern. The menu has vegetarian but no vegan dishes (these can be prepared with advance notice), with three courses costing £30.
The short wine list has a mix of source countries and is fairly priced by London standards, with consistently kind mark-ups. The lists starts with choices such as Hopler Gruner Veltliner 2009 at £22.50 for a wine that will set you back around a tenner to buy, Pouilly Fuisse Clos sur la Roche Domaine Saumaize-Michelin 2008 was £46.50 for a wine that costs around £21 retail, and moves up to Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino 1993 at a far from outrageous £118 for a wine that costs around £66 retail. The bread is actually made on the premises, and consists of a small bread roll that was pleasant enough in texture, though for me it lacked salt (13/20).
An amuse-bouche of horseradish Turkish delight and a shot glass of a cold liquid flavoured with cucumber and mint was a curious mix to me. The flavours in the shot glass were very subdued indeed, and although the horseradish came through clearly in the Turkish delight the texture was rather spongy. I didn’t find either enjoyable (10/20).
I started with Yukon gold potato cakes and smoked olive oil mayonaisse with capers, melba toast and baby turnip. The potato cakes should have been much crisper on the outside, and the melba toast provided the firm texture that should not really have been needed; I am not sure what the turnip and capers really added, other than that they were all earthy flavours (11/20 if I am kind). I tasted a broad bean custard and cheese and onion vinaigrette with lemon thyme shortbread and leaves, which was technically acceptable, though for me the flavours barely came through, and seasoning seemed lacking (11/20).
For the main course my mushroom duxelle was actually encased in filo pastry and this dish at least tasted of what it was supposed to, though the mushrooms seemed to be basic ones like Portobello rather than the high quality wild mushrooms I was hoping for. Some greens were served with this and were cooked reasonably but were lukewarm, presumably having been prepared a little too early for the dish to be assembled (11/20).
For dessert, a chocolate and orange cake suffered from a dried out sponge base, and although the chocolate used was apparently Valrhona it did not have the distinctive bitter chocolate flavour that I associate with this fine chocolate; it takes a lot for me to leave almost all of a chocolate cake, but I did, something that did not seem to trouble the waitress much: “have you finished?”is not what a smart restaurant should be asking when a customer leaves almost all of a dish.
Despite a mid-priced bottle of wine between two, one further glass and no pre-dinner drinks, the bill still came to over £60 a head. For me this was simply way out of line with what was delivered, either in terms of ingredient costs or technical quality. Having just eaten some spectacular vegetarian dishes in France, I found this meal quite depressing. I’d love to find a really high grade restaurant serving vegetarian food in London, but I’ll keep looking.