April may be the cruellest month but the sun was shining on this August day when we came to Marlow, a town with a remarkable concentration of good restaurants. Michael Macdonald opened the Vanilla Pod in 2002, after cooking with Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann and Eric Chavot, amongst others. The Vanilla Pod is in a parade of shops in the centre of the town, in a house that was once the residence of poet T.S. Eliot. Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” in this house. The dining room is cosy, with low ceiling, cream walls and carpet rather than a wooden floor, meaning that noise levels were blessedly low.
The ten page wine list focuses on France, but ventures into the New World too. Mark-ups seem variable. Examples are Cotes de Sant Mont Expression du Bacrou 2005 listed at £25 for a wine that you can buy in the shops for £6.20, the enjoyable Haegelin Pinot Gris 2009 at £39 compared to a retail price of around £15, and Louis Jadot Mersault 2007 for a chunky £89 for a wine that cost around £21.
Breads were made from scratch, a series of small rolls in a wide variety of flavours: wholemeal, olive, rosemary, tomato, bacon and onion, cheese, dill and even vanilla. These all tasted of what they were supposed to, and had pleasant, soft texture (15/20). The menu is £40 for three courses, with a tasting menu at £50, and lunch at £19.50 for three courses. Amuse-bouche was risotto of butternut squash with chorizo. This was well made, the risotto having smooth texture, the chopped-up pieces of chorizo a nice earthy balance to the sweetness of the squash (15/20).
A celeriac soup had good celeriac flavour and was well-seasoned, but the soup was rather thin (14/20). Better was a prettily presented pair of scallops with red and yellow pepper puree and garlic foam. The Scottish scallops were of particularly high quality, sweet and carefully cooked (16/20).
Sea bass was pan-fried with a puree of garlic and red wine. Although again looking good on the plate, the fish was a little over-cooked, which was a shame as the red-wine sauce was well-made, and the little vegetables on the side (cauliflower, potato, beans) were also nicely cooked (14/20).
Loin of venison was better, carefully cooked medium rare and served with a confit of celeriac that had a hint of sweetnesss that I was not expecting, but a rich sauce of the cooking juices that had been thickened with just a little chocolate, (15/20).
An pre-dessert of apple compote was served in a shot glass, topped with Greek yogurt flavoured with vanilla; this was pleasant enough but could have done with a little more acidity than it had (14/20). Fortunately the meal ended with a dessert whose key element arrived with a bang rather than a whimper. My chocolate fondant was neatly presented and was terrific, rich and made with high-grade chocolate with just the right degree of liquid centre – the highlight of the meal. Unfortunately the Bourbon vanilla parfait with it was served far too cold; even after I had finished the rest of the dish it was still too cold. That is the only reason why I score the dish just 15/20 overall, as the fondant was top class, a couple of notches above this level. Coffee was pleasant, served with some pleasant fruit jellies.
Service is now led by a manager recruited from Pied a Terre, who directed things well and ensured attentive topping up and a generally smooth service experience, despite the repeated efforts of an older waiter to greatly overfill the wine glasses. Overall I thought this was a very enjoyable meal, with good quality ingredients, pretty presentation and cooking technique that was generally capable. Just a few minor issues dragged down the overall standard a little, but at a bill of £65 a head this represents pretty good value for what was delivered.