Vanilla Black – Contemporary Vegetarian and Vegan Cuisine

One of the best things about Twitter is the amount of fabulous foodies you make friends with. Best mate Hedi, (from hugely popular clean eating blog Hedi Hearts) and I went to a launch party for Little Miss Meat Free, and ended up spending most of the night talking to fellow North-Easterners Donna and Andrew.

It turns out that they own and run Vanilla Black, a restaurant always in those ‘Top 5 Veggie Restaurants in London’ articles. Andrew and Donna are both quietly modest about the success they’ve achieved, yet are coupled with a dry wit and distaste of a falafel-only mentality for veggies, that meant eating there shot straight to the top of my wish list.

The ethos behind Vanilla Black….

Opening a veggie restaurant seemed an unlikely idea – Donna was a nurse and Andrew a chef lecturer at Middlesbrough college, while running a side business supplying veggie dishes to local eateries. As vegetarians themselves, they were disenchanted by the lack of variety and quality of veggie food, so decided to do something about it.

On a shoestring budget they opened the first Vanilla Black in York, and enjoyed a successful three years. Deciding it was time for another challenge, they moved to London in 2008, and after a bumpy start, will celebrate Vanilla Black’s 12th birthday in 2016:

“People would come in expecting chickpea curry or spicy aubergine bake and because it wasn’t there, they would go and rip us to shreds online. We thought that we were doing was a good thing, changing the misconceptions of vegetarian food, but it seemed that nobody else agreed with us.

It has been a long battle trying to break away from the norms and indeed there are still some who are surprised and disappointed when they see the food we do. But slowly, we are proving that high end, innovative veggie and vegan dishes can be enjoyed by all.”

There’s been many Heston Blumenthal comparisons made when you look at the menu (Roasted White Chocolate with Cep Mushroom Custard and Tarragon Cream Cheese anyone?), so I was a little nervous, being the fussy eater that I am. Still, it was my first chance to eat fancy food in a Michelin recommended restaurant, so I was prepared to try anything (apart from that dessert!).

The best bits about Vanilla Black….

I would very rarely have 3 courses when I’m eating out, as most restaurants pile your main plate high and I’m always aiming to fit in a dessert! However, this is one of the wonderful things about fine dining as the portions are smaller, meaning you can enjoy a whole host of delicious flavours over a couple of hours. The menu is small, yet Hedi and I still agonised over what to order from the vegan selection. There are separate menus if you’re wheat-free or veggie.

Amuse Bouche
Blood orange jelly with ginger foam
There was a collective ‘Oooo” as this arrived at the table as we weren’t expecting it. The jelly was more like a cross between mousse and jelly, with delicious blood orange chunks which gave it lots of flavour. The ginger foam was a great accompaniment, and it just made us more excited to taste the rest of the meal.

Warm Sultana and Fennel slices and Poppy, Sesame and Sunflower Seed
We’d had a prompt earlier in the day from @StreetFoodUK saying “Make sure you get the warm bread. Everyone mentions the bread.” And as promised, the said warm bread arrived at our table with a bowl of olive oil.

It smelled wonderful and although I was hesitant about trying the sultana and fennel (yuk!), the herb was subtle enough to enjoy the slice. I’ve always loved seeded bread, so that piece was quickly enjoyed afterwards. Hedi doesn’t usually eat much bread as it tends to bloat her, but even she couldn’t resist both slices, and declared, “I don’t care if I look 9 months pregnant, it’s worth it!”

Watermelon, Red Pepper and Tomato with Shallot Cream, Mustard ‘Yolk’ and Caper Cracker
This chilled starter looked both beautiful and delicate on the plate. The combination of flavours was subtle and delicious, both eaten together and separately.

Cornmeal, Beetroot and Horseradish with Black Garlic Oil, Artichokes in Hay, Caramelised Chicory and Hazelnut Milk
When this arrived, my thoughts were immediately split. Half of me was happily thinking that this looks like a fancy plate of food you see on TV in posh restaurants. The other half of me was thinking that for a main, the plate wasn’t very full, so would it even fill me up?

As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. The dish was surprisingly hearty and I savoured every forkful. In fact the only problem I created for myself was enjoying it slowly, so it wasn’t very hot by the end. It’s the price you pay when you want to remember every last bite!

Peanut Butter Cheesecake and Cracked Cocoa Bean with Caramelised Banana Puree
Desserts are always the highlight of any meal/my life, and even the staff were raving about how good this one was, so expectations were high! It was everything I didn’t even know I wanted. The caramelised banana and chocolate sauce were the perfect accompaniment to the bitter chocolate crunch of the base, and intensely creamy peanut fingers.

Hedi and I both ate it tiny bites at a time in order to savour every mouthful, and it took all of our best table manners not to lick the plate clean (we discussed this in great depth).

If I could tweak anything…

That’s easy – I’d get Phil and Kirsty on the case and get a different location, location, location! The actual restaurant itself has been recently redecorated and has a wonderful, relaxing ambience. Unfortunately, it’s also tucked away from the main street, so you’d definitely need to know about it in advance. That makes it less likely to stumbled upon by happy accident, which is a big shame for people who love great food.

Lottie’s verdict on Vanilla Black….

For me, food and friendships are the ideal mix. After a wonderful welcome from Andrew and Donna, excellent service, and gossiping the night away with Hedi over fabulous plates of food, it was one of the most enjoyable and memorable meals I’ve ever had.

This is vegetarian and vegan food at its finest, that even *gasp* meat-eaters will enjoy! Why not be vegan-curious and try it out for yourself?

As Andrew has a cracking sense of humour, he RTs some pretty random stuff on Twitter that you wouldn’t usually expect from a fancy restaurant owner, which makes following and tweeting him so much more fun! You can also buy the book Vanilla Black: Fresh Flavours for your Vegetarian Kitchen for food that us mere mortals can make too.

The small print. This meal was kindly gifted by Andrew and Donna to Hedi and I. If they’d known I was going to review this afterwards, they probably wouldn’t have let me in! As always, this is my honest opinion of the dining experience I had.