Despite approaching Valentine’s Day with a sizeable dollop of indifference, I do use it as an excuse to indulge in some good, albeit over-priced, food. This year, F and I booked a table at Vanilla Black: the London-based, Michelin recommended, fine dining, veggie/vegan dream. Perhaps we should have anticipated the considerably more expensive three course Valentine’s menu which was whipped out at our arrival, but it was so incredibly worth it in the end.
As soon as we sat down, we were greeted with a glass of Drappier Champagne and a basket of warm breads and kalamata olive oil.
I would go back for the olive oil alone, never tasting anything quite like it. Almost grassy in favour, it managed to exist as both light and full-bodied, pairing wonderfully with the sultana bread.
This was soon followed by an amuse bouche – a crunchy pumpkin purée bite (it had a more sophisticated name, I’m sure).
Even from this fairy-sized dish, it was clear that we were in for a great night of fine dining. Chef Andrew Dargue evidently knew how to flirt with our senses, already delivering food that tempted, surprised and aroused.
For starters, I ordered the watermelon, red pepper and tomato with shallot cream, a mustard ‘yolk’ and caper crackers.
Clearly a recreation of the steak tartare, this dish was totally inspired. Each element elevated the other – the gentle, almost sweet, ‘tartar’ was heightened by the creamy frozen ‘yolk’ and shallot cream, whilst the caper crackers provided a needed crunch.
Meanwhile, F wolfed the cucumber, sticky rice and ginger purée, with pickled cucumber ketchup and seaweed.
The queen of this dish had to be the sticky rice, which was coated in a fried crumb and placed, quite rightly, centre stage. The rest was as light and refreshing as it looked, and was a perfect way to kick off the rich three course meal.
For my main course, I went for the fried shiitake, pine nut purée and crispy cousin cous, garnished with marsala, lemongrass pickled enoki and pine salt.
Naturally, being a mushroom fanatic, I couldn’t miss out on this dish. It was the image of autumn – warm and woody with flashes of amber and crimson. The eating mirrored its aesthetic, with each variety of mushroom providing a new nuttiness and depth. F chose the smoked soft ‘cheese’, black sesame and fried gram flour, embellished with peppercorn crisp and radish.
Arguably the most unusual dish on the menu, it arrived looking like a 1970s underwater scene. Once you’d worked out where to begin, it became clear that each element was best enjoyed in one bite rather than on its own. This is not to say that it was an inferior choice, but rather that there were a few components which were a bit overpowering when eaten alone (namely the squid ink-like sauce which was a little too smoky). We agreed that the fried gram flour was the best part of the meal, as added a welcome contrast to the dish’s more liquidy elements.
For dessert, F opted for the kahula coffee cake with coconut and roasted rice mousse, accompanied by fresh coconut, coffee gel and coconut sorbet.
Neither of us being fans of coffee-based desserts, we were surprised to both be huge fans of this dish. The coffee cake wasn’t too intense, and was sweetened by the airy coconut cream: reminiscent of the frappuccino you desperately try to avoid but always end up ordering.
Finally, we come to Godfather of the meal – the peanut butter cheesecake with cracked cocoa bean and caramelised banana purée.
At first glance, this deconstructed dessert looked more like three embellished wafer sticks than a cheesecake. However, when each component was piled onto my spoon and shovelled into my face, I discovered the best cheesecake I had ever had the pleasure of scoffing down. It was an absolute joy – rich, sweet, creamy and perfectly balanced with a bitter cocoa nib crumb. Andrew Dargue, if you’re reading this, thank you.
There’s not much more to say other than Vanilla Black is faultless and deserves a galaxy of Michelin stars! Whatever the ‘splash the cash’ occasion is, book immediately!