Some meals are just weird.
You can have amazing food in the simplest decor (like at La Merenda), amazing food in a very opulent decor (Louis XV and so on) or you can be surprised by the food served in some odd lounge/restaurant in London. The latter happened to me today. When Hilary Armstrong asked me if I’d want to join her to go for lunch here, she warned me that it could be very bad. In fact, if you read the reviews Vanilla received after opening, they are not very positive.
However, they changed chef and now you have a head chef with a most impressive CV: Sous-chef at the Square, having done a tour of Europe at Auberge de l’ill, Arzak, Akelare and Mugaritz, where I had an amazing meal last August. This alone is reason enough to go and give it try.
When one enters the room, the (very) white lounge hits you first. It is rather futuristic and not as bad as some critics have described it. The room of the restaurant is another story. It just doesn’t look like a place where you’d want to eat this kind of modern cuisine. It looks more like a night club’s restaurant area, where you might go for some out-dated fusion food. The fact, that only two tables were taken, doesn’t make you feel more at home in this environment. But enough said about the decor, you should get it by now: It’s not as comforting as your usual (better) restaurant.
Let’s come to the food. Amuse was a broccoli milk and a Gougere. Both were decent, without blowing me away. To serve one single gougere does seem a little stingy I guess, but well.
A starter was a scallop, which luckily enough wasn’t sliced into thousand pieces, with a prawn raviolo and a sweet basil veloute. All in all it was a very good starter, for a menu that costs only 14£ (2 courses). Good scallop, although the little beast could have done with a few seconds longer in the pan, well made raviolo and a fragrant emulsion. I didn’t expect such ambitious, and more importantly tasty food here. Hilary’s starter was a little less interesting, but also well made ( a version of maccaroni and cheese).
For main I had pluma of Iberico pork. Now this won’t be the last thing Izu Ani (the chef) has picked up in Spain, but we’ll get on to that later. Iberico is about the best pork you can possibly get. The pigs have the freedom of running around in the Huelva and feast on nuts and other delicacies for a few months every year, which gives their meat a colour similar to beef and an impressive, nutty flavour. Here the pluma was grilled and served with a braised piece and a preparation of trotter. This certainly was a most tasty dish, especially as all the accompaniments went very well with the perfectly cooked pluma. Very good. I wonder why you don’t get something like this more often in London: A great product, well cooked and accompanied by simple, tasty vegetables.
After a pre-dessert of some berry sorbet with a little emulsion and an amazing doughnut we got on to the desserts. A few words about this doughnut though: It was so good, that I asked for a few more; twice or three times, I don’t remember. In total I had about 12 of them and I do not regret it! Amazing, you won’t find any better ones that easily.
The dessert seemed like a little deja-vu: French toast with milk ice cream. Now Andoni Luiz Aduriz serves exactly the same dish. Here however the dish was nearly as good as at Mugaritz, which is as good a compliment as you can have. Seriously, this was a perfectly executed French toast, with a nice crunchy, caramelised top and a moist « body ». The milk ice cream, wasn’t quite as tasty as the one Anodoni serves, but very enjoyable still.
After a few more doughnuts and some mediocre petit-fours we left the restaurant at around 16.30h and were puzzled.
This was quite astonishing, especially if you go expecting some dodgy, pretentious cooking but get very well executed dishes, that certainly didn’t lack flavour or ideas in the composition of the dishes.
The negative points however are first and foremost the decor. It is just so bad, that even I, who doesn’t really care about it as long as the food is decent, do have trouble enjoying it. It is just not the kind of place you would recommend easily. Not because of the cooking, because for the prices they charge, that is as good as it gets, but simply because the decor is a bit strange. The other point is that a few dishes seem to be taken of the Mugaritz menu and served in the same way here (French toast, clay-baked potatoes). Now in this case I don’t really mind, as it is done so very well, but it is a bit odd eating that stuff here.
Having exchanged a few words with Izu, I found that he is a most potent chef, maybe the only one, who can drive London towards a more avant-garde cuisine. Service too, was very good.
For those who go, you will certainly be quite surprised by what you get. I at least was.