Sunday, May 27, 2012

Virtuosity with vegetables at Vanilla Black

I’ve never seen a vegetarian restaurant like Vanilla Black. The menu reads like somewhere aiming for a Michelin star. There are foams and savoury ice-creams and various other outlandish ways of treating familiar ingredients, plus some quite thoughtful combinations of flavours. It is not a path that is generally trodden by vegetarian restaurants, which tend mostly to either the wholefood or the ethnic schools of cookery.

Tucked away in London's legal enclave, not far from the Royal Courts of Justice, it had a slight hush of the courtroom about it, although it may have been that it was early in the evening.

We had an amuse-bouche of green apple jelly with fir pine cream, a brave move given that the aroma of pine is mostly associated with cleaning products. Home-made bread was decent – the seeded wholemeal was a lot more interesting than the buttermilk muffin, I thought.

Yorkshire Gouda with Crisp Black Sheep Ale Bread, Salted Caramel Powder and Ale Soaked Raisins

I have a passion for all kinds of brie – from a buttery Cornish St Endellion to a Brie de Meaux that you can smell at 50 paces. But I’ve never had brie ice-cream, so when I spotted it on the starter menu it seemed like it was meant to be. It came, amusingly, in a mini cone, with plum sauce. The creamy texture of brie lends itself well to ice-cream. Ultimately, though, it was more of a clever conceit than anything else. Cheese straight from the fridge is never at its best, because the cold dulls the flavour, so near-frozen cheese felt like it was missing some of its spirit.

The other half had “Whipped Jacket Potato and Crispy Shallots, Tomato Syrup and Wensleydale Cheese”. It was a big bowl of creamy potato, somewhere between mash and soup, garnished with shallots like mini onion rings. At first I thought it was bland, but then I realised it was incredibly well done – a celebration of a single, simple ingredient, the essence of a buttery baked potato in every mouthful.

I had difficulty choosing a main course, not least because I had difficulty imagining what some of the dishes would be like. Unless you have a hatred of eggs or celeriac, how do you choose between “Poached Organic Hen Egg and Ribblesdale Pudding, Hickory Smoke Potato Croquette and Pineapple Pickle” and “Salted and Ash Baked Celeriac and Foraged Garlic Leaf, Whey Poached Celeriac, Purple Broccoli, Curd and Elderflower Cream”?

In the end I had fried mushroom mousse with pea-filled tarragon pancakes and grapefruit foam. It was like an artwork on the plate, though not exactly substantial (It’s funny how making food look beautiful seems to demand a lot of white space on the plate). It was very good – sweet peas and pea shoots setting off the earthiness of the mushroom mousse. There was rather a lot of grapefruit foam, though, which had a sledgehammer flavour that belied its ethereal texture.

Not the world's greatest picture of Walnut Panna Cotta and Blue Stilton Dumplings
The other half had "Warm Walnut Panna Cotta and Blue Stilton Dumplings". The latter looked like chestnuts and must surely be the world's most elegant dumplings. It all felt a more autumnal than springlike dessert, but was not much the worse for that. The panna cotta was smooth, just-wobbly, and soothing as a mug of Horlicks, while the dumplings added the necessary vim to the plate.

The unusual sweet-savoury combinations continued into the dessert menu, which felt oddly uncompelling. Am I the only one that doesn't much fancy "Liquid Doughnut and Warm Espresso Gel"? Or a "White Chocolate and Cep tart with Corn Flake Cake, Picpoul Sorbet (it's a variety of grape, by the way) and Crispy Tarragon"?  The most appealing sounding was the cheese - "Yorkshire Gouda with Crisp Black Sheep Ale Bread, Salted Caramel Powder and Ale Soaked Raisins". In effect it was cheese, bread and raisins - nothing wrong with that, though I am not sure that making the bread crisp was worthwhile.

Our other dessert turned out to be the tour de force. Not being a huge peanut butter fan, I was unconvinced by the sound of Peanut Butter Cheesecake and Cracked Cocoa Beans, Banana and Thyme Bread and Toffee Sauce. But it was a joy to eat. Another piece of modern art on the plate, it was not a cheesecake as we know it. Rather there were dainty cylinders of peanut-butter-flavoured, some crumbs (presumably to represent the cheesecake base) and the cocoa beans, crushed into a coarse grit that delivered a visceral punch of chocolate. Together they danced on the tongue, a dance that became a ballet with the addition of the chocolate sauce. You couldn't help but marvel at the effort involved in making each of the components, even the banana and thyme cake, which would have made a perfectly fine dessert on its own.
Peanut butter cheesecake - but not as we know it
Naturally, this does not come cheap - £26 for three courses, £35 for three. Wine starts at £16 a bottle, with just a couple of examples under £20, and goes up to £195. (The £16 bottle, the Tempranillo, was pretty good). Service charge of 12.5% is added to the bill. (If you want cheaper food, though with fewer frills, they now have a sister cafe in Holborn.)

So I won't be going there every week, but I hope we might see more restaurants like Vanilla Black. It's vegetarian food without being holier-than-thou or even a hint of self-denial. It's food that glories in being (mostly) good, exciting. food, rather than in being meatless. Which is how it should be.

Vanilla Black

17- 18 Tooks Court, London, EC4A 1LB
020 7242 2622

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tapas with a twist

Summer has been so slow in coming in that I had begun to think it never would. So had a lot of other people, judging by the way London revelled in the hot weather today. Shorts and sandals emerged from hibernation, the parks were thronged well into the evening and pavements heaving with drinkers.

There are better places than Camden to enjoy the hot weather, frankly - but that is where I was. Luckily I discovered El Parador, a tapas restaurant with a secret garden out the back, a mere olive-stone's throw from Mornington Crescent tube station.

Their garden was baking in the sunshine and packed with lunchers. I had a good feeling as I read the menu. Sometimes tapas places feel wearily familiar: Spanish omelette/ meatballs/ patatas bravas/ calamari/ mushrooms with garlic/ sardines... you eat it with a yawn. El Parador does serve some of these dishes, but lots of more unusual things too. And some of the old favourites come with a twist that is thoughtful rather than just for the sake of it. Chorizo comes with butter beans, roasted piquillo peppers and brandy. Chicken livers are prepared with with shallots, enoki mushrooms and Iberico ham.

There is a slight tendency to over-list the ingredients: El Parador, you don't need to tell me about the black pepper. But on balance I forgive you, especially as nearly every dish of 40 or more sounds worth eating. (The owners have written a recipe book, too, which isn't a failsafe sign of quality, but suggests enthusiasm and a bit of originality, at least.)

Between the four of us we ate two pots of the broad bean puree, made with confit garlic, rosemary and lots of olive oil, and served unexpectedly hot, with bread. Hummus was never this good. There was roasted butternut squash with spinach, chestnuts and feta, which is every bit as delicious as it sounds. Celeriac was advertised with peas and shallots, which were barely in evidence, but still, it was delicious. Meltingly soft, coated with Manchego cheese, it was a dish to convert even the most reluctant vegetable-eater.

Grilled octopus came as a single tentacle, coiled around the plate. Fishcakes, made with smoked haddock and mash, were unusually soft, but not much the worse for that. We also ate beetroot roasted with red onion and butter beans, Ratte potatoes (a fancy variety of new potato) with cherry tomatoes, leeks and chilli, and a Jerusalem artichoke salad from the specials list with a really excellent dressing.

It's a menu that makes excellent use of the whole spectrum of vegetables, not just the obvious "Mediterranean" ones. So there are parsnips, fennel and curly kale. But there's plenty of meaty stuff too, including grilled quail, spicy lamb fillets, and pork belly braised in cider.

Spices make more of an appearance than they do in most Spanish restaurants, with some dishes showing influences of the Asian-Mediterranean borderlands. Harissa, cardamom and star anise all make appearances.

It's definitely a place to try something unusual. The least original dish we had, the pastries filled with spinach and cheese, was also the most pedestrian. As for the bill, tapas dishes are mostly £5 to £7, with a three-for-the-price-of-two offer on weekday lunchtimes.

If you are anywhere near Camden, you should go. Even if it's not sunny. I can't think of a better way of putting summer on a plate.

El Parador Restaurant
245 Eversholt Street
NW1 1BA 
020 7387 2789

Friday, May 18, 2012

Little Bay Farringdon

I was reminded of my question How cheap is too cheap? at Little Bay Farringdon. It's part of a popular mini-chain of restaurants in London and Brighton. At the Farringdon branch they seem to have a more or less permanent "half-price" offer. As it's not exactly extortionate in the first place, this makes the prices ridiculously cheap - £2.65 for a starter, £5.95 for a main course.

I was slightly wary, but the place has good reviews from Time Out and others, so off I went. It's almost worth it for the ahem, striking, decor.

I'm clearly not the only one who likes a bargain, because on a Thursday night the place was packed. There was a bit of a delay in getting the menus - I've never been given bread before the menu before - but after that the service was pretty quick. Actually the food arrived with almost lightning speed.

At these prices it would have been rude not to have a starter, so we ordered moules mariniere and a goats' cheese parcel with Waldorf salad. It wasn't the largest portion of mussels, but reasonable for a starter and frankly a steal for the price. The goats' cheese was wrapped in crispy filo and on some Waldorf salad which was mostly apple, but a nice contrast to the goats' cheese.

About two minutes after our starters had been cleared the main courses arrived: a vegetable moussaka and a slow-cooked shoulder of lamb with roast vegetables and flageolet beans. The lamb had the edge - flaking under the fork after four hours of cooking, the beans flavoured with pesto and some colourful roast vegetables.

Desserts include profiteroles (filled with banana cream - I haven't tried it but my instinct says what were they thinking?), apple cake and cheese platter. We shared a chocolate roulade, slightly too sweet I thought, but very edible. It was served with poached pear and scoop of vanilla ice-cream, a tried-and-tested combination but pretty good nonetheless.

Drinks are not half price, sadly, but still not unreasonable. Red wine starts at £11.95 a bottle and is perfectly drinkable, while the only beer is Budvar in bottles for £3.45.

The whole thing was about £30 including wine, which struck me as astonishingly good value. At twice the price I wouldn't have been blown away, but it wouldn't have been daylight robbery. I still don't know how Little Bay does it, but I suspect I'll be back to find out more.

Little Bay
171 Farringdon Road, City of London, London, EC1R 3AL
020 7 278 1234

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Nettles for sale - whatever will they think of next?

The title above says it all really. I was at Oval Farmers' Market yesterday and was amazed to see "wild nettles" for sale alongside the organic veg at the Perry Court Farm stall.

My first thought was - why would you buy something you can get for free on any roadside? And my second thought (which might have been your first thought) - is there much demand for nettles anyway? Now I eat nettles, though I've been a bit remiss in collecting them this spring, but I do feel like I'm very much in the minority.

If you're considering it, they are very good for you - full of iron and other nutrients - but you need to pick them before they start flowering, otherwise they are no good to eat. It's getting a bit late in the season now, certainly around London, but you might still get some decent ones. It's best to just pick the tips. You can even dilute the cooking water and drink it as nettle tea!

Whether you buy them or pick them yourself, nettles are good in curry, frittata or even quiche, in the same way that you'd use spinach. Here's a recipe for nettle pesto.

Nettle pesto

A few big handfuls nettle tops
1 tub ricotta
1-2 cloves garlic, to taste
2oz / 50g pine nuts, walnuts or hazelnuts
25g/ 1oz grated parmesan or similar cheese, plus extra to taste

Boil the nettles in plenty of water for about 2 minutes or until thoroughly wilted.  Drain and place in a food processor with the other ingredients. Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust the ingredients as you wish.

Stir into just-drained cooked pasta. Serve with extra parmesan.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Two 100th birthdays and a special chocolate roulade

It was an unusual, tiring and mostly wonderful weekend. I'm in the unusual position of having two grandmothers who have both just turned 100 - one on Friday and one today. So it was a weekend of festivities, and it was really lovely to see them both enjoying themselves and celebrating with their families. I ate far too much throughout and probably need to eat super-healthily for several weeks to make up for it!

Today's highlights were both tarts - a super-zesty lemon tart, the punchiest I have had in a long time, and a savoury tart with tomatoes, goats' cheese and a hint of mustard.

On Friday we all ate a three-course lunch and then a huge banquet again in the evening, mostly cooked by my talented sister-in-law. I couldn't choose between her pear tart and her chocolate raspberry roulade in terms of sheer deliciousness, but here is the recipe for chocolate raspberry roulade. It looks amazingly professional but is not as hard as it looks, and it's flourless so it is very light, and gluten-free too.

We didn't even get to the birthday cake (also baked and decorated by Yarti) - at least not on Friday, anyway.

Yarti's chocolate raspberry roulade

175g dark chocolate
2 tbsp water
5 eggs, separated (preferably at room temperature)
175g caster sugar
300ml double cream
200g raspberries
2 tbsp liqueur of your choice (optional) - Grand Marnier works well

Melt the chocolate together with the water in a small pan over a low heat.
Beat the egg yolks and sugar together with an electric whisk until pale and fluffy.
Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry
Fold the melted chocolate into the egg yolk and sugar mixture. Fold in the egg whites with a metal spoon - do this in three batches rather than all at once.
Line a Swiss roll tin with greased baking parchment and pour in the mixture.
Bake at gas mark 5/190C for 20-25 minutes or until the top is glossy and cracked and a toothpick or small skewer inserted inside comes out clean. (It's best to check after 20 minutes.)
Cover with a clean damp tea-towel and leave for at least an hour or until completely cool.
Whip the cream and fold in the raspberries and the liqueur. If you want to decorate the top, reserve a couple of tablespoons of whipped cream and five perfect raspberries for decoration.
Spread the raspberry cream all over the roulade and then roll it up gently from the shorter edge. Treat it gently to avoid cracks, but if it does crack it's not the end of the world.
To decorate, pipe five small rosettes of double cream along the top of the roulade, then place a raspberry on top of each rosette. If you don't have a piping bag, you can just put neat blobs of cream on using teaspoons, though this doesn't look quite as professional.

Unfortunately I didn't get to take a picture of it before it was eaten, but here are pictures of Elsie and Ruth, still going strong at 100, aided by champagne! Cheers both!