Things have improved in recent times, with the focus on seasonal produce and the likes of Hugh River Cottage and Raymond Manoir broadening the horizons, but the old stuffed peppers and mushroom risottos are still the lazy stalwarts at dinner parties and restaurants alike.
People, vegetarians included, are rarely interested or dedicated enough to cover new ground, and it is all too easy to focus on the lifestyle and the ideology rather than the cuisine.
It is encouraging, then, to see Vanilla Black getting on with the business of being a proper, mature restaurant, rather than a preaching centre for flaky Greenpeace activists with hairy armpits. Here we have a sleek dining room, sensitive silver service, advanced cooking techniques and refined presentation – the trappings of a Michelin-starred establishment, in other words.
As it happens, I thought the dining space was a little too austere, a little battleship-grey, and would like more warmth in the room, from candles or another chandelier or two, but the styling and the City location are certainly bold moves away from the old stereotypes.
And here’s the important thing: the food is really punchy, hearty stuff. There are twiddles and flourishes, quirky combinations, foams, crisps, reductions, micro herbs, brioche and so on – again, Michelin stuff. But the combinations are intelligent and functional, never pretentious, the bay leaf custard with the apple pudding, for example, or the truffle cream on a cep crème brûlée; and in general the flavours are complex, intense and clearly defined, the seasonal menu delivering clever starters such as a deconstructed Puy lentil dahl and robust mains such as mushroom duxelle.
The great achievement here is that the food shakes off any sense of limitation and demands to be judged alongside that of any other restaurant, and full credit to the chef Andrew Dague for this. But not making any allowances, then, I would say the wine list is strong on bottles (including the decent, earthy red Burgundy we enjoyed) but it would be good to see more wines by the glass, to give a bit more flexibility when matching with dishes; on our visit the air conditioning was blowing hot and cold intermittently; and finally, at £24 for two courses or £30 for three, the pricing, whilst in keeping with top-end set menus, does make me question the raw value aspect of things.
The justification, I suppose, is that few people have the expertise to do vegetarian food like this (it is the only vegetarian restaurant to be mentioned in the Michelin Guide). And the hardest feat of all, making the leap into the realm of fine dining, is accomplished without question. I can only hope this is a sign of things to come.
17- 18 Tooks Court
Tel: 020 7242 2622
Dinner for two, three courses, wine and service: £133.88