DESPITE the cult status acquired by super-deli Ottolenghi, known for its heavenly salads and cakes, and the super-sleek vegan Saf (see Joe McCanta’s column below), vegetarian restaurants aren’t exactly alluring to a professional, urban and carnivorous crowd.
But Andrew Dargue and his wife Donna Conroy, from Teeside, think things should be different, and so two years ago set up London’s only fine dining vegetarian restaurant, Vanilla Black, wedged among the law offices of Took’s Court, near Chancery Lane. Dargue is a classically trained chef and has therefore eaten more than his fair share of meat. But he found that he and his wife just wanted to eat it less and less until they stopped all together. And then, of course, they found there was nowhere good to eat out.
“Before we set the restaurant up we travelled around to see what’s out there. We found that a lot of veggie restaurants follow a blueprint from the 1970s – with posters on the wall, preaching this or that. But the majority of people who go to vegetarian restaurants are already vegetarian, so aren’t you just preaching to the converted?”
Dargue and Conroy thought it would be nice to have a vegetarian restaurant that attracted meat-eaters, too. “We didn’t want something stuck in the 70s, with bean bags and tie-dye and posters. Nor somewhere that concentrates on ethnic, spicy dishes and meat substitutes, like many vegetarian restaurants do. I am a classically trained chef after all, so I thought: ‘Why can’t we have normal food?’”
The result is a menu that feels very English and a bit French – take the poached duck egg and Ribblesdale pudding with hickory smoked potato croquette and pineapple pickle. “It’s basically a double baked cheese soufflé – and with the pickle and the smokiness, it’s reminsincent of gammon and pineapple. There’s lots of flavour in that dish that would appeal to a meat eater,” says Dargue. Indeed, I had it and it was delicious, rich and satisfying.
It can’t be easy making a full menu of fine dining-standard veggie nosh. “It’s challenging,” agrees Dargue. “Go to a meat restaurant, take away the fish, meat and all cheese with animal retin in it, and then try to make a menu out of what remains. We have an ideas board and we’re always looking for new twists. The last thing vegetarians want is another form of pasta bake.”
The key to making exciting meat-free food is multiple, contrasting flavours. Take another dish we had: sweet and sour glazed baby beetroot with candied fennel and wasabi cream – earthy beetroot gets a kick from the sweet candied fennel and then there’s the sharpness of the wasabi cream. “It’s the same with lamb – it’s fatty and earthy so it’s served with redcurrant jelly.”
Of course, seasonality is crucial, as is Englishness. Asparagus is in season now, and it’s a very English vegetable, so Dargue scratched his head and thought: what else is very English? Crumpets, of course, and thus was born the asparagus and chervil pesto crumpet dish, served with yoghurt curd, potato cakes and leek tagliatelle.
The menu at Vanilla Black is quite expensive – £30 for three smallish courses. But what people forget is that cheese and veg can be more expensive than meat – Dargue confirms that some of his cheese costs twice the price of beef. The Ribblesdale, for example, is aged for two years and comes from a three-person dairy in Yorkshire. After all, this is top of the line cuisine you’re paying for – not lentil stew.
RECIPES: GO VEGGIE GOURMET
DOUBLE BAKED RIBBLESDALE SOUFFLÉ
4 free range eggs, separated
175g Ribblesdale sheeps milk cheese, grated
225ml Warmed milk
150ml Whipping cream
40g Unsalted butter
40g Plain flour
Salt and Pepper 6 Free range duck eggs
l Melt the butter in a pan then add flour and cook gently for around 3 minutes.
l Gradually whisk in warm milk and heat till thickened and add cream
l Cool a little then using stick blender blend in egg yolks
l Whisk whites in a clean bowl with a pinch of salt till peaks form
l Fold whites into mix then season the mix with salt and pepper and add cheese
l Bake in ramekins or small containers at 220C for around 15-20 mins or until risen, cool them, then turn out. (Recipe: Vanilla Black)
YORKSHIRE FINE FETTLE CHEESECAKE WITH
PEAR AND SAFFRON CHUTNEY AND CORNICHONS
125ml Distilled vinegar
200g Brown sugar
Pinch of saffron
Salt and pepper
l Remove the peel and core from the pears and chop the fruit roughly
l Add the fruit to the pan with the sugar, wine, saffron and vinegar
l Simmer till thickened and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper
300g Yorkshire Fine Fettle, crumbled
200g Soft cream cheese
150g Digestive biscuit crumbs
70g Melted butter
l Mix the biscuit crumbs and melted butter and season with salt. Line a cake tin
l Mix the feta and soft cheese and season with salt
l Add the mix to the cake tin and press down to flatten
Spread a little chutney on a plate. Add a slice of cheesecake. Serve with some bread crisps and sprinkle on some finely sliced cornichons. Leave these off if you don’t fancy that tang. (Recipe: Vanilla Black)