A day of top secret filming at a London studio had me dining with teenagers last Friday night. Starving on a student budget, the two girls had little more than a crumpled fiver to spend on food and instinctively made a beeline for a backstreet Wimpy bar.
Now I don’t deny the healing power of a Big Mac after a heavy night out on the town, but McDonald’s at least takes some pride in its shiny appearance. I could have etched my name in Wimpy’s grimy windows and the rusty, swinging burger sign above the door squeaked in protest when we entered the joint.
The inside was worse. A lingering smell of old grease filled the air, the floor was in need of a good sweep and I felt itchy. We sat at the window – at least then I could focus on something other than the fat fly on the wall – and not wanting to alarm my fellow diners, I resisted the urge to lay a protective sheet of napkins on my red plastic seat.
But in a last-ditch attempt to push snobbery aside, I wiped the menu clean of congealed ketchup and determined to read it through the eyes of a fast-food junkie. Meat, fish and vegetarian options were all there (tick), and my fellow diners seemed excited by the prospect of an allegedly famous all-pork Wimpy ‘bender’ sausage. I wasn’t convinced: there’s something slightly eerie about the rigidity of that curly sausage.
In an unexpected twist, Wimpy includes the nutritional value of every single burger, ‘platter’ (scampi and chips) and ‘light bite’ (bacon in a bun) on its menu and at first glance, it’s all relatively low. Has Wimpy found the secret to low-calorie American dining? Alas, no. Chips, a given for every Wimpy meal, are not included in the breakdown and the measly portion sizes shave off a fair few calories.
But nobody goes to Wimpy’s for a salad. My companions just wanted fuel for the fire and so chose chunky burgers with fluorescent yellow fries and limp lettuce leaves on the side. Sure it left a chalky aftertaste in the mouth, they said, but that’s why you order a thick-as-you-like banana milkshake to wash it down. The chocolate variety, however, is to be avoided: distinctly fatty with faint traces of nutmeg, it lay abandoned alongside the salty salads.
I went for the spicy bean burger, served on a bed of fresh salad and with myriad sachets of Wimpy’s sticky ‘n sweet ketchup on the side. It was luke warm and obviously fresh from the freezer, but I did at least detect cannellini and red kidney beans in there and I could have easily polished off a second veggie pounder. A homemade (or sachet of) salad dressing would have been welcome, and could have cranked the price up 50p or so.
We skipped pudding (the usual apple pie, banana split and wedge of chocolate cake stuff) and went straight to the bill. My meal with a diet coke came to a grand total of £7 – way more than I expected from a plastic-seat joint and the same price as a decent homemade Margherita down the road at Pizza Express. This was not value for money and if you do decide to brave Wimpy’s, I suggest you take a seasoned user along with you – that banana milkshake tip saved our palettes.
* * * * *
* * * * *
Add a drop of Vanilla to a pinch of Black and, together with an adventurous head chef and his barrow-load of vegetables, you have yourself one of the most innovative vegetarian restaurants in London. Hidden away in a Chancery Lane corner, Vanilla Black is a haven for bored vegetarian diners who crave something more than humdrum mushroom risottos. This is exciting, playful vegetarian cuisine and I can guarantee that even the savviest of herbivores won’t be able to predict the menu.
Our family of five (including two vegetarian parents and two very carnivorous siblings) opted for the Vanilla Black lunch menu, most of us kicking off the feast with a wonderfully colourful potato and watercress soup decorated with tangy goats cheese croutons. The star of the starters, however, was the sweetcorn crème brulée: this little pot of creamy heaven served with fiery paprika biscuits and a homemade salsa tingled the taste buds and put me in the mood for experimental food.
Next came the main course menu and it read as if it was written in another language. The adventurous foodie within me couldn’t wait to give the poached duck egg dish served with ribblesdale pudding, hickory smoke potato croquette and pineapple pickle a whirl. The most explosive taste on that plate happened to be the smallest – the pineapple pickle was jam-packed with exotic flavours and to my surprise it went wonderfully with smoked potato. That’s the thing about Vanilla Black: it shocks its diners with strange flavour combinations, then sits back and watches you enjoy them.
It wasn’t just us diners who were enthusiastic about the food. Our bubbly (vegetarian) waitress was eager to recommend her favourite dishes and she even offered us some Vanilla Black culinary secrets (top tip: baby chives really compliment spicy foods), making us feel like honorary members of the restaurant’s exclusive foodie fraternity.
Being a sweet-toothed kind of gal, I depend upon a good pud to polish off a meal and Vanilla Black didn’t fail to deliver. Sticking to an adventurous tone, head chef Andrew Dargue has created an array of quirky desserts and, intrigued by the punctuation, I eventually settled on the lemon meringue ‘pie’ with a coriander purée. Sandwiched between layers of wafer-thin shortbread, the swirls of homemade lemon curd and delicately placed mini meringues were so shockingly delicious that we re-named it the laugh-out-loud lemon meringue pie. A taste of my sister’s devilish sticky toffee pudding convinced me that Vanilla Black is, in fact, master of two trades: vegetables and puddings.
Vanilla Black takes the burden of cooking without meat or fish and turns it into a challenge – a passion which keeps their imaginative minds ticking and helps produce fresh, funky and fashionable food.
* * * * *
Lunch per person (ex. drinks): 2 courses £18; 3 courses £23