Thursday, 5 February 2009

Vanilla Ice

The snow is clearing now, at least in London, so everything is drippy. Sleet is expected tonight which isn't half as much fun. There are a few more pictures from the last few days that I want to post while I'm still excited, mainly from a lunchtime hike that my colleagues and I decided to undertake around Hyde Park on Wednesday lunchtime.

You wouldn't think that this was in the middle of a capital city, would you?

Hyde Park is full of web-footed residents who also leave tracks:

I'm not sure if the "Danger Thin Ice" signs are new:

I'd seen so many snowmen over the last few days that I thought I should build my own. However my impatient colleagues wouldn't wait so I had to be quick, and make a mini one. He's about six inches high, with twig arms and bark eyes and buttons:

And to show the scale, here he is in situ on top of a big rock:

I bet he'll be gone faster than this, rather larger specimen (not of my creation):

Less fun were the streets of Mayfair, especially those around us where the footfall isn't high enough to force the melting. We had plenty of ice-rink-alikes around our way. Some had started to shatter into crunchy diamonds:

I believe in America (maybe certain states?) residents are required to shovel their own sidewalks outside of their homes and shops to keep them clear of ice. Not here. We merely complain that the government isn't doing enough about it. Even I, as a responsible citizen, wouldn't even think to go out and deal with the pavement outside my flat. I suppose if we all did... But no, we just all skid along and whinge some more.

During all this, the boyfriend and I did brave the slippery streets to go out for dinner for our anniversary. We chose Vanilla, on Great Titchfield Street (the northern end), because it was one of the most highly user-rated restaurants on toptable. This seemed to be flatly contradictory to a rather amusing but very bad review by Giles Coren. However, it turns out that the chef has changed, and with it the ethos, since Mr Coren's visit, so they are trying madly to shake off the bad reputation from their older reviews. Personally, with a change of chef and cooking style I'd have renamed the restaurant too to sever ties with the bad stuff, but perhaps I'm being too sensible here.

So the "new" Vanilla is a tasting menu-only restaurant along the "molecular gastronomy" lines of The Fat Duck and El Bulli. I've never dared to go to the former, and doubt I could get into the latter, because whilst I'm impressed by the concept, I'm not partial to snail porridge or cock's comb. Thankfully Vanilla do the strange textures and combinations but with relatively normal foodstuffs, and they have a vegetarian version, which is a requirement for the boyfriend. You can choose a four-, six- or ten-course menu - we went for six, but really it's more with the various canapes, amuse-bouches and the additional cheese course we tacked on and failed to finish, so replete were we.

I took a couple of pictures, firstly of the entirely white bar (with pink and blue lighting) - note smooth floor as mentioned by Giles Coren:

And the almost entirely black restaurant, which was very small indeed, maybe ten tables:

I then stopped taking photos, because although the food certainly deserved photography, I did think it was a bit rude. Added to which, one of the few other diners in the tiny restaurant (most of the other tables, we were told, had cancelled due to the weather) was an incredibly loud Californian who regaled us all with tales of her various properties here and there, her separation from her husband who just can't "reach out" sufficiently, and her blog. Oh god, did we hear about her blog. Almost every sentence. She'd been to the restaurant before and has, apparently, blogged it in detail. I rapidly became embarrassed that I'd even considered writing anything about Vanilla, even having a blog at all, if it put me in the same category as her. Actually, it went through irritating and out the other side into hilarity - after all, we couldn't actually hold a conversation of our own above her discourse (neither could her companions) so we mainly listened and fell about with silent laughter.

However the food was too interesting not to talk about it, at least a little bit. As I said, this was all about textures. The meal kicks off with the presentation of a slate rectangle on which appear to be three stones, one shiny black and two matt grey pebbles. The black one is a real stone, very hot so that essential oils can be dripped on it at table to set the mood. The grey pebbles are actually new potatoes coated in an edible clay, to be picked up, dipped in aioli and seeds, then eaten clay and all. The shell is a bit like eating a potato-filled Smartie or M&M. Apparently the clay aids digestion, like the parrots at the clay lick we saw in Ecuador. Other weirdnesses followed, including: a mozzarella injected with cauliflower puree and then inflated to a huge, translucent, puffball-mushroom-like balloon; an egg poached at 64C for 45 minutes, at which temperature the white sets to a fine wibbliness but the yolk (with a higher setting temperature) does not, giving the perfect consistency; cod skin fried so delicately that it was like a faintly fishy poppadom; grapes soaked in soda water to explode with bubbles on the tongue between cheeses; and sauce poured into a vial of dry ice to bubble out and spill over the rest of the dessert, chilled right down. Everything tasted wonderful but the main focus was food as entertainment, and it genuinely was incredibly engaging and fun. Kudos too to the waiter who could answer all of our questions on exactly what everything was, and how, and why.

The most interesting bit? A very small flower bud presented between the fish and meat courses with the instructions to chew it as a palette cleanser. We were told to expect an unusual effect, and to be sure to chew on both sides of the mouth to make it even. Hmm. We dubiously tried it and, wow. The initial taste is astringently lemony, very strong. Your mouth first goes numb, then starts tingling - like a strong, rapid, cold fizziness, not hot like chili or mustard. Vast quantities of saliva are produced - I had to keep swallowing, much like (for me) when I'm about to vomit and have to swallow repeatedly, but without the nausea. The tingling takes about five minutes to wear off, after which your mouth really is completely clear, with no "recollection" of the previous course. It's bizarre. Clearly this flower bud contains some neurotoxic alkaloid as a defence mechanism. If I were a grazing animal, I wouldn't eat it again (I'm glad I did try it but not sure I'd want to repeat it). I'm sure the waiter said it was called a "Szechuan Berry" but I've searched for that and that seems to be a kind of peppercorn-like thing which isn't right at all. Very, very strange, whatever it was called.

After all that, we probably could have slid home on our distended bellies like penguins on the icy roads, but isn't it great that we have cabs for that kind of thing instead?


stash haus said...

*&$%^$ rude Americans!!!

Gads, I hate when I'm a tourist myself and run across tourists like that. Makes me cringe endlessly.

Thanks for the restaurantfood descriptions. I've not seen or experienced anything like that around these parts.

And yes, in most parts of our state you actually get ticketed/fined if you do not clear off your sidewalk. Also, you open yourself up for a lawsuit if anyone slips/falls and injures themselves because your walks are not clear.

Original Ting said...

Your snowman looks as if he's going 'Wheee...."