London. The old lady has certainly smartened up
in preparation for the upcoming Olympic Games in
2012. My last visit was four years ago and the difference between
then and now is huge. London feels clean, welcoming, easy to get
around, friendly. Bonus? London has a booming foodie scene. So many
places to go, the choice is actually overwhelming. So, when a
recent conference provided me with a few spare meal times to fill
in, I did what any smart foodie would do: left myself in the hands
of food-loving locals (and Google Maps!).


Vanilla Black was the choice of my Londoner friend Cathy who
also happens to be a vegetarian. Reading about it, I was
immediately intrigued. Originally established in York in 2004,
Vanilla Black has been Michelin-recommended and
moved to London in 2008. It has fast become known as offering some
of the finest vegetarian food in the capital.

Opened by partners Andrew Dargue and
Donna Conroy, Vanilla Black aims to “elevate
meat-free cookery to a level that delights discerning palates of
all tastes, whether vegetarian or committed carnivore.” And I
cannot fault them on that. So often, vegetarian food might leave
meat-eaters wanting more, but throughout the entire meal, I did not
miss meat once. I left feeling completely satisfied, my mouth
rejoicing at the surprising flavour combinations and textures I had
experienced. The head chef, Dargue is committed to redefining
contemporary non-meat cuisine by experimenting with original
flavour combinations. The resulting menu is nothing like many
people’s idea of what a vegetarian dish is or has to be. This is
molecular gastronomy for beginners. Familiar flavours in unfamiliar
textures; always a surprise.

Top row: Yukon Gold Potato Cakes and Smoked Olive Oil
Mayonnaise with Capers, Melba Toast and Black Radish; English Feta,
Shaved Vegetables and Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Gel with Sweet Lemon Oil;
Brie Ice Cream and Rhubarb Chutney with Baked Gingerbread and
Toasted Hazelnut

Middle Row: Fried Mushroom Mousse and Tarragon Waffles with Whipped
Madeira, Fennel, Broccoli and White Grape; Goats Cheese Chantilly,
Wilted Spinach and Cauliflower with Potato and Peanut Nougat, Khol
Rabi and Apple Coleslaw; Warm Blue Wensleydale Panna Cotta and
Charred Celery with Carrot purée, Apple Meringue and Jacket

Bottom row: Valrhona Chocolate and Chestnut Brownie Terrine with
Tobacco Cream and Drambuie; Poached Peach and Raspberry
Vinaigrette  with Brown Butter and Vanilla Ice Cream and Peach
Sherbet; Espresso Sponge and Creme Fraîche Sorbet with Toffee
Onions, Coffee Curd and Vanilla Crisp

Some thoughts… This was extraordinary food. From the potato
cakes that looked like scallops, to the “OMG” salt ‘n’ vinegar gel,
and the uniqueness of the brie ice cream served with sweet biscuity
crumbs and tart rhubarb, the entrées (starters) set the scene.

In the mains, the mushroom mousse was intensely meaty (ironic
for a vegetarian meal!), whilst the goat’s cheese Chantilly was the
best sort of “cornet” you could ask for that isn’t coated in
chocolate! The Wensleydale panna cotta was truly a work of art-not
sure why I have never thought of a savoury panna cotta before but
now a cheese panna cotta is definitely on my radar and “to do”
list. It just works.

The desserts were artfully and beautifully presented, the
highlight for me being the toffee onions (yes, in a dessert!),
proving that sometimes ordinary ingredients prepared in
extraordinary ways can truly delight and astound the palate. No
special equipment required.

This is definitely a splurge: my meal, with 2 glasses of bubbly,
tea and tax came to £62 (approx $95 CAD). A relatively small price
to pay in London for such an experience-the food, the ambiance, all
close to perfect!

In a teeny laneway (Took’s Court), just north
of the Strand, Vanilla Black does not look like
much from the outside. It’s subtle. Inside, the restaurant is
art-deco stylish and again, subtle. It feels like you are eating in
a friend’s dining room. The service has a lot to do with this-so
relaxed and happy to answer questions about the menu (of which we
had many). Attentive, but not in-your-face. Professional, but
friendly and welcoming. I have to say, this was a pleasant surprise
at this price point (two courses £24.50; three courses £32.50).
Diners with food allergies or intolerances are also well catered
to, with vegan, wheat-free or nut allergy-friendly menus available
on request at the time of booking).

Vanilla Black
17 – 18 Tooks Court
London, England
020 7242 2622

Tapas Brindisa –

Tapas Brindisa Soho

Local London food bloggers Jackie, Sarah and Helen
suggested we meet for a bite to eat at Brindisa, a tapas restaurant
with various branches around London. We chose the branch
in Soho
. They do not take reservations but since we were there
at 7:30 on a Monday evening in July, it was not a problem to score
a table with a bird’s-eye view of the open kitchen at the back of
the narrow space. For a Monday night, it was buzzing, but not
overly crowded.

Vanilla Black

Tapas Brindisa London – working our way through the

A mix of locals and (given the location) tourists, it’s perfect
for a drink and a snack at the bar or a sit-down meal. With three
of us and fairly small plate servings, we managed to try a fair bit
of the menu! There are some classics: Ibérico de Bellota ham (£22
for a platter to share); Papas brava (fried potatoes with spicy
tomato sauce for £4); tortilla (potato and onion omelette for
£4.50); boquerones nardin (marinated Cantabrian white anchovies for
£6.50); and Artisan Manchego sheep’s milk cheese with quince paste
for £6.75. There were some more unusual offerings as well, like the
pincho de cordero al romero (lamb marinated in cumin and rosemary
for £9). Of all the food we tried-and we tried a lot!-there was not
one bad choice. The meat, cheese, fish, and vegetables were all top

If you can’t get to Spain on your European vacation, Brindisa
offers authentic, tasty tapas at reasonable (for London) prices in
the heart of Soho.

Tapas Brindisa Soho
46 Broadwick Street
London, England
020 7534 1690

Tate Modern Restaurant

The Tate modern (the view and the interior)

My conference happened to be taking place at the City of London
School, right next to the Millennium Bridge and directly opposite
the Tate Modern. When a friend from out of town
suggested I meet her for lunch one day, I Google mapped places to
eat around the conference that wouldn’t take me long to get to and
realized that of course, there’s eating options in the Tate! With a
9- and 10-year-old in tow, I figured that the draw of “one of the
best views in London” (according to The Evening
) would be a huge plus. The Tate offers a
number of dining options
, but I opted for the Restaurant
on the 7th Floor
(with aforementioned view).

The Tate Modern menu and an order of fish and chips

We had such a pleasant lunch that day that I ended up going back
with a colleague the next day for a quick bite to eat between
workshops. What did I love? The view, and, of course, the
food-high-quality seasonal produce, beautiful presentation, and a
kid’s menu with real food plated in a very grownup manner. I also
was impressed with the service. Completely inundated every day with
tourists both wanting to eat and just wanting a glimpse of the
view, the waitstaff remained non-plussed and efficiently handled
the volume of guests; professional and respectful of those with
time constraints. Also, the second time I went there, my friend and
I only ordered light dishes (appetizers only, no main courses)
which some restaurants would frown upon, but we didn’t feel this
was the case. We felt just as valued as those ordering three
courses and drinks.

The children’s menu at The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern’s parmesan encrusted duck egg with asparagus
dippy soldiers, vegetables, and chocolate délice

Favourites: the fish and chips with mushy peas (an elevated
version; more a pea purée than “mushy”) and tartare sauce, the
chocolate délice dessert, the kids’ brownie and ice cream dessert,
and the parmesan-encrusted duck egg with asparagus “dippy
soldiers.” Outstanding.

I would definitely recommend to book. Both times I used the
online booking system and requested a table near the window, and
both times this request was accommodated. The whole restaurant is a
lovely space, but let’s face it, with a view on the Thames right
there, you want to be as close as you can. What I found so
impressive was that with its view and location, the Tate Modern
could do so much worse and I am sure people would still flock
there. Hats off for a job well done, you do your city proud!

Tate Modern
London, England
020 7887 8888

Mardi Michels is a full-time French teacher and part-time
food blogger based in Toronto. Her blog,
  focuses on culinary adventures both near and far because she
travels as often as she can!