Restaurant: Orchard, London WC1
If only more vegetarian cookery was quite so inspired and focused as it is here. Orchard, London WC1: The new offering from the brains behind vegetarian fine dining favourite Vanilla Black. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian
If you make a list of all the things you’re repeatedly told over a typical lifetime – all those injunctions to exercise, floss, budget, look both ways when crossing the street, try anything once except incest and folk dancing – there is one piece of advice you’re given more than all the rest: eat more vegetables. You’re told this as a kid and you keep being told it. You used to be told it for health reasons and now you’re also told it for eco-political planetary reasons: eat more veg.
In restaurants, though, it’s quite difficult to eat more veg. It’s strange. In lots of ways, restaurants have been ahead of the political curve: many banned smoking long before other businesses caught up, and in the area of responsible sourcing, they have been right on the ball. But that isn’t true with vegetarian food. There is a vegetarian option at pretty much all restaurants, but it’s often a half-hearted, tokenist affair. Vegans have it even worse. You can argue that that’s because to be vegan is to make a declaration that you don’t like restaurants – which at the moment is true, but is also self-fulfilling. The whole discourse around food is increasingly about ethics, and the ethics of food increasingly concerns the avoidance of meat; which means vegetarian cookery is an area where restaurants have to sharpen their focus and up their game.
In the UK, the problem is compounded by the fact that we have no strong tradition of vegetarian cookery. If we’re relying on boiled veg to save the planet, the planet has a problem. Big props, therefore, to the team behind Vanilla Black, a restaurant in Chancery Lane that successfully makes complicated, ambitious, technically skilled, veg-only food with a British bias. They now have a new place, Orchard, on Sicilian Avenue, a wonderful Edwardian arcade just off Holborn, opened in 1910 as one of the first places in London you could sit outside and have a coffee. It’s core sandwich bar territory, and that’s what Orchard looks like – indeed, you can go there for your soup-and-sarnie and leave it at that. The decor is understated, in a pleasant way, with stuff that doesn’t match, baskets of veg, old cards and posters. The signifiers are very different from Vanilla Black, which is pricier and more restaurant-like. This is more a place to grab a bite in the course of a working day.
You’ll rapidly notice, however, if you pay attention to that bowl of soup, that there’s a lot more cooking going on than you might expect. The ingredients are listed as potato and parsley, but that makes it sound plainer than it is, with the potato tasting rich and creamy, and the wonderfully lavish parsley playing a leading role – more dishes should use parsley as their star. On the side was the daily selection of three salads: red onion with sultanas and a sweet vinaigrette; pickled heritage potatoes; and cool, crunchy batonettes of kohlrabi and celery. The potato was genuinely interesting, not least because “heritage”, a silly word, turns out here to mean “a weird shade of blue”. The spuds were tangy and cooked to just the right degree of yielding resistance (I mention that because restaurant potatoes are often overboiled). A main course dish of savoy cabbage came wrapped around a savoury filling of milk-soaked bread and cheddar, with blue spuds on the side, a red wine reduction and a celeriac purée. This was a very happy plateful, the cheese and potato and celeriac both hearty and subtly various – a meat-eater’s idea of veggie food, maybe, but that was part of the reason I liked it.
You can tell just by looking at the list of puddings that they are a speciality. Stewed fruit looked plain but had been carefully cooked, avoiding gloopiness, and was set off with a brilliantly light cinnamon ice-cream. A chocolate bourbon had two textures of chocolate and was served with “iced condensed milk” and spiked with Earl Grey tea – which, of course, tastes of the citrus bergamot, like a funky variety of orange. Again, there was a lot of cooking going on. I don’t want to mislead you: the feel of Orchard is closer to a caff or sandwich bar than to a restaurant. But what a sandwich bar!
• Orchard, 11 Sicilian Avenue, London WC1, 020-7831 2715. Open Mon-Fri, 8am-8pm. About £30 for two with drinks and service.
|posted on||April 8, 2012|
|in||Life & style|
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