Simon Richardson dreams of a second beef course at Luke Downing’s showpiece restaurant
IT’S only been a year since our previous review of Vice & Virtue’s fine dining restaurant. But a change of concept, a new head chef in Jono Hawthorne and a renewed focus makes another visit imperative. So here we are, making our way through the awkwardly perched corner entrance opposite the Belgrave and up to the cocktail bar – Vice’s take on a waiting room – for a cocktail and selection of pre-meal snacks.
Fish skins complete the course; delightful boats sailing their wild garlic and oyster cargo all the way
We’re treated to some in-house charcuterie (top-notch salami, but over-cured smoked salmon and flavoursome yet painfully salty duck ham) to accompany our aperitifs – a well-balanced ‘foraged’ negroni and a smoky fruit salad, which looks like it’s been making fake beards with bath bubbles but is extremely sweet. It’s uncomfortably quiet (put some music on for God’s sake – I’m British; I can’t breathe if it’s silent in a public place), and we’re relieved when we’re invited to go upstairs and end this charade of communicating in an embarrassed whisper.
The mood and the surroundings brighten. Vice’s latest incarnation is the most pleasant yet, and we feel at ease at our large, round table, complete with Instagramably white tablecloth. We’re having the signature tasting menu (£65 per person) with premium wine pairing (£100pp) - although there's a cheaper 'signature drinks' option also available at £55pp.
Our starter spread arrives in a flash, with a crisp glass of Dom Pèrignon. We go sweetest first – cute madeleines that taste exactly as they should, albeit with a strangely firm texture that has us suspect they may not be as fresh as they ought to be. Then it’s duck – a kind of paté, perhaps? The menu has already muddled itself up a little – it’s excellent though. The highlight here is artichoke with penny bun mushroom, which is expertly presented and delivers an explosion of awesome truffle as soon as I sink my teeth in. Fish skins complete the course; delightful boats sailing their wild garlic and oyster cargo all the way to my mouth.
We’re stretched off now, so it’s time for the main event. On your marks (dishes may vary in order of arrival). White asparagus is crunchy and coated in lamb biltong crumb that adds texture and depth. The raw scallop is too monotonous as a dish though – one texture, one temperature, not much to report other than a sharp yoghurt-like sauce that engulfs any other taste.
Carrot tartare is wonderful, served under a smoke-filled dome that is reminiscent of L’Enclume’s incredible pig dish, but which is there for more than just to make a point. Incidentally, Jono also used to do a brilliant carrot and goat’s cheese side at Feed – he’s like a chef Bugs Bunny. We also chew our way through a grilled garlic scape with duck fat, which gets better and better the closer to the top you go, and another meticulously presented asparagus, this time playing a supporting role to delicate, melt-in-the-mouth cod in fish milk under a terrific charred tulip – I’m eating the end of a season.
The next two dishes need their own paragraph. It’s time for beetroot – a black, rich ball with a striking blood-red centre that does more than enough to distance itself from Tommy Banks’ other-worldly genius. Eaten with our fingers. Then, the undoubted pièce de résistance – a perfectly cooked slice of sirloin with twin tastebud ticklers – sour fermented cabbage and spicy mustard. I’m eating a posh Reuben, sans cheese, and I couldn’t be happier.
Oh, wait. I just smelt the wine – time for a change of clothing. We’ve been on whites up until now (and one sherry which I swerved because sherry is my nemesis drink), and decent they’ve been. But let’s be honest; red’s just better, isn’t it? Well, this Nederburg 2014 is better-er. Perhaps the best nose of any red I’ve had; deep, rich cherries and a knock-out taste to match. You can’t improve on this.
Dessert time. (Can’t I just have the beef again?) Watermelon – just there as a palate cleanser, really. Fair enough. A wonderful goat’s milk ice cream with crispy charcoal biscuit – perfection, along with a quite interesting fig leaf liqueur. And then a rather odd Thai red curry – the mango and cardamom flavours come through very well, but it’s covered in a tacky, powdery coconut that is quite unpleasant to eat as it sticks to the mouth and renders everything thereafter de-flavoured. Another 10/10 wine pairing though – the best one yet – Recioto Della Valpolicella; sweet, spicy and smooth. We finish with a cheeseboard (worth the £15) and some petits fours (less so) and get on our bikes, a full three and a half hours after we arrived. That’s how a tasting menu should be.
The team behind Vice have made no bones about it – they want a Michelin star, and they aren’t afraid to hashtag it to death. The ingredients are there – the foraging, the presentation, the quite excellent front-of-house service (with an extra surprise which I won’t spoil), the wine pairings and several of the dishes. But there are touches that are still lacking – some of the dishes still need honing, scrapping or increasing in size or imagination. But there’s time and, with the new head chef, there’s talent. And there’s definitely enough to get me back – especially with an excellently priced à la carte option to look at too.
Vice & Virtue, 68 New Briggate, LS1 6NU
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Food and drink
Aperitifs 7, madeleine 6, duck 8, artichoke and mushroom 8.5, fish skin 8, white asparagus 7, scallop 5, carrot tartare 9, garlic scape 6, cod 7.5, beetroot 9, sirloin 10, watermelon 5, ice cream 10, Thai red curry 6.5, drinks package 9
Attentive, knowledgeable, slick – the full treatment
Downstairs – needs work. Upstairs – much more relaxed