French Kissing. It was with a sense of occasion that my partner and I had our first date with The Vanilla Pod in Marlow on Thames. Would it be love at first bite? Michael McDonald the owner and chef has worked alongside Gordon Ramsey at La Tante Clair and Chez Nico, before spending the latter years as the Head Chef at Danesfield House in Marlow earning a high profile reputation and rave reviews. The restaurant is pleasingly chic and intimate, a mix of traditional honeyed walls, deep old beams and a concave brick fireplace. It becomes more contempory as the restaurant opens up, the walls becoming a selection of graduated sunset colours, fresh lemon to a warming burnt orange. It smells comforting, crisp and subtle and the lighting is very pretty due to small spotlights imbedded into the ceiling like night stars. Unsurprised to find this restaurant already bustling with diners, I liked the lack of music that allowed the soft background of voices and laughter to create truly congenial, informal atmosphere. Any lingering doubt about the calibre of treat waiting you is firmly dispelled when cosseted alongside the softest linen napkins and the sparkling array of glasses. A delicious aroma announced the arrival of warm, fresh bread that accompanied our menus - perfect timing for us to finalise food and wine choices. At the Vanilla Pod, the truly innovative dishes are seasonally balanced and our sommelier, Manuela, originating from Brittany, offered real enthusiasm in assisting with wine to complement a sophisticated array of dishes for the evening – she confirmed our instincts for the Fleurie.
Each dish is presented with a flourish and explained with passion. First to arrive was our pan-fried mackerel on compote of rhubarb and celeric, wonderfully light and set stylishly upon square white ceramics. My pressed ham hock terrine with cola jelly and aged balsamic vinegar - looked delightful; I loved the colourful layers of vegetables against the pinkness of the ham and I found it surprisingly chilled, making it cold and welcoming on the tongue. My partners choice was the delicious sounding risotto of confit duck and cep veloute, with of course, that trademark hint of vanilla; he declared it “the best he has ever tasted,” high praise indeed! We continued with Pan-fired scallops, vanilla poached pears and red wine shallots with vanilla, the nuttiness of the meat worked wonderfully with the sauce. Michael really has achieved the ability to load a dish with flavours in such a way that they seem to hit the tongue one by one as if on parade. Little solider flavours in a queue.
Throughout supper the service was wonderfully discreet and professional yet it was ‘as if by magic’ that the wine glasses were replenished, dishes cleared, and bread replaced.
For the main course I had ordered fillet of venison with a dried fruit sauce on a bed of parsnips (a much under-rated vegetable) it was predictably divine, with the jus leaving that gorgeous sticky lips feeling, heaven on earth. My partner opted for the cannon of lamb, orange crust, white cabbage and asparagus, and with a delirious smile the plate was soon bare. The pre desserts of melon, crème fraishe and ginger were genius, arriving in a test-tube shaped glass and providing a refreshing, zingy, kaleidoscope of flavours. Of course it was impossible to resist the dessert, my fresh mint panna cotta, crushed raspberry compote and peppered meringue was a total wow – although undetectable to the eye I truly could see, feel and smell the actually furry green mint leaves. Content, warm and satiated we asked for our coffee and petit fours to be served to us in the deep seats of the bar.
This Vanilla Pod really is an all over experience. Just like the ideal first date it is not only the anticipation of the event or the way it leaves your head swimming with intoxicating memories, but the urgency to re-live the feelings as soon as possible ……I think, for us, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship! PB