Vineet Bhatia London, Chelsea
17th March 2017
About £150/head including drinks
“Vineet Bhatia shut down Michelin-starred Rasoi, and is opening a new intimate, set-menu restaurant, VBL, in a Chelsea townhouse in Mid November.”
I couldn’t make head or tail out of his website. I was mildly put off by the fact that he wanted everyone to know his name (it’s Vineet Bhatia, in case you hadn’t noticed). No one was talking about VBL, and I didn’t want to take a risk on a £105 tasting menu, so I promptly forgot about it.
What a massive mistake. I was astounded by the sophistication of the cooking, and the extraordinary discipline in the kitchen that manifested in perfect plating and piping hot food. Anyone interested in exploring the frontiers of food should make a booking now, before he wins his next star and it becomes impossible to get a table.
Vineet Bhatia, along with Benares’ Atul Kocchar, was the first Indian chef to win a Michelin star. He opened Zaika, sold out, opened Rasoi, got his star, then opened a further nine restaurants abroad. His Geneva eatery has a star too, making VB the only Indian chef with two Michelin starred restaurants, at that time.
What a bae.
I pitched up haaaangry with Resting Critic face, which is an iteration of Ariana Grande’s Resting Smug Face. Dan the Man(ager) didn’t let that expression sit too long. We won’t talk about service at VBL because it’s more like hospitality – the kind you get at Oberoi Rajvilas in India. Warm and professional, delivered not to extravagant showy lengths, but with an immediacy and thoroughness that requires no further embellishment.
The décor is neutral, with Edison bulbs, grey and sunshine yellows. The doorbell chimes like Indian cymbals. I fell hard for the custom ceramics. The clay charger plates were full of wilful imperfections and visible finger daubs. I ran my finger over the rough parts and they disintegrated slightly against my thumb. Apparently they make new ceramics each time the menu changed.
It’s a totally relaxed meal. Instead of egg timer-ing us, we were offered an aperitif. Instead of marching us through the ELEVEN courses, they checked in about the pace and proactively offered breaks and pauses.
Yes ELEVEN courses. Let’s get going on the highlights.
Any concern I had about the chef cooking up cleverness and barely nodding his cap to flavour was totally dispelled in the first course. Smoked prawn chaat was a shot of happiness, a little glass of prickly heat that continued to spread on the tongue after eating, deliciously so.
VBL goes for textural play with the Amritsari Haddock in black, crisp batter, served without cutlery (has he been hanging out with StreetXOs Chef David Muñoz?) on a dish of smooth black stones and herbs. Squid-ink married well with the peppery batter.
A pitch-perfect dollop of raan (pulled, spiced lamb) came out on an uttapam (rice pancake) that had perfect elasticity. That piece of meat should make the grill chef feel deservedly self-righteous. There is no other raan in London that touches it. However, the coconut chutney had a texture similar to well-chewed flak and lacked flavour.
A seared piece of foie gras was served on top of a dhokla, with fennel, cardamom and cumin. Sheer bliss. To the side lay a redundant beetroot macaron (which I found too sweet), pineapple and saffron chutney, and an explosively flavoured apple-blossom crisp.
VB's went a little English-Vinglish with the duck, seared and peppered, served on a shouty plate with semolina, grilled mushrooms, a creamy cashew (korma) sauce, as well as a red wine and red onion sauce. Black pepper held this laundry list of ingedients together, a celebration of commonalities, and well above level. Unforgettable.
The final main course was supposedly honey-soy glazed tandoori pork chop, served with apple sauce andcrispy rice-flour noodles flavoured with black salt and cumin powder. It tasted more Korean than Indian, full of tangy, assertive flavours. Who cares, it was delicious.
An Aquavit riff was served for dessert, a little hazelnut chocolate nest. An almond truffle egg delighted, as did the sweet milk dumpling with scorched, caramelized skin. The reduced milk sauce had a hint of turmeric, but I couldn’t taste any of that in the caviar.
We didn’t much enjoy the clementine kulfi, due to the chunky texture. But, petit fours wowed us – who doesn’t love a chocolate samosa?
Ginger was a nice twist on the usually neglected jub jub, and how adorable are the minute chocolate bars with their little bite marks? They’re rose-infused too! The finisher was the almond, coconut and chocolate shards arranged on a squished ceramic jug.
We finished up after four hours of decadent piggying, and liked the place so much we nearly stayed on for another round of drinks.
VB’s is blessedly free of fancy-schmancy foams and vapours, and weird test tube ingredients that make you wonder if you’re eating chemicals. It’s just spine-tinglingly fabulous food. Anyone cribbing about the prices is looking for false economy – it is well worth it for a special occasion. And, I definitely won't be forgetting Vineet Bhatia's name ever again.