Now that all our banks have become restaurants, it was only a matter of time before churches jumped on the chuck wagon and started feeding the masses instead of just saving them. Arise The Vestry, a restaurant encased in a modern glass construction tagged alongside the historic All Hallows by the Tower church in Tower Hill, serving food for body and soul.
Last time I was in All Hallows was whilst playing Tombraider, and I havent been to church, proper, for years. Theres always the worry that a thunderbolt will strike me down dead. For me, confession comes cleaner at the shrinks where the only hell is having to pay for it. But inside this glass box, although the ecclesiastical theme is echoed in polished oak refectory style tables, chunkier than cheap chocolate, there is nothing to scare off the sinner. Well not unless you count the clergyman lunching nearby who, since my friend Nina was anxious for reassurance regarding the joys of sex and the long married lover, did make me feel somewhat uncomfortable given the drift of our conversation. And naturally, I had to lie.
It was a miracle she arrived in one piece. The doors at the front of the restaurant, just to confuse you, dont actually open. Instead you have to trot down the side whilst pretending that, of course, you meant to be blown, splat, like a sparrow against the window while trying to get it.
On the food front, the food teeters on the Pacific Rim. There are lots of fish, and lots of ingredients, all listed in that tiring overmenued roast rentafish with codbone crust, violet shortbread wafers and Tibetan Yak jus sort of way. Just reading them fills you up - the Read Yourself Thin Diet. On the plate, however, apart from excessive drizzle-itis, the food is simpler than it sounds, the salads beautifully dressed and the rosary of accompaniments, soothing, gently flavoured and mostly complementary.
Wine is served in plain tumblers, and water in chinking pewter goblets which might clash with your fillings. A selection of bread costs £2.00, and all starters cost £5.25. My pan fried Whitstable oysters were delicious - crisp bites of succulent, briny, wobbly creatures served with some unnecessary threads of pickled cucumber with lumpfish, and a delectable salad of baby beetroot leaves and parsley. While shamelessly pretending to be the font of all carnal knowledge, I have to admit to having a love hate relationship with oysters and their supposedly sensual qualities. Sometimes I can just throw them back and swallow with relish, and at others I need a little coaxing, some persuasive warmth, well fanned flames and a lot of liquor. Purists might say that cooking spoils the flavour and texture. Purists can console themselves elsewhere.
Nina had Cornish crab salad, with oven dried tomatoes (which I suspect is about as near to a heat source as many supposedly sun dried ones get) and avocado mousse. Quantities of crab in the salad were parsimonious and the mousse, though extravagantly creamy contained too little avocado, flirting dangerously close to something you mix up at home to slather on your face when youre thirteen at a slumber party. More perplexing was the plinth on which it arrived, complete with deep dimple for the salad, and the mousse (covered by an ultra fussy pastry scallop shell) and several blobs of balsamic reduction dotted around the perimeter like an artists palate. Too, too, darling - just put it on the bloody plate, please.
Next up was some fine sea bream with an orange and ginger bread crust which wasnt as bizarre as it sounds, just a mere sprinkling of breadcrumbs on the skin and a mound of white, green and Thai asparagus. I had risotto with butternut squash and mozzarella, but had I read further would have realised that it arrived inside a nut crusted fritter rather than, as I had assumed, with a biscuity affair perched on top. Its what you do at home with left over risotto - roll it in breadcrumbs and fry it up. Its like the Italian version of bubble and squeak with the strings of parmesan making it all a bit fast-food from Findus. Not unpleasant, but far from the best representative of the otherwise fresh-flavoured menu. Other dishes such as sea bass with broad bean and potato salad and pea and parsley veloute, or Dover sole with turmeric, grilled courgettes and roast tomatoes would have been wiser.
For pudding, my lavender set cream with poached rhubarb was more of a delicate whipped mousse than expected, and Ninas basil and vanilla ice cream though sweet, earthy and truly excellent, arrived in something akin to a porcelain egg box. Shudderingly daft. If they cut back the unnecessary design flourishes to match the spareness of the surroundings, the credible food would have a chance to be heard. Currently its Baby Spice competing with a Welsh all male choir in tutus.
Sadly we had no competition for my impassioned monologue on the Karma Sutra of married life. I may well have persuaded Nina that all in the perfumed garden is lovely, but neither the waiter nor the Vicar appeared convinced.