The Vincent Rooms, 76 Vincent Square, SW1P 2PD
Two course meal with wine: £25 ish (we split the bill, some people had dessert)
Sometimes, when I want to escape to an imaginary world in which I have won the lottery and can afford a beautiful house in SW1, I go to Vincent Square. It's the perfect place to reflect on just how awesome it would be if I were ludicrously rich. It is quiet, it has a big playing field in the middle and the houses look like the sort of accommodation American film-makers imagine all well-to-do Londoners live in, complete with a Rolls Royce and a butler. Once a year, they even hold the London rum festival in Vincent Square; presumably so the wealthy folk don't have far to roll home. However, until recently, I have been missing out on one of Vincent Square's best attractions: the Vincent Rooms. Attached to the college that trained such luminaries as Jamie Oliver and (ahem) Antony Worrall Thompson, the Vincent Rooms lets one test the abilities of the current batch of chefs-in-waiting, and all at prices a mere mortal can afford. I only wish I had tried it sooner.
Next door to the college itself, the Vincent Rooms presents diners with two venue choices: the Escoffier Room, the more formal of the two, and the Brasserie, which is exactly what one would expect - straightforward cooking in slightly more relaxed surroundings. We chose the Brasserie but I will definitely return soon to try the tasting menu in the other room. The front of house staff are also students, which seemed to result in extremely friendly service, which made up for any inexperience or nervousness by being wonderfully enthusiastic.
The room was beautifully light and spacious but with decoration faintly reminiscent of a modern school canteen, some of the pictures might even have come from the college prospectus. However, with several good wines under £20 and most main courses hovering in the £10 - £15 price range, slightly naff pictures are the last thing one needs to worry about.
I started with a simple but tasty dish of orzo, brown shrimp and parsley. The flavours worked with each other predictably well, held together by a hint of creaminess in the sauce. I managed to swipe some of my neighbour's duck egg with wild mushrooms whilst he wasn't looking, both of which had been cooked well - lovely soft egg and not-too-squidgy mushrooms. My main course was one of the best value dishes I have eaten in London. A lovely plate of crispy herring fried in oats with a vivid red, warm salad of potato and chorizo was delicious and an absolute steal at £9. The slightly more expensive pork dish looked fantastic but, my neighbour being on guard this time, I only managed to purloin a tiny piece of black pudding beignet. Needlessly fancy name aside, it was crispy and fatty and, therefore, good.
Being the training restaurant for a college, there must be a risk of substandard food or wonky service. We saw neither on our visit. Perhaps the risk increases at the start of the autumn term? However, there was something wonderful about the students' enthusiasm for their choice of occupation. Even more than usual, I wanted to run into the kitchen and ask them why they had chosen to pair certain flavours with each other. We were all intrigued why our charming (and we thought perfectly excellent) sommelier was pulled aside after giving us our wine. What else should he have done? We all left with that wonderful feeling of having been part of something potentially great at the beginning when it is new and still tentatively finding its way. Only instead of that being the restaurant itself, which has been around for ages, it was the staff who left us so inspired. There are not many places I would say that about. Highly recommended.