Britain’s Top 100 Restaurants – The Sunday Times ( in association with Hardens) October 2012
The one-man Kitchen brigade:
Every part of every dish you eat at the Vanilla Pod- a charming eight-table restaurant in the former home of poet TS Eliot- is prepared individually by chef-patron Michael Macdonald, right down to the bread rolls. Last year, his one kitchen hand went
home to Poland and, worried about the economic situation, Macdonald decided not to replace him. He may have to work harder to serve lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday, but the quality of his solo cooking has been recognised by his debut on the Food List.
His small kitchen is resolutely low-tech. “I don’t do the water bath: it takes the chef out of the chef,” Macdonald declares, adding that a commercial bain-marie would be too big for the
available pace. Instead of using timers, he cooks with all his senses: taste, touch, vision, smell. “Even hearing,” he insists, “I can tell how things are reducing on the stove without having to look.” This does not mean he ignores culinary trends completely: “when I started here, everything was roasted or pan-fries, but now I’ll cook gently at 70 degrees, in stock or flavoured oil.”
Macdonald celebrated Vanilla Pod’s 10th anniversary this year. His menus change every day, dictated by the
supplies that come in, and are evoked by his love of France- he won a scholarship to work in three restaurants in the south of France at the beginning of his career, and worked under the great Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire for two years. And the name? Well, vanilla is one of Macdonald’s favourite spices; he’s fascinated with the way it plays with our taste, and intruiged with the way it plays with our taste buds and our expectations:
“If it’s in a fish sauce, people think they can taste sugar, but in fact they’re just testing the association.”
Review by THE GOOD FOOD GUIDE August 2012
“150 OF THE BEST RESTAURANTS IN THE UK
House of hidden delights
The perfect antidote to Marlow’s culinary cacophony, according to one regular, the Vanilla Pod promises ‘quiet grace’ and soft-toned, neighbourly civility in what was TS Eliot’s out-of-town bolt-hole.
It’s unstuffly, sociable, reined and an ‘absolutely reliable’ outpost of creative contemporary cooking. Michael Macdonald’s approach is measured and doesn’t puff itself up, but his dishes are never ordinary or ill-considered-witness a signature starter of seared scallops with vanilla-poached pears, red wine shallots and vanilla ‘gastrique’. Daube of beef always gets good reviews, and there are seasonal forays into the countryside for roast grouse with buttery turnips, or well-hung venison bedded on Choucroute and prunes. Fish comes through strongly too, in the shape of dainty warm-cured salmon with pickled fennel, or roast brill with Parmesan Polenta, wild blueberries and pannacotta arrives with blueberries and two ‘wobbling shards’ of zingy lemon jelly, while the chocolate soup is ‘to die for… even in Lent’. The brilliant-value set lunch may not appear with all the bells and whistles, but it still ‘jingles and toots’: intense pre-starter soups, butternut squash risotto with pickled shallots, megrim sole with lentils, and ‘cakelets’ of coffee frangipane with orange ice cream have left readers feeling
thoroughly spoilt. Service is smart, knowledgeable and tactful, while the commendable French-led wine list provides classy drinking across the range.”
Review by Tom Fahey on Berkshire Life Magazine April 2011 Issue
“The Vanilla Pod is a pretty little restaurant in Marlow which, despite double table clothing, high-backed felt seats and suited staff, has an intimate, almost familial feel to it. Housed in a cottage that was once home to TS Elliot, it’s a long-serving restaurant loved by locals who, last year, voted it The Good Food Guide’s Restaurant of the Year for the South East.
And yet through no fault of its own, The Vanilla Pod is somehow easily overlooked. How can this be? Consistently hyped as the foodie pilgrimage outside London, Marlow is now rich in attention-grabbing destination restaurants with Raymond Blanc, Aubergine and Maliks all signing up for a slice of the food tourist pie baked by Michelin-winners Tom Kerridge and Adam Simmonds.
The Vanilla Pod isn’t ‘hot’ and you won’t see it on TV anytime soon. But it’s been here for nine years and, having worked under Nico Ladenis, Eric Chavot and Marco Pierre White, its owner, Michael McDonald has the sort of background that demands attention, especially when he’s still behind the stove six a days a week.
But garnering attention and pandering to the media through trends or publicity exercises just isn’t on the agenda at The Vanilla Pod. In fact, much of its charm is managing to be so unassuming and low key in a town where the opposite seems almost a prerequisite to opening.
Far from prices that reflect an inflated sense of self-importance, lunch is a very affordable £19.99 for three courses, and begins with eight types of bread roll, all baked by Michael that morning, including flavours such as beetroot, olive, bacon, or – unsurprisingly – vanilla.
Visiting shortly after Valentines Day meant duck liver terrine laced with gingerbread crumbs generously assigned to the lunch menu. But where others would undoubtedly have charged a supplement, The Vanilla Pod upgraded our luxury factor gratis. And this is a constant theme; the kitchen never uses this menu’s affordability as an excuse to cut corners. Salad of blue d’Auvergne cheese with pears and green beans is so much more than this; with fennel both shaved and poached in saffron, tiny cubes of beetroot, and a vivid pink dressing scattered with chives.
Treated to a veritable allotment of daintily cut carrots, wild mushroom, broccoli, fennel, pea shoots, pearl onions and green beans caressed with butter and herbs then used to bury a mound of the lightest, creamiest polenta, vegetarians certainly have it good here. They’re even on the receiving end of a foaming sauce, dotted with the familiar black of Michael’s favourite seasoning, after which the restaurant is named.
A similar wealth of vegetables adorn the meatier option of poached duck breast, served sans skin, yet all the better for it, melting to the fork and bursting with mild, gamey juices. Mounds of creamy, truffle scented, lentils and a syrupy, meaty sauce complete a generous and balanced plate of food.
Cross a particularly decadent hot chocolate with a luscious chocolate mouse, embed a brownie in it, and top that with vanilla ice cream and you have The Vanilla Pod’s chocolate soup dessert.
Less conventionally flavoured, but equally well made, a coffee panna cotta comes with orange ice cream, orange syrup and a wafer of white chocolate studded with peanuts. Like most of the food here it’s different enough to prove interesting, but never reaches outlandish.
Of course lunch only tells half the story, with other menus more suited to special-occasion meals and a well-chosen wine list for those looking to push the boat out further.
Amid the maelstrom of foodie hype in Marlow, The Vanilla Pod is refreshingly customer-centric. It’s intimate and special yet never flashy or overbearing. Rather than playing to a national audience of gourmet trendies, food is well-crafted yet restrained with a focus on delivering dishes that local customers will both enjoy and can afford, which, in this part of the country, really is something to shout about.”
Archie & Yvonne McVee (Newmarket) 7th September 2010
“I carefully chose the Vanilla Pod as a special destination to meet my best friend (of over 35 years!) on the one day annually that we get to spend together.
The selection of The Vanilla Pod was spot-on, and we couldn’t have been happier with the experience. The restaurant is intimate, serene and elegant and we were warmly welcomed by the polished maitre d’ and staff.
With lots to catch up on, my friend and I enjoyed a leisurely and delicious lunch, with exceptionally attentive service. Our creamy butternut soup made a tasty starter for a cold February day, and as a baker, I was thrilled with the accompanying presentation of a basketful of warm, homemade bread rolls (3-4 assortments) from which to choose.
My friend had the duck, which was tender and beautifully cooked, and I thoroughly enjoyed my apricot-stuffed pork loin, on lentils, with roasted vegetables – making an expert presentation of flavors, colours and flair (see photo!).
Michael Macdonald, who creates these ‘flavours to savour” in the Vanilla Pod has my firm vote, and we’ll definitely be back when next in UK. Oh, and the icing on top? The Vanilla Pod was offering a “Take Your Friend to Lunch for a Tenner” special, which made it fantastic value as well as a memorable meal!”
Fiona Hughes 13th March 2010
“My girlfriend and I came to dinner at your restaurant Saturday evening with friends and I wanted to let you know how much we enjoyed it. We eat out a great deal and have eaten in many restaurants, some good (Le Manior), not so good (our local curry house) and this was our 3rd visit to the Vanilla Pod and I have to say that you exceeded my already high expectations of your establishment and the meal we had Saturday has to be the best meal I have ever had. It was faultless. From the mushroom mous-bouche which was packed with flavour to the gorgeous petites fours at the end of the meal every course was magnificent. The presentation was exemplary; I started with your ham hock terrine that tasted better than it looked and it looked superb, I followed with the beef and I believe I have annoyed everyone since with my constant ‘ravings’ of how good it was. The meat just melted, it was cooked to perfection and the jus was to die for and the vegetables were lovely. Finally I had the peach soup that just blew my mind. Gorgeous to look at and a complex yet refreshing flavour. Everything that was meant to be hot was piping hot and everything that was meant to be cold was freezing. Superb.The restaurant manager’s recommendations of wine were superb and the waiter was unobtrusive, professional and very friendly. Many thanks. I am no critic and I feel that I may be rambling, but I have never felt inclined to write to a restaurant as I usually find fault with something.
I just want to congratulate and thank you and your crew for an exceptional evening. I wish we lived closer so that we could visit on a more regular basis. We are already looking forward to our next visit.
With many thanks”
Review by Dave Hampton September 2012
“Quite a few months ago I bid for a voucher for a ‘special taster’ menu at the Vanilla Pod.
The event was a World Challenge fundraiser evening for a very good friend’s daughter and it seemed a smart thing to do at the time – but to my shock we won the bidding ! Gulp 😉
Anyway – last night – Jan and I had (belated Wedding Anniv treat) the most amazingly special meal ever – at the Vanilla Pod.
I’ve been there a few times but I’d forgotten just how special it is – in every dimension – and how amazing the food. The taster menu is just out of this world.
Marlow is very lucky indeed to have such a place, in my opinion.
A thoroughly wonderful evening – and for me – a lovely reminder of the world-class restaurants that exist – on our very own doorstep.
And we walked home past a golden postbox ;)”
Jon Scott – 27th June 2009
“The Vanilla Pod has been occupying this cute little building for some years now. It’s a doll’s house of a restaurant refurbished in 2007 and on this sunny Saturday lunchtime it has its back doors open to allow an additional two tables into its postage stamp garden. The air con is running inside wafting welcome cool air over tidy and well-dressed tables and everything sparkles from what is obviously careful cleaning. It’s a good sign, as are smartly dressed waiters and a Maitre d’ who has old school charm and unforced friendliness.
It seems to have old school prices, too. Today for lunch it’s twenty quid for a set menu of three or four choices per course. How do they do it we wonder? Well not by cutting on quality it turns out.
Take my terrine of smoked salmon with bourbon vanilla pickled fennel, for example. Basically a compressed millefueille of smoked salmon slices dotted with dill, it was both firm and yielding and packed full of flavour. The pickled fennel was justified; crunchy, to contrast with the salmon, and sweet too, with just a hint of that vanilla rising inside the mouth and up to the nose on each mouthful. Our other starter, a salad of artichokes, woodland mushrooms, green beans and hazelnut oil, was all over the plate, as if the original dish had exploded just before service, but darting about and picking up the little pieces allowed you to mix flavours for each forkful, the hazelnut oil accentuating the meaty, forest flavoured mushrooms very well.
Our well-priced Spanish Rose, on this very hot day, proved a good choice for the food, its chilly astringency working well with everything including my main of Appleton pork. The pork was slightly overdone I felt, but still very good, and backed up by excellent mash, or creamed potato I suppose we ought to really say. Generous slices of pork too and the confit shallots added a jammy side note that the pork enjoyed as much as I did. Once again presentation was first class, classicism deconstructed and rearranged to good effect.
Pan Fried Guilt (sic) Head Sea Bream with Quinoa and Madeira Jus didn’t explain what the Bream felt so guilty about, but showed again Chef/Owner Michael Macdonald’s sure hand and experience. I like my fish skin crispy and so at first was disappointed that the jus had moistened it, but this turned out to be jus(t) fine. A quality piece of fish whose yielding texture was well-partnered by the quinoa which has a marvellous way of ‘popping’ in the mouth and makes a refreshing change from cous cous or bulgur.
Dessert of a turned out of its dish Tahitian Vanilla Crème Brulee with honeycomb like a smashed Crunchie bar around it and a butterscotch jelly, didn’t let the side down. All this for £20? The banker that was Eliot would have called that more than reasonable. In fact for the standard of the cooking and service it’s a real bank job of a steal. You want to run out the door pulling the stocking off your head, leap into the Mk II Jag and pelt off down the road with The Filth in hot pursuit. Far from being a culinary Wasteland, Marlow has in Vanilla Pod a great value fine-dining destination restaurant for all its lucky locals.”
– N.H. – July 2008 – London-eating Editor
“I’ve been wanting to return to the Vanilla Pod for some time to see if the promise of fine dining back in the early days has been maintained. I’d heard happy tales from friends who’d visited and read rave reviews. Now, happily, I was back testing – and I can report that Michael’s cooking is still as good as it gets.”
– Limited Edition, July 2007
“It [the food] really is a feat for the tastebuds and eyes. When Guardian writer Matthew Fort ate here a couple of years ago he said he was “inclined to think that we may be on the verge of a golden age of British restauranteuring”. …
– Berkshire life, 2006
“A little way out of London is a restaurant I like very much: the Vanilla Pod at Marlow. It opened to great acclaim last year and I’ve eaten there a few times. The dining room is small – it only seats 30 – but the chef, Michael Macdonald, is innovative and has a deft touch. He worked for me 10 years ago when we both went to La Tante Claire under Pierre Koffman. He isn’t even 30 years old but I predict he’s going to be the next big thing.”
– Theatregoer Magazine, June 2003
“Michael cooks from the heart using exceptional ingredients. Vanilla Pod is a labour of love, and it shows.”
Gordon Ramsay when he nominated Michael Macdonald for “New Top 10 on the hot”
– Sainsbury’s Magazine, May 2003
“…food that transcends traditional methods by giving classical paradigms a bold, eclectic, modern workover.”
-By Giles Coren – restaurant critic, The Times, February 15 2003
“I mention the prices up front, because, at this level, they represent some of the best-value food in the country. The cooking is beautifully imagined, marvelously assured, impeccably judged. OK, so there’s nothing novel about an escabeche of fennel with red mullet or confit of duck leg, but when they are flawlessly executed, when the balance of the elements of each dish is perfectly realized, you just know that you are in the hands of an exceptional chef.” Score 17.5/20.
-By Matthew Fort, The Guardian, Saturday August 24, 2002