Being a foodie household, we’re always excited about going out for a meal but I was particularly looking forward to our evening at Knife & Fork since I had never been to a home-based restaurant before. Quite possibly, many of you won’t have been to one either so a quick explanation may be in order.
Think of it as a professionally hosted dinner party. The chef – in this case Tanya – opens up their home and serves a set menu with diners bringing their own wine or drinks. As it is a home and not a restaurant, the space usually dictates a small number of diners and a communal table. That was very much the case in the beautiful and relaxing conservatory at Knife & Fork which seats a maximum of 14 people at 2 good-sized tables.
We reviewed the available dates on the website, booked the date we wished to attend via the site’s email form and received a very informative confirmation reply in good time. It contained directions, schedule for that evening – a complementary drink and canapés at 7:30, dinner at 8 – as well as payment details and cancellation policy. For £38 per person (cash only) you get a set five course tasting menu plus the complementary canapés and drink to start and petits fours with tea or coffee to finish up. More information about the space, future dates, Tanya’s approach to food and this style of entertaining, sample menus, etc. can be found on the Knife & Fork website.
So – that’s how it works. So how did it go?
The directions were very clear and we arrived in good time. There’s parking at the house and at the Bicester North train station just a short stroll away. We parked at the house – and here’s a tip from Tanya. Pulling in is easier than backing in. We backed in and while we did so without damage to the car or the house, next time we’re going to take Tanya’s advice.
Other guests were arriving all about the same time and we were greeted by both Tanya (in chef’s jacket) and her husband John, who was heading up the dinner service that evening. Some people, like ourselves, were first timers to Knife & Fork as well as to the whole pop-up experience but several other were Knife & Fork regulars. This seemed like a very positive sign.
The canapés – roasted red pepper, cheddar and spring onion tarts – were passed along with glasses of Prosecco while guests mingled in the front room. There was a good deal of the usual “Have you come far?” type of thing you get in a room full of people meeting for the first time but John was on hand making sure no one wanted for anything and handing out copies of the menu for people to review.
My husband and I agreed that the canapés were the perfect starter – small, light and delicious with flaky crisp pastry and nicely balanced cheese filling. Admittedly, I seem to have gotten slightly more of the red pepper coming through than he did but we both enjoyed them. If I didn’t know there were 5 courses to come, I could easily have had several more. But I did know so I had two and left it at that.
Soon Tanya came out to make a few last minute announcements about where the drinks were organised (taken upon arrival, they will have set up wine or soft drinks in ice buckets ) and the requisite health and safety information (fire exits to the rear) before we all moved into the dining area.
First up was carrot and coriander soup with carrot crisps. I love carrots and I love carrot soup but sometimes it can be a bit cloying. This usually happens when the carrot overpowers everything else but no such trouble here. The coriander and carrot complimented each other beautifully, but the surprise of the course for me was the crisps. I’ve had many different types of veggie crisps and these were perhaps a bit more chewy than crispy but these were far and away some of the tastiest carrot crisps I’ve had. The carrots natural sweetness was balanced by a bit of saltiness and they added a real punch of visual interest to the plate with the use of the usual orange carrots as well as a purple heritage variety (purple being one of the original colours of carrots before domestic cultivation resulted in orange uniformity).
Next, we were presented with crispy poached egg on pea puree with Parma ham shards. Again, Tanya’s ability to balance texture and taste was highlighted here – the pea puree and ham shards were a familiar and tasty combination and I love a poached egg. The poached egg being crispy fried was a delightful difference, keeping the yolk runny a real show of Tanya’s skill. This may be my new favourite way to have a poached egg.
Crispy belly of pork was the main course accompanied by roasted butternut squash puree, cavolo nero and rosemary potatoes. What can be said about a perfectly prepared belly of pork? Well, I could say that butternut squash puree is as good an accompaniment to pork as any I have had – including the umpteen times I’ve had the more usual apple accent to a pork dish. The crackling was so crispy and yet, almost puffed in its lightness. I’m much less a fan of crackling than my husband and usually give him mine when we have it. But there was no way he was getting any of this.
Then everyone got a cheese plate with Perl Las, Delice de Bourgogne and Sharphams Rustic served with celery, grapes, walnuts and teff crackers. The Delice cheese de Bourgogne was the highlight of this plate for me. I love a good soft cheese – let’s face it, I just love cheese full stop – but even my husband, never normally a fan of soft cheeses, fell in love with it, especially with the salty Teff crackers. I’ll be hunting up both to treat myself at home.
Dessert was hot chocolate soup and blackcurrant ripple ice cream. To be honest, by this time, I wasn’t entirely sure I could do full justice to dessert. Each course had been portioned just right but there had been a number of them. But chocolate? And ripple ice cream to boot. I pulled myself together and went for it. The ice cream was creamy but light and a bit piquant – as one expects from blackcurrant anything. It made a nice contrast to the deep, dark, molten richness of the chocolate soup.
If anything, we both felt that this course could easily have been half the size it was. I love chocolate as much as I love cheese – maybe a bit more – but I was only able to get through half of this decadent delight. Maybe I should have had only one of those tarts at the beginning of the evening?
Coffee and Tea were served alongside trays of apricot and pistachio marshmallows were, and it was only at this point that something felt out of sync with the pacing and composition of the meal – the marshmallows. The coffee was fantastic and from a technical standpoint, the marshmallows could not be faulted. They were light and sweet, possibly better than any marshmallow had a right to be. Of course, I’ve only ever encountered commercially made ones; this was my first homemade marshmallow and while it was, I suspect, among the best of its kind, it didn’t quite make sense to us to have another sweet – even as light as these were – just after that incredibly rich and creamy combo of a dessert.
Each individual dish worked well on many levels – taste, texture, presentation – but they also worked well as part of a whole. The tasting menu is not just a list of dishes – it is a culinary map through a dining experience and this menu was an excellent guide. Tastes and textures were echoed across multiple courses, the aromatics in one serving as balance or counterpoint to the spices in the other.
Another key thing that can make or break a multi-course meal is pace and timing and the pacing of these courses was spot on. It’s a tricky thing to find that balance so the dinner moves along smoothly but isn’t rushed as well as allowing diners to linger without feeling as if they are stuck at the table waiting for the next course.
Obviously, this is not a traditional restaurant dining experience. If you need to have a lot of choices to select from, a set menu situation is not for you. But if what you want is an enjoyable evening out, a relaxed environment and delicious, beautifully prepared and presented food – then you’ll definitely want to check out what Tanya has created in Knife & Fork.