Knife & Fork pop-up restaurant, Deddington, north Oxfordshire
IT WAS an evening of surprises. Subconsciously, as we rolled up the drive of the huge country pile on a chilly Friday night, I suppose I had some preconceptions about the idea of paying £45 a head for a meal in someone’s home.
Maybe I feared it would be a bit twee – home cooking with ideas above its station. Perhaps I didn’t want to spend an evening making small talk with strangers. I don’t know – I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Those fears were quickly banished as we were greeted at the door like old friends and had glasses of fizz shoved into our hands. The diners – up to 16 on any one evening – can mingle over drinks and canapés while infectiously bubbly chef Tanya Young and her helpers put the finishing touches to your feast.
Tanya is coeliac herself, which is why the menu is gluten-free. Not that you’d notice, or feel you are missing out on anything.
“Most of my diners are not gluten-free and are amazed to hear they’ve just had a gluten-free meal,” says Tanya, an accountant-turned-chef who has returned to her childhood home of Deddington – via France, Singapore, Devon and Bicester – to set up a restaurant in her house, opening a few weekends a month. Overnight stays are also available. Word is spreading, and slots get booked up quickly.
“Having lived in France I had always dreamed of running a home restaurant,” adds Tanya. “Not knowing the menu was always part of the fun of visiting these little restaurants, so I wanted to recreate this dining experience – a sociable environment where guests could enjoy top-quality food in a relaxed atmosphere. I decided to just do it and Knife & Fork was born.”
One bonus, as far as I’m concerned, is that diners bring their own drinks. Water is provided (including a lemongrass-infused concoction on our visit), but the alcohol (except the welcoming glass of fizz) is up to you, depending on how cheap or flash you want to be.
And the menu is fixed – and very seasonal – so fussy eaters should beware. You get what you’re given. But on the evidence of my visit, what you’re given is very, very good indeed. And with five courses, plus some bonus extras, chances are there’ll be something you like.
We started with sirloin steak canapés, thick, tender mouthfuls of succulent, rare beef with a light horseradish cream. A perfect appetiser.
Then we were ushered into the dining room for the starter proper – a little mug of delicate pumpkin soup served with mixed nuts.
The soup was a real winter warmer, sweet but not overpowering, and the lightly spiced nuts were a perfect accompaniment to the squash.
Next up was the fish course – beetroot marinated gravadlax with remoulade. Again, a perfectly executed dish, with the clean taste of the salmon enhanced by the sweetness of the beetroot.
The remoulade was rich and earthy, with a beautifully balanced mayonnaise. And it was as pretty as a picture.
Altogether more substantial was the main course. Three-bird roasts can be a bit hit-or-miss, but this one was excellent, if a tad dry.
Chicken, Guinea fowl and duck, combined with a sausage stuffing, studded with pistachios and wrapped in bacon and served in generous slices.
Good as the meat was, the vegetables were arguably the stars. The onion purée was a sweet, savoury treat which I could have licked straight off the plate if I wasn’t in polite company. The cavolo nero gave the dish an irony hit, and the carrots were lovely.
We helped ourselves from a huge bowl of extremely moreish roasted new potatoes with their skins on, perfect comfort food alongside the gravy (that’s right; gravy, not jus).
Another unexpected treat was the intensely-flavoured apple sorbet to cleanse our palates before the cheese course. This came in the form of a blue cheesecake with caramelised walnuts and a glass of Madeira.
A really innovative take on cheese and biscuits, it came with a grape and celery salad in a tangy dressing that cut through the richness of the cheese.
Dessert was a new take on an old favourite – Black Forest baked Alaska with cherry sauce and toasted almonds. The combination of chocolate cake, cherries and cream is a classic in my eyes, and the addition of ice cream under a light meringue was a fun twist.
The almonds also lifted the dish, adding another dimension of texture and flavour – one of the hallmarks of Tanya’s cooking all night.
Make sure you book the babysitter until midnight (or splash out on bed and breakfast) because we were there almost until the small hours enjoying coffee and the most exquisite petit fours of chestnut and fig truffles. They looked dense and heavy but were light, melted in the mouth and tasted amazing.
We left feeling like we had joined a special club, or been let in on a little secret. A secret I now must share with you all.
For more information about Knife & Fork and to book, visit www.knifeandforkeatery.co.uk.