A Spoonful of yummy at Knife & Fork

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When life gives you lemons…freeze them!

Ever had the odd occasion when you want a cheeky gin but ice and a slice means cutting up a lemon which will then go to waste?

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One option is to have G&Ts until the whole lemon is vanquished. Alternatively, you could try this clever tip…

Chop your lemon, pop the slices in a container and put it into your freezer – next to the bottle of Hendricks, which obviously tastes better under zero degrees! Next time you want a gin and slim, take a slice from the freezer for instant ice and a slice. And if you sip slowly enough (not possible after witching hour on a Friday) the lemon in your glass will defrost as you drink! Cheers!

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Bellissimo Italia!

THEY’VE played around with the menu at Bella Italia since our last visit in the summer.

In have come a few new starters and desserts, plus – what they are most proud of – some additions to its fresh pasta menu.

As a family, we were invited to try the new dishes out. Well, family is what Italian food is all about, isn’t it? And our table resembled something out of a Mafia movie banquet scene when the delightful waiting staff brought out our plates of pasta.

The new ravioli dishes we tried – pollo robiola (£12.95) with sunflower shaped fresh pasta parcels filled with cheese and rocket, combined with roasted chicken in a rich red pepper sauce; and panzerotti funghi (£11.25) with half-moon shaped fresh pasta parcels filled with mushrooms and served in a mushroom and spinach sauce – were lovely, rich bowls of comfort food.

The fillings were full of flavour and the sauces packed a punch. Ideal food for a winter’s night.

The children demolished their creamy tagliatelle carbonara (£9.95), fighting with each other for the crispy rashers of pancetta on top.

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We had started with the new chicken wings Italiano (£6.45), in a tangy balsamic barbecue glaze, served with a cooling garlic and lemon mayonnaise, which proved so popular that the children nearly came to blows when arguing who got the last one. Arancini funghi (£6.25) were also a tasty hit – deep-fried balls of mushroom risotto with a lovely tomato dip. Both were great “messy food”, which was a great excuse to use our fingers!

As for desserts, tops for me was the new orange cheesecake (part of the shot glass desserts – three for £5.25 or five for £7.95), a sweet, creamy, citrussy treat. The morello cioccolato (£5.75), a hot chocolate cake with rich cherry sauce, was also delicious, if a bit cloying.

It was all washed down with some great alcohol-free mocktails, and we left feeling as stuffed as the ravioli.

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What would we do if Italians didn’t make such yummy food? I have absolutely no idea where we would take children for a fail-safe meal during a day out! It’s true that most ristoranti d’Italia offer a good choice in pizza, pasta and antipasti, but if you want a really great selection of freshly-made dishes, in my opinion, you can’t beat Bella Italia.

Bella Italia,14-16 George Street, Oxford 01865 791032 bellaitalia.co.uk

Turning Japanese (I really think so!)

IN THE words of Anchorman Ron Burgundy himself: “Well, that escalated quickly.”

Invited to review the Yo! Festival menu at Yo! Sushi’s George Street branch, my wife and I might have gone slightly overboard on the conveyor belt of gluttony.

For the uninitiated, diners help themselves to dishes as they circulate the restaurant, with plate colours indicating the prices, ranging from £2 to £8.50.

We had just planned a light lunchtime bite. By the time we squeezed out of our funky booth, we had demolished no fewer than 17 dishes between us. And therein lies the beauty – and the danger – of Yo! Sushi. It’s incredibly convenient, genuinely fast food, and all-too tempting to have just one more dish.

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Those people put off by the thought of raw fish should note that there is more to it than sushi. And if what you want is not on the conveyor belt, then just ring a bell and order one. Beware, though, the siren that you launch is not for the faint-hearted: It’s the booming vocals of an angry Japanese woman.

From the blue menu, highlights included the chicken katsu curry – breadcrumbed fried chicken with boiled rice and oriental curry sauce. A real crowd-pleaser.

The duck gyoza were also a treat – rich meat in a crispy dumpling with a hoi sin dip. Yasai yakisoba was a very tasty noodle dish, and the spicy pepper squid was really crispy.

We watched some Japanese diners to find out the correct way to eat the edamame beans (tip: DON’T eat the whole pod – they are not mange tout) and they were pretty moreish.

The popcorn shrimp (£5), deep fried, battered and in a sweet miso sauce, disappeared in seconds, as did the Japanese sea bass (£6).

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The sushi rolls were also great, coming as they do with a huge variety of fillings, although salmon and tuna feature heavily.

Star dish, though, was the hot and sticky sweet beef teriyaki. So good we had to grab a second from the belt.

Our meal was topped off with a rather yummy selection of Japanese soft drinks, including yuzu and pear juice, and Ramune Soda (billed as Japan’s oldest soft drink).

We left feeling bloated but stumbled back to the car sated! We didn’t take the sprogs this time, but I know they’d love most of the food – almost as much as the concept of tiny dishes travelling round the conveyor. Maybe next time…

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Yo Sushi, George Street, Oxford. For more information, go to yosushi.com.

Thaikhun

WE’VE all heard the old joke: “Waiter, waiter, there’s a bug in my food.”

“Please keep it down sir, otherwise all the diners will want one.”

Well, the people at Thaikhun – the ultra-funky Oxford Thai street food restaurant – seem to have taken this message to heart when they unveiled their new children’s menu.

As an eye-catching gimmick, all kids’ meals come with tubs of crispy creepy crawlies. It certainly caused a stir with our four young diners, aged between eight and 12.

We were invited to the George Street venue to give our verdict on the new menu for youngsters, heralded as “unique and refreshing in its approach the ‘mix and match’ concept”.

Children get a pot of crunchy vegetables to start and an ice lolly to finish, and can then custom-build their main course.

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They get to choose noodles or Jasmine rice, then grilled chicken, pork or mixed vegetables, plus a sauce – nut-free chicken satay, slightly spicy green curry or sweet BBQ. There’s also phad thai or breaded chicken and rice with a sweet chilli sauce. They all come with juice, water or milk and cost £5.95.

The restaurant was bustling when we arrived, and were ushered to a table where one set of seats was built out of an old boat – a big hit with the children, but not so good for the aching backs of the ageing parents.

It has to be said, the children’s meals didn’t go down particularly well. The first mistake was the plates they were served on – reminiscent of American-style school trays, with compartments for each item. It accentuated the difference between the adult and children’s food, and looked a bit canteen-ish.

The grilled chicken was a bit dry, the sauces were reasonable, but it was all a bit underwhelming on the culinary front.

My friends’ 12-year-old Niamh said: “What I really liked about Thaikhun was the ambiance – it was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the lay out of the whole restaurant, from the working traffic lights to the idea of turning a boat and a bathtub into seats.

“The decorations and the music too really gave of the feel of a street in Bangkok. The service at Thaikhun was also very good; the staff were all very smiley and friendly.

“One of my few criticisms would be the children’s menu. I was disappointed with the lack variety and the presentation of the food on it, particularly the dessert. After seeing the variety on the adults’ menu I was expecting a little more than just a mini milk ice lolly.”

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However, as if to prove that siblings hardly ever agree, her 10-year-old brother Johnny said: “The kid’s menu at Thaikhun was lovely although I wasn’t so pleased with the dessert. I’d expected more then a mini milk although this might be based on younger children.

“The creepy crawlies though were a clever and delectable addition to the meal.”

Yes, the bugs were a hit with three-quarters of the youngsters around the table, and even the adults were forced to give them a try.

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Not that the grown-ups had any need to resort to eating insects. Our food was sensational, beautifully presented, and really delicious.

I couldn’t find fault with my barbecued pork on rice (£11), with unctuous pieces of belly pork and a sticky, lip-smacking sauce. My wife’s spicy seafood noodles (£11.50) were equally eye-catching, full of huge mussels, prawns and squid. One of these meals – I’m not sure which, but I polished it off anyway, just in case it was mine – came with a superb, clear savoury broth that proved a perfect palate cleanser.

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Our friends went for the curries – well, when in Thailand… – and made short work of their aromatic chicken massaman (£11.50), with chunks of potato, cashew nuts, and a hunt of cinnamon, and the almost obligatory prawn Thai green curry (£13.50). It was the sort of meal where everyone is eyeing up each others’ food to see who made the best choice – and no-one could decide.

I’ve never been to Thailand, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but I have eaten poor Thai food and this was most definitely not poor. Very, very, good, fresh-tasting and consistent quality.

Desserts were almost as good. I devoured the banana fritters with vanilla ice cream (£5.50) and a lovely, sticky syrup – or at least I would have done if my children hadn’t kept stealing spoonfuls of it from me. And the Thai waffles with green tea ice ice cream (£5.50) also disappeared in an instant.

So, much like Brexit, the generations were divided. But hopefully we can come together if they decide they can manage another taste of Thailand in the future. I’ll let them choose though – I promise not to bug them.

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Despite its faults, Thaikhun scores 8/10

For more info, go to thaikhun.co.uk

 

The Pint Shop

img_2880Walking into The Pint Shop in Oxford’s restaurant-packed George Street is a little like walking into a 1960s pub – although it’s actually inspired by the beer houses of the 1830s. The venue looks sparse, with the type of benches and bar stools I can only remember from the dingy dives frequented in my university days. But don’t be fooled. This new bar-cum-restaurant is so on-trend, providing a wealth of ales, lagers and stouts for the would-be craft beer connoisseur, as well as a menu of 102 gins. While Marc supped on pints (including a deeply chocolatey stout called Holy Cow Bell), I tried my hardest, dear reader, to sample as many of the gins as I could. I simply ran out of time.

Below the bar is a simple and spacious restaurant which immediately makes you feel relaxed. The staff are friendly and know exactly what they’re talking about (whether your question is booze or food related). The food is cooked on coals – giving the meat a rich charcoal edge.

Browsing from the menu got my taste buds exercising, and choosing was a trial that no-one should have to endure on a date night! Just so many of the dishes looked enticing to someone normally used to a sloppy TV dinner in front of The Apprentice.

Marc had the unusual shrimp pasty with pickled red onion to start, while I had the southern fried chicken with saffron aioli. Both were delicious, although we agreed that while the pasty pastry was delicious, it did slightly overpower the prawns inside.

For main, I plumped for venison haunch, with squash hash and crispy sage, while his nibs had an all-time favourite: pork belly (cooked deliciously overnight) with braised hispy cabbage in an apple and mustard sauce.

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Both plates were soon depleted, along with the side orders of honey roasted carrot, celeriac and parsnips, red cabbage slaw with cider mayonnaise, and triple-cooked spuds – which were divine, despite the fact that I had failed to notice that they came in a truffle cheese sauce (yes, I am a Philistine who does not enjoy truffles!) Be warned, would-be-Pint-Shopper, the sides are big enough for two or more people, so you really don’t need too many.

At this point Marc and I were both sated, and had little room for anything else, so we sacrificed the coffees and begrudgingly had puddings instead *winks humourously*. Not wanting to mix my drinks, I decided on the gin float.img_2887

This was the most beautifully delicious damson sorbet bobbing in Broker’s gin and framed by a yummy ginger snap.

Marc was slightly disappointed at the size of his tiny espresso and chocolate pot, until he realised it was such a dark, rich delight that it was more than enough to savour with the accompanying shortbread.

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All in all, an evening well spent. Great food and drink, and welcoming staff wrapped in a friendly and relaxing hostelry.

Date night score: 10/10img_2889

For more information, go to pintshop.co.uk/

 

Amuse Bouche

Welcome to the Evans troops. Marc is the real foodie and has been an avid lover of cuisine since time immemorial. Whether its Chinese or a Sunday roast, Marc is the man to have around the kitchen.

Vikki eats the food Marc produces and, as chief parent, tends to be in charge of the nightly battle to nutritiously sustain the children! We’ve all been there: prepare a delicious meal and spend hours persuading the little ones that you’re not trying to poison them; cook an oven ready meal, which they wolf down with ease, and feel the guilt for the rest of the evening (over a well-deserved glass of plonk).

Can’t win can we? Well, we hope to help.

Grace, aged 10, and Barney, eight, will be guiding us through the pitfalls of this blog. The girl is a tea-time treasure, while the boy prefers to eat breakfast like a king and starve himself for the remaining 23 and a half hours! But both of them love eating out, so we’ll be reviewing all the places we eat.

Enjoy!