A Partridge and a Pear Treat

I must confess, I was slightly confused when I was asked if I would be interested in reviewing a game night at a Chipping Norton pub.

It took a full 10 seconds for the penny to drop that it would be an evening involving eating meat from wild animals, rather than Cluedo, Monopoly and Scrabble. Once I realised, I had no hesitation in accepting.

Game, much like offal, is one of those things that separate the true foodie from those that just eat to stay alive. Many turn their noses up at the thought of eating something that was living in the wild, even branding it cruel to make a meal of a creature that was shot (while, ironically, tucking into factory farmed produce). Many worry about biting into pieces of shot. Others just don’t like the gamey taste. But isn’t flavour what makes food so great?

So it’s three cheers then for the Blue Boar in Chipping Norton for starting a regular Game and Wine Night, to celebrate the delicious food that so many shy away from. And all washed down with matching wines.

It’s a booking only affair, with a limited three-course menu, but it is all the better for that. Assistant manager and all-round cheeky chappie Christian Grant creates a welcoming and friendly atmosphere for the diners, making it more like a dinner party than a meal out, especially in the Blue Boar’s spectacular dining area created in the former stables.

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Well, it did differ from a dinner party in at least one way – it started with a demonstration of how to skin, bone and prepare items of game, including grouse, a pheasant and even a decapitated roe deer. Definitely not one for the squeamish, but if it’s your thing, it was a fascinating and entertaining glimpse into butchery.

We returned to our tables to find a little treat waiting for us – wild boar Scotch eggs and wild boar sausage rolls from the pub’s bar menu. As someone who has munched his way through tonnes of these sort of snacks in his time, I can honestly say they were the best I’ve ever tasted. The sausage meat was sensational, the pastry was perfect and the egg yolk was still runny.

The starters kept up the high standard. My local wood pigeon breast with butternut squash and sage risotto was a marriage made in heaven, with the rich bird – almost livery in flavour – complemented by the sweet, autumnal flavour of the squash.

My wife loved her crispy duck leg croquette with poached pear, but the star of the dish for her was the celeriac remoulade – coleslaw-like shreds of the raw root vegetable in a sweet, tangy mayonnaise dressing – she wouldn’t leave the restaurant without extracting the recipe from chef Dale Ventham.

So now we entered the business end of things with the mains. For me, whole roast partridge with bubble and squeak, roasted parsnip and redcurrant jus. The bird was nice and moist, thanks to it being vacuum-packed and cooked in a water bath before being brown off before serving. The bubble and squeak was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and loaded with potato, carrot and cabbage, while the parsnip was a lovely sweet accompaniment. I would have liked a bit more redcurrant in my gravy, but nevertheless it was a lovely dish.

My wife’s venison, wild mushroom and celeriac pithivier was a hearty pie, served with roasted heritage carrots, shallots and a port jus. The aniseed flavour from roasting the veg with fennel seeds got mixed reviews, and the jus could have done with an extra glug of port, but the pastry was crisp, and the filling was rich and moist.

We might not be counting down the 12 days of Christmas yet, but it seemed fitting to follow partridge with a pear. It was poached in port and served with a crunchy walnut crumble and was beautifully light and not over-sweet. A seam of thick, almost cheesy clotted cream filled the inside of the pear, providing the ideal contrast in flavours. Sublime.

My wife’s cheese board was equally impressive, including Oxford Blue and Alex James’s little Wallop. Rock and roll.

All the courses were matched with a specially chosen wine, plus a glass of fizz to start and port to finish. Which makes the price of £35 per person exceptionally good value.

So, I would judge this first event a success. Bring on the next one: game on.

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Gastro Gateway to Gluten-Free Gluttony

I RECEIVED a warning from a colleague before setting off to try the gluten-free menu at the Cotswold Gateway in Burford.

“Watch out,” he warned. “My wife’s coeliac and she has these gluten-free pizzas – you’d be better off eating the cardboard they come in!”

And so it’s presumably because of preconceptions like this that the Gateway has been championing its extensive gluten-free menu, which even extends to the beer, with its bottles of Wadworth’s 6X Gold suitable for coeliacs.

I say ‘extensive’ because the gluten-free menu is only a tad shorter than the ‘normal’ one. And it was full of pub classics and hearty fayre, the stuff that makes you really want to tuck in.

I started with the char-grilled asparagus with micro cress and – something I had been hoping to try for quite a while – a crispy duck egg (£7.75). gateway eggThe green spears were a seasonal treat, and the char-grilling gave them an extra dimension. Drizzles of hollandaise were the perfect accompaniment.

The crispy coating for the egg was a bit dense, but the egg yolk still has a softness to it – enough to encourage the dunking of a tip or two.

 

 

My wife opted for the river mussels from the specials board (£7.50), and was rewarded with tasty, plump shellfish in a lovely creamy broth, that just begged to be mopped up with the slices of gluten-free bread.

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Fancying a bit of fish, I plumped for sea bass for my mains. It came on a warm salad of chickpeas, sun-blushed tomatoes, potatoes, green beans and olives (£15.95) and was a fine combination of flavours.

The bass was advertised as baked, but the skin arrived beautifully crispy and golden, and the fillets were moist and full of the delicate bass flavour. gateway sea bass

It was obvious that the kitchen knows its way around a piece of fish.

The Mediterranean-style accompaniments worked really well with the dish, especially the tomatoes which were like little sweet and sour explosions for the mouth. My only criticism would be the lack of a sauce or dressing to hold it together, although a dollop of mayonnaise did the trick.

Sauce was certainly not lacking from my wife’s thick-cut entrecôte steak with chunky chips, grilled tomato, dressed salad and creamy blue cheese sauce (£22.95).

A fine cut of sirloin, perfectly cooked – charred on the outside, pink inside, as ordered – the tangy blue cheese took it to the next level. The plentiful chips were beautifully cooked too.

If the gluten-free ambitions were likely to fall short, I figured, it would probably be in the desserts. I went for one of my favourites, sticky toffee pudding, served this time with the almost ubiquitous salted caramel ice cream (£6.95).

Taste-wise, it hit all the spots – it was sticky, sweet, and the creamy ice cream perfectly complemented it. The texture was what let it down ever-so slightly – I prefer mine with a bit more substance and this one could have been a touch firmer.

There were no complaints about the Baileys and espresso brulee however, with it’s very grown-up custard, hidden under a crisp layer of melted sugar. Surprisingly light, it was a lovely dessert.

We washed it all down with the aforementioned 6X Gold (£3.95). I confess to being more of a lager and stout drinker, but this beer was light, and certainly didn’t overpower any of the food we had.

The atmosphere was extremely friendly, and the waiting staff were a delight. It’s a pub, not a restaurant, and that gives it a warm, relaxed feel, without an ounce of stuffiness.

The menu is not going to win any prizes for innovation, but it’s not setting out to. It’s producing rib-sticking, bold food with more than a nod to classic, local combinations – starters also included smoked mackerel, ham hock terrine, plus mozzarella, peas and broad beans, while the mains offered a wonderful sounding honey glazed ham on bubble and squeak with poached eggs. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘home-cooking’, because it’s several notches above that, but I hope you know what I mean. And while the prices are not particularly cheap, it would be hard to argue that they’re not good value when it comes to quality and portion sizes. Well, we were in Burford.

The Cotswold Gateway, 216 The Hill, Burford OX18 4HX 01993 822695

www.cotswold-gateway.co.uk/home

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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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/