A dining phenomenon that has taken London by storm, supper clubs (or underground restaurants) are gradually extending their reach across the UK. Either held at the homes of keen amateur cooks (or sometimes professional chefs) or organized in unusual spaces, these pop-up dining destinations take many forms. They all have one thing in common though: the ability to bring strangers together over a shared love of food. Some supper clubs are regular, while others, including Oxford's Ball Green Door, are more sporadic, but all must be booked in advance. After perusing a menu, diners either purchase tickets in advance or email to secure a place before their destination is revealed to them: shrouded in secrecy due to their lack of licence, supper clubs should appeal to all those mystery lovers who like a side of the unknown with their steak.
Taking advantage of the Ball Green Door's last date for this year, N and I booked tickets for a Friday night. For £25 including a welcome drink, the price compared favourably with Oxford's restaurants: but unlike visiting a restaurant, we weren't quite sure what to expect. After attending two very different supper clubs (Fernandez & Leluu and The Shed) while living in London, I wasn't a complete novice, but as each experience is unique, shaped by the host's ideas and tastes, I was excited to see how an Oxford take on the phenomenon measured up.
Arriving at our destination, we were welcomed by friendly waitresses and presented with a sloe gin sling. The softly-lit room was buzzing with chatter as strangers broke the conversational ice, aided by a sip of alcohol. We took our seats on one of three tables of six and introduced ourselves to our table mates: a couple and 2 brave solo diners. Communal dining sets supper clubs apart from a traditional restaurant experience: although many people attend in pairs or small groups, over-dinner conversation is the norm. Sometimes this takes the form of awkward and stilted chit-chat; sometimes common ground is found, laughs had and issues debated. Fortunately, the latter was the case at The Ball Green Door, and I can safely say that it's the friendliest supper club I've attended to date.
|Beetroot and horseradish blinis|
Our starter of beetroot and horseradish blinis sprinkled with poppy seeds was an ideal entree: light, tasty and fresh, it was enough to whet the palate and tantalize us with a hint of what was to come without being too filling. Timing was impeccable; we had just enough time to chat and relax before the next course appeared. Slow-cooked beef shank osso bucco for the meat eaters and stuffed portabello mushrooms for the veggies, the mains were served with a chunky potato gremolata and green beans. Despite the generous portion size, our table polished their dishes off in record time: the meat was tender and slid off the bone, melting in the mouth, while the mushrooms had a robust quality and were so flavoursome I put aside my reservations regarding stuffed vegetables. In fact, I may even be a convert: the rich tomato sauce certainly packed a punch and with its help the mushrooms made for a satisfying main.
Sufficiently stuffed with two delicious courses and oiled with the wine our tablemates kindly shared with us, there was time to rest and chat about every imaginable topic: we even covered those dinner party disaster areas of politics and religion without any kind of disagreement occurring. This triumph was possibly surpassed by the dessert, though. Chef Charlotte's pear and frangipane tart with masala chai ice cream was, as N declared, 'the winner'. The delicate flavours of the poached fruit and the frangipane, the perfectly made pastry and the subtle spice of the homemade ice cream made this a moreish pudding I'd be happy to see on a restaurant menu.
|Pear and frangipane tart - this photo does it no justice!|
Wrapping up the evening with Oxord Blue cheese served with rowan berry jelly followed by coffee and homemade chocolates, our table concluded that good supper clubs have the edge over restaurants. Attending one is risky, though: unlike a restaurant, you can't be quite sure what you're going to get at a supper club. A keen chef is presumably not always a good chef, you need only watch an audition episode of the X Factor to see that some people's belief in their own talent is sorely misplaced. Although food and venue are key factors, your fellow diners are the biggest gamble of all: the people who share your table have the power to make or break the experience. Luckily for us, our tablemates were excellent company; fun and easy to talk to. After a lovely evening of well-cooked, unfussy but excellently executed food in interesting company, I realized that the best supper clubs combine the ease and sense of occasion of dining out with the convivial, relaxed atmosphere of a friend's home. And with prices lower than most restaurants and a bring your own policy, their appeal in these financially hard times is understandable. In an age where independent restaurants often have to fight for survival as town centres are engulfed by chains, supper clubs are putting the personal touch into dining.
I wasn't sure I'd ever give anywhere full marks, but the food, setting, service and company at The Ball Green Door were worth it.
Unfortunately we attended the last dinner at The Ball Green Door for the foreseeable future, but keep checking their Facebook page for updates. To find out more about our evening The Ball Green Door and other 'dining with a difference' ideas, tune in to my slot on Jo Thoenes's show on BBC Radio Oxford on Friday 28 October from 1pm. I'll be discussing other supper clubs in Oxfordshire, as well as some other unusual dining destinations. You can listen here.