Oporto’s resident purveyors of plant-based junk food are launching their Christmas menu. Thomas Chalk put on his party hat and novelty jumper and started his festive season early.
While I’m not a total Scrooge, Christmas isn’t something that particularly excites me, so I’m not perhaps Knaves’ natural audience for their festive menu. Indeed, I’m not even much of a fan of gravy. But, as my Santa-esque waistline attests, I’m not averse to a good feed, so I approached the preview of this set of dishes with an open mind and an open mouth. We were treated to a sample of almost everything on the menu (and if you can find three wise friends, the four of you can have one of everything for £50). There are four mains, three sides, and a dessert, some very obviously Christmassy and some less so – and not a sprout in sight. (To me this was a shame, but no doubt many of you out there are delighted by this!)
First on the mains is the Moist-Maker Xmas Burger. Whatever else I may think of the legacy of Friends, I have to give it credit for introducing the idea of a gravy-soaked slice of bread in the middle of a turkey sandwich, which I contend is the best use of gravy yet discovered. The burger, a hearty slab of vegan roast turkey with a satisfying crumb coating, is sandwiched with roast potatoes, gravy-soaked toast, and Christmas slaw. There’s more gravy on the side, though the toast does its job well enough so it isn’t needed. The slaw, simply finely shredded cabbage, provides a textural contrast without being present in such quantities as to do anything so unfestive as feel misplacedly healthy. For me it would have benefitted from a little mustard to sharpen the edges of the flavour, but that’s a minor quibble.
Next, we had Seitan’s Little Helper, a seitan bratwurst with cranberry ketchup, vegan bacon, crispy onions, and smoked sriracha mayo. The name was seasonal, sure, but the hot dog – which I would happily eat spring, summer and autumn as well as winter, for the record – will for many evoke fewer memories of Christmas roasts than the burger. Some of the people at the preview felt it was a little dry as a dish, but I disagreed, finding the sausage to have just the right amount of chew, and the accompaniments to enliven proceedings without overpowering it.
Boxing Day Fries feature more vegan turkey, this time smaller pieces, uneven to better allow them to develop gnarly, crispy edges. Allotment gravy – gravy mixed with peas and carrots – was not wholly to my taste, but again remember that I am Grinch-like about gravy. The fries were dusted with Christmas spice – a savoury mix more about herbs than mulled flavours, and the whole thing was topped with generous scraps of puff pastry. Gravy notwithstanding, I gobbled more of the turkey than was strictly necessary for reviewing, and can report that the remaining pieces which I brought home and ate from the fridge two days later were still delectable.
Last of the mains, and arguably the biggest departure from what you might expect of a Christmas menu, was the Fully Loaded Pizza Stocking. This was a calzone-style folded pizza. This bread was fried on the outside but hadn’t become greasy, and contained sliced vegan sausage and mushroom with tomato sauce and red onion jam. Much like the bratwurst, I found the sliced sausage particularly appealing. ‘Stocking’ name aside, there was no attempt to introduce a Christmassy note to this pizza, and nor did there need to be.
We sampled two of the three side dishes on Knaves’ menu. I’m Stuffed are mashed potato and stuffing balls served with Guinness gravy, and vegan Cauliflower Cheese Bites are self-explanatory. Both provided another source of wonderfully crispy coating which cracked under your teeth like a new snowdrift under a wellington boot. The interiors were appealingly moist, though for me needed a hint more sage in the stuffing and a few hints more rosemary in the cauliflower. Crucially, while the cauliflower wasn’t particularly cheesy, it also wasn’t vegan cheesy which can be off-putting for some; the cauliflower flavour stood up for itself without having an over-boiled sulphurous quality (which may for some be the key to Christmas nostalgia, I suppose). Also on the sides list is Roasties And Gravy, which we didn’t try but which would probably be great if you are a gravy fan.
There is just one dessert on the menu. Pumpkin Spiced Waffle is much as you’d expect – sweet, warm with cinnamon, and loaded with vegan cream and Northern Bloc’s ever-excellent vegan vanilla ice cream. A berry compote is dark and rich without drifting into mince pie realms of heaviness, and blueberries serve the same role as the slaw in the burger, providing a contrast while not detracting from the indulgence. The waffle is light and fluffy, which we are told is thanks to the use of Binary Botanical, a low-alcohol beer that our hosts explain has notes of wine as well as its hops infusion.
I may not have changed my mind about Yuletide nor about gravy, but I came out of Oporto into the mid-afternoon light with a definite sense of goodwill to all, and a strong desire to have a sleep in front of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. And if that isn’t a sign of me succumbing to Christmas tradition, I don’t know what is.
All photographs by George Harrison.