It was a cold, wintry evening in late November when,aged 33 and three quarter years, I experienced my first vegan meal. Not just any vegan meal, I hasten to add.
Located halfway down the ever-popular Call Lane in the heart of the City lives a popular little hideout named Oporto, and if you venture inside this Yuletide you’re bound to have your festive socks rocked by the creative ‘Chief Leaf’ of Knaves Kitchen, Sam Thomas, who is something of a genius at bringing those indulgent, heart-warming dishes we all crave at Christmas to the table without harming animals or the environment.
I was welcomed in to the darkness of Oporto by manager Ross who asked what I was drinking, then responded to my “Oh, I don’t know; something festive!” with confident autonomy. No questions asked, he rustled up one of those deliciously dangerous cocktails you’d happily sink ten of because they don’t overpower you with the taste of pure alcohol, and I enjoyed every last drop of it within the comfort of this zany little venue, bathed in deep red neon lighting.
A group of us were led into the room next door – an open kitchen awaited, as did a table adorned with the festive family favourites we all know and love – crackers to pull with friends (filled with paper hats, terrible jokes and miniature bottles of Jägermeister), just the right number of fairy lights, and low-level Christmas crooners drifting through the speakers.
Between you and I, dear reader, I was a little bit nervous. My understanding of a vegan menu was limited and I was afraid that something might be ‘missing’ somehow.
Wrong I was. On every level.
The Knaves Kitchen Christmas special was kicked off with excited chatter around the table of family traditions as we all pulled crackers and raised a glass of warming mulled wine in ‘cheers’.
Sam came over to introduce himself and offer a little insight into what inspired his Christmas menu:
“I really wanted to put an emphasis on the joy of a homely Christmas, and that actually, home can be in different places for different people,” he told us with a smile.
For Sam, home was many a place, which is why he was bringing together flavours from as far away as Japan as well as those local to Leeds.
In no time at all we were sampling sharer plates of his lovingly crafted starters such as the Winter beetroot Borscht with sour cream and Dill (sourdough for dipping of course), and zingy Tempura kohlrabi dunkers with lemon and chilli salt and a parsnip sriracha.
All kinds of sensations and flavours were going wild in my mouth, firmly putting to rest any notion I may have had that vegan food lacked oomph or flair.
My absolute favourite dish came along as a starter, too. The ‘Jack Frost’ – a Peruvian jackfish ceviche, corn croquettes and sweet pepper aji was completely moreish; the combination was nothing short of a taste sensation in my humble opinion and I was a bit sad to see them fly off the plates so quickly – indication that I was not the only fan around the dinner table that night.
As Sam picked up pace in his kitchen, we were served a sophisticated little Christmas cocktail of gin, Prosecco & peach liqueur to get us into the spirit, which certainly did the trick.
I went on to experience my share in vegan burger to outdo all burgers – roast Moroccan butternut squash and pistachio burger, piled high, and with a texture that crumbles in your mouth in the same way pulled pork would, it totally sent my mind boggling. I couldn’t actually believe how similar to taste and consistency these items were to those non-vegan, all-meat versions.
The mains, and all the festive trimmings just kept on coming. Diners are spoilt for choice this Christmas, with dishes such as the Christmas würst accompanied by boozy shallots and parsnip bacon (another one of those ‘wow’ moments for me to try an alternative to bacon that looked and tasted the same),
The wild mushroom and seitan Wellington was a sight to behold and was delivered and served with TLC before my very eyes, and drizzled with proper gravy. I confess, the flavour of Mushroom was a little on the strong side for me, but the sides of mulled cabbage, rosemary-infused roasties, and buttered greens gave me all the festive feels.
By the time dessert came rollin’ round I was beginning to wonder if someone might need to roll me out of Oporto’s den and down to the station, all merry and full, but as no Christmas dinner is ever truly over until you’ve squeezed in pud, I didn’t need much convincing to try out the utterly insane offering.
Decadent Christmas pudding truffles with a side of brandy custard for dipping was a fabulous end of evening surprise, especially when paired with a light Vegan Baileys.
I’d really enjoyed it and felt it only right to let Sam know how well received his food was, especially as an honorary vegan for the night. As we had a little chat and I reflected on the standard of food, it was difficult to believe that Knaves Kitchen was only in its first year and that a Chef as talented as this guy was merely two years in.
“I truly believe that all the changes to humanity and civilisation that are ever going to happen are first discussed whilst enjoying a good meal around a table,” he said, holding a hand to his heart, “So if I can produce plant-based food that tastes phenomenal and get people talking about its positive impact, that’s good enough for me.”
You can book in and enjoy a Knaves Kitchen Vegan Christmas yourself here.
Photographs provided by Hanglands PR.