By Stephen Bywater
The Knife and Cleaver is your smart gastro-pub: trad yet modern, quirky yet familiar, hip yet at ease with itself. Locals line the polished bar and there’s the scent of aftershave and ale. In the dining area, with its hint of a gentleman’s club, there are couples and fours and sixes, spread discretely. The lighting is low, intimate, and you talk freely, breaking only when the attentive waiter, in our case Stephen, takes our order.
There’s plenty of choice for the drinker, though I stick to an Estrella, which in comes in the proper glass. The designated driver chooses a tomato juice and is happy with the brand.
We decide just to have the one starter, pacing ourselves for pudding. Again there’s plenty of choice and a specials board with a sweet potato gnocchi, bacon crisps, smoked garlic puree. Intriguing, but we opt for the stone baked pizzetta, with honey roast garlic and rocket. It arrives in good time and we’re not disappointed. There’s a softness to the centre, and the flavours are distinct but not overpowering.
For my main I’ve chosen rosemary and garlic pork belly with pancetta mashed potato, braised fennel and Cox apple sauce. Lucy has opted for the chickpea, cauliflower and coconut curry with steamed wild rice. Both are beautifully presented and both show an attention to detail which makes my use of the term gastro-pub seem somewhat insufficient when trying to convey the chef’s culinary expertise. I once worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Cheltenham and my dish is certainly worthy of top-billing on their menu. It has the most exquisite ‘jus’, a word I rarely use but one I feel captures the drizzled sauce. The fennel is braised to perfection and the pork itself is as tender as any I’ve ever tasted. It’s certainly a dish that I’ll keenly recall whenever hunger bites.
The chickpea, cauliflower and coconut curry with steamed wild rice equally delights the diner. It’s described as fragrant and mild, and the slivers of fresh coconut and sprinkled pomegranate is a touch that’s warmly appreciated.
For pudding there’s bitter chocolate tart with orange chantilly, cocoa tuile, and an autumn berry and pear Eton mess. Both are works of art and both have delicate lemon balm micro-seedlings sprinkled over them as a finishing touch. Needless to say they’re both delicious.
I’m already looking forward to our next foray to Houghton Conquest, a trip over the road to visit the church, a country walk and then into the pub for ciabattas and wraps (served 12.00-6.00), mine’s going to be ginger and lime pollock fingers, spring onion, toasted sesame and soy mayo. Or perhaps a cup of soup at £3, with some skinny fries at £2.50.
The Knife & Cleaver,The Grove, Houghton Conquest MK45 3LA
theknifeandcleaver.com tel: 01234 930789