If catering colleges were to do a much needed course entitled “How Front-of-House Should be Run” then I vote that Sally Daniel be its paradigm of etiquette and attitude. There surely is no broader smile and no warmer welcome than hers, as you step across the threshold of this small, perfectly formed restaurant in the heart of Chipping Norton. Seated at, quite possibly, the best table in the beamed house, near the bay window, we were in a prime position for surveying the comings and goings of this popular, family restaurant. Indeed, if you were to read through the scrolling Tripadvisor comments, every customer who has ever dined, or stayed, at Wild Tyme is a vociferous fan. Yes, that most vitriolic and vindictive of customer review sites, that takes no prisoners, and leaves no stone unturned. Imagine how hard you need to work in life to smell of roses on that one?
Today, a Saturday lunchtime, the restaurant was very nearly full, and Sally and her only waitress worked the room without pause, refilling glasses with jugs of water, serving and clearing in perfect rhythm with the bustling kitchen. Wooden floors, Cotswold stone walls, a neutral colour base with splashes of distinctive colour and scatter cushions, the spotlessly clean interior speaks of owners intent on creating a warm, comfortable, unpretentious atmosphere. There is a more private dining room round the back of the main restaurant, which can be used for parties or for when there is a particularly busy night. There is a main bar and coffee serving area, and through a small window in the white kitchen swing door, you can see the blonde head of Nick Pullen, Sally’s partner, as he beavers away at his craft, cheeks red from steam and heat, his steely blue eyes focussed. A tiny kitchen. From whence exits the food of the Gods.
The wicker basket replete with olive, walnut, date, tomato, potato, prune and rosemary homemade breads heralds the road forward. In these premises everything is made from scratch, from local, seasonal, nurtured raw ingredients. You can taste them, and you can also taste a classically trained technique. They serve a very good array of wines by the glass, and the wine list is well chosen, varied and geographically eclectic. The entry level is £14 per bottle. It is harder to categorise the Menu: part Bistro, part French, part Mediterranean and part modern-British, eight starters and eight mains. The chef’s culinary imprint is also, obviously, entwined with years of travel and eating at other chefs’ tables.
The sauted lamb kidneys were soft and pink, on a crispy shallot tart, with immaculately diced butternut squash. The double baked goats cheese souffle was crispy on the outside, yielding into a soft and warm mousse, sweetened by tiny slices of beetroot and a very delicious onion marmalade. The Mediterranean fish stew was gutsy and confident, with its unmistakable saffron aroma and clear seasoning. The risotto was served in the best way at this time of year, with tiny cubes of soft, root vegetables, clothed in a buttery, Parmiggiano richness. Just when we thought we could not eat another thing, the very best was saved till last. An iced banana parfait, so delicate in its smoothness and fragrance, surrounded by crisp, golden caramelised banana slices, figs just lightly glazed with runny honey, and a miniature figgy pudding delicately poised on top. Leaning against this ambrosial tower was a nutty, caramel, praline brittle. A banana pudding addict, I ransacked my gustatory memory, and surmised this might just be the very best banana pudding I have ever had.
If ever there was a list of small, market-town restaurants the whole community wanted to see succeed, then Wild Thyme is, surely, at the top of it. As we shopped all round Chipping Norton before and after arriving at the restaurant, shopkeepers and residents all effused and gushed praises and clucking noises at the mere mention of Sally and Nick. I now know why. Lucky, lucky, lucky Chipping Norton.