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Culture: Putting the focus on food, by Rhoda Morrison

Teal risotto
Teal risotto

Rhoda Morrison enjoys a dining experience with The Teal Dining Club, which could just re-invigorate the dinner party

In the same way that video killed the radio star, social media has dug a grave for the dinner party.

With the rise of Instagram has come the fall of ‘ugly’ food and poorly-lit settings. Hearty portions, gravy stains and mismatched plates don’t stand a chance against the world of ‘fine dining’, where everything has been poached, pressed or puréed to perfection.

Upon first glance, The Teal Dining Club in Bury St Edmunds doesn’t pass the Instagram test.

Held twice a month in The Centre, St John’s Street, guests are asked to take one of 10 or so seats around a large uneven table hidden under a white tablecloth.

With it’s eyesore-salmon walls and posters pinned to notice boards, The Centre is a world away from the spectacular views, extensive wine lists and string quartets that London, Paris and New York restaurant reviews are made of.

But that all changes when the food comes out. As we settle in our seats, wine and conversation are flowing – the club doesn’t have a licence to sell alcohol but guests are welcome to bring their own.

Chef Daniel Riches appears from a tiny kitchen area – which has probably only ever known stale biscuits and diluting juice before now – with an amuse bouche of gaufrette potato with roasted shallot purée and a soft-boiled quail’s egg.

It’s small but delicious and, along with wholemeal brioche and smoked local butter, it changes the atmosphere completely. In just a few bites, a very average community hall becomes a restaurant.

The menu for the first event of each month is based on seasonal Suffolk flavours, which have been sourced from the local area, with the second menu later in the month exploring tastes from around the world.

As a vegetarian, the starter for me is wild nettle and mascarpone ravioli with glazed swedes and nutty pumpkin oil. You may think I am missing out the pan-fried sea bass with crab salad and saffron potatoes but although that looks and – judging by everyone else’s reactions – tastes delicious, you’d be wrong.

The pasta is fit to burst with filling, and cooked to the point that it holds its shape on the plate but melts in the mouth, while the sticky orange swede adds the crunch that is needed to bring the whole dish together.

I should warn you, the service here isn’t quick. Nor is it slow. It leaves the perfect amount of time between courses, time for stomachs and tastes to settle, to top up wine glasses and ask more questions, because you know that when the food does make an appearance, no one will be interested in talking.

While everyone else enjoys venison loin with Suffolk chocolate, my main course is free-range slow poached duck eggs with pearl barley and chard risotto and purple sprouting broccoli.

The eggs have reached that heavenly stage, the golden hour of eggs that is a thing of legend in the average British kitchen, where they are in limbo between being runny and hard, the yolk forming a gloop that binds to the food rather than flooding it. Let’s just say if they had been on a bed of toast and crushed avocado, Instagrammers would have been going mad for them.

But instead, they are paired with the risotto and broccoli, making for a texture and taste sensation.

Between the main and dessert comes a warm chocolate mousse which is really more like cappuccino foam in a glass than anything else. But it’s sweet with an aftertaste of really bitter chocolate – the perfect precursor to what is to come.

Stem ginger cake with forced rhubarb, rhubarb sherbet and honey ice cream is for dessert, though the heat of the kitchen has reduced the ice cream to a thin sauce, much of which has been soaked up by the sponge.

I had been looking forward to the ice cream but after one bite of the warm cake, which now has an accidental cold, creamy filling, all is forgotten and forgiven.

As someone who rates ginger and rhubarb among my favourite foods, this dessert is everything I’d imagined and more. The spices in the sponge are perfectly distributed and complemented by the sharp rhubarb and sherbet.

Just when I think I can’t eat anymore – none of these plates have returned to the kitchen with anything left on them – teas and coffees are brought out, along with a selection of petit fours.

My waistline does not thank me for the apple tarte tartin fruit pastilles, white chocolate and Baileys fudge, and hazelnut and praline truffles I devour, but my tastebuds can’t get enough.

And nor can anyone else. Just about everyone at the table asks if they can be squeezed into the next event – a Spanish night on Wednesday, March 28 – which is now fully booked.

They get up and leave together, chatting as they go. Parting ways, plenty of ‘lovely to meet yous’ and ‘see you agains’ are thrown about, just like old friends leaving a dinner party of the past.

None of them are leaving with their heads in their phones, fixing a filter or checking the number of likes on a picture of their dinner.

They’re leaving with full tummies, new friends, and an invitation back in a couple of weeks.

In this day and age, trying to attract people with the prospect of dining with strangers can’t be easy but The Teal Dining Club seems to have done it, and done it well.

This is an ambitious menu and perhaps an even more ambitious idea which, walking in, I thought may not work. But the quality of the ingredients, cooking and service makes the £40 ticket seem like a steal.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be reading the last rites to the dinner party just yet. The Teal Dining Club seems to have thrown it a lifeline.

To book into an upcoming session, visit thetealdiningclub.com

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