The gentle clink of glassware; the soft murmur of relaxed conversation; the flicker of candlelight. The smell of freshly cooked food; the pop of a wine cork; the ensuing, ever-alluring glug of the liquid into a glass. A meal at your favourite restaurant is one of life's great pleasures; an experience to savour slowly. And now we've been so cruelly deprived of it, it's something we miss more than ever. But all is not lost. Whether you're opting for a takeaway or whipping up a feast of your own creation, there are many ways you can recreate the restaurant experience at home.
We've enlisted the help of Alissa Timoshkina, author of Salt & Time: Recipes from a Russian Kitchen and the brains behind supper club company Kino Vino to share her tips for creating a memorable meal within your own home. Sadly there's no way of getting someone to serve you or do the washing up (could you bribe the kids with sweets?) but you can't have it all, you know.
At first I was a bit surprised at how well I was coping with the new lifestyle of social distancing during the quarantine. While not being able to see friends and engage in my usual weekly practises like going to yoga or a play session with my toddler was absolutely heartbreaking, the idea of cooking and eating at home everyday, three times a day, worked extremely well for me. It felt quite natural.
And then I realised that perhaps my Soviet childhood, albeit very brief, had had an imprint on how I view food – the cooking and the sharing of it. During the Soviet era going to eat out at a restaurant to most people was as alien as going to the Moon. Some people, like my beloved great grandma Rosalia never ate at a restaurant. So cooking and eating at home really was part of our social DNA.
While eating out over the last 10 years has become a hobby that gradually led to a career change from the academic world to the world of food, I feel that these difficult times are in a way crucial for us to reconnect to the essence of food, and what is a better way of doing that than to cook your meals yourself from start to finish.
Eating is not only about physical sustenance, at least not to me. It's as much about an aesthetic pleasure as well as a memorable experience – you know that moment, when you pause in the middle of a heartwarming dinner and think, "Yes, I will remember this magical instance for a long time. It is now part of me".
Of course, a lot of those moments might be reserved for those special occasions like birthdays or weddings, but I'm talking about the seemingly mundane every day. Any dinner, any breakfast can be that moment for you.
So may I suggest you just pick any evening this week and create a special dinner for yourselves, recreating that indefinable, heart-warming sensation you'd normally get from the prospect of dining out at your favourite spot.
Make it as elaborate or as quick as your lifestyle and family situation allows you to. Before I became a mum, I used to love those brainstorming sessions where I would make myself a cup of tea, pull out all of my favourite cookbooks, spread them all out in front of me on the floor and go through each one by one. You could have a very clear idea in your mind already and look specifically for, say, Middle Eastern recipes, or you can be completely open-minded allowing your imagination and your book collection take you anywhere they please.
Keep it simple for your own stamina... And don't forget there'll unfortunately be the cleaning up part as well. Not to mention factoring in kitchen size and the stomach size of everyone involved. I'd stick to no more than three elements – not necessarily courses as such, but perhaps an oven roast of sorts, with a salad and a dessert, or a little mezze spread with some homemade flatbreads.
I absolutely love fiddling around with table decor. Keep that in mind while you're planning your menu – perhaps the colour scheme and the dishes you make will inspire the presentation of the entire table. I love creating a little dialogue between the two elements.
You can never go wrong with linen napkins; they just elevate the whole experience. Add some some greenery on the table ( I love using my mini cacti instead of flowers – they're easy to look after and and just so cute). And of course, some candles will never go amiss. If you have a small dinner table and there are a few plates on the go, then dot the candles around the room and use as little electric ceiling light as possible.
Even if it's just you and your partner, family members or flatmates who see you in your pjs all the time. It's such a great way to get you out of the 'staying at home' mode.
Turn the chore of cooking into an experience by adding a glass of fizz and a little aperitif board of olives, bread and olive oil. You can savour the nibbles and the process of cooking while anticipating the main dining event. You could even start with one of The Indytute's gin masterclasses.
Make a playlist that will enhance your dining experience; perhaps taking you back to your favourite holiday spot or songs that you usually hear at your favourite local restaurant.
OK, so you now know how to create the restaurant experience at home. But here are our ideas for how to bring the outside in. They're almost as good, promise...