Formal Hall at Kings carries an aura of mystery, partly because it happens once a week, partly because it sells out online within 2 minutes and partly because it is incredibly difficult to get a ticket if you are at any other college. You would think for the most expensive formal in Cambridge (£15 without wine) that it would be absolutely mind blowing. But I have to say often Kings is a bit more pomp and circumstance than actually substantial. They have the mindset of a michelin chef with foam here and jelly there, but often they mismatch the flavours, ignoring the basics and focussing on showy presentation, forget about the textures or fail to pay attention to vegetarians and allergies. For example I was sitting next to my friend one time who is a vegetarian and allergic to nuts. Whilst we were given a fancy looking pigeon salad with hazelnuts, popcorn, pigeon breast and leg, raisins and dressing, he was given a large slab of goats cheese (no bread) a few salad leaves and some popcorn. In fact goats cheese is a pretty standard kings fare, but you would have thought for a college that prides itself so much in its culinary prowess that it refuses to lower costs for students because it would be "changing the nature of the event", might be able to think of something interesting to do to goats cheese other than serve it as a huge raw slab.
However often Kings often steps up to the plate (my halfway hall dish of pigeon pastille was particularly tasty) so I entered this ' Thanksgiving Superformal' with high expectations. Besides I sometimes secretly wish I was American because Thanksgiving seems like such a good excuse for a huge meal a couple of weeks before Christmas. Plus it is rather exciting going to Kings formal, because it only happens once a week, everyone dresses up )some even in black tie) and it definitely feels like a big event rather than just a meal.
Kings hall was certainly meant for these sort of events and getting to eat in a hall that resembles Hogwarts more than any other college hall is almost worth paying the extra money for. (The price you pay for this ambiance however is that the mood lighting sometimes means you can't see what you're eating, so if the photos are a bit fuzzy I apologise). They certainly hadn't stinted on the decorations. There were American flags everywhere, hats, turkey pictures, napkins, hats and american flag boppers which entertained us while we waited for the fellows to enter. Included in the price of formal was a cocktail. It looked good, but I don't think anyone knew what on earth was in it. On my table there were rumours of champagne, rum, whisky, cranberry, orange….I'm pretty sure not all of them were in it. U4 who was sitting next to me protested it was to sour and promptly added two large spoonfuls of sugar to his.
The starter looked pretty interesting with a twist on the classic thanksgiving pumpkin pie in savoury form with minced up cranberries, I was impressed with the garnish and the cranberries with toasted pumpkin seeds were the thing that lifted the dish from an okay rather un-flavoursome mushy tart to a rather tasty dish. While the filling for the tart could have been made better, the pastry was crisp and the whole dish had a wholesome feel to it, not sure it was worth the extra £2 for super hall….. On the bright side I could have had assorted textures of vegetables which my gluten free friend, Stornoway, got as a substitute. They had made a bit of effort, cutting up the beetroot into odd shapes and pureeing some of the veg, but that was literally all it was, no protein or anything…. One thing Kings has got up on the other colleges is their bread and butter. Not only is the bread soft (and occasionally warm), but also they shape the butter into lovely little flower shapes, which are so much better than those awful, hard little wrapped cubes of butter most places will give you.
For the main we were presented with a roast chicken breast, garnished with a sweet potato 'fritter' (which tasted and looked surprisingly like a dumpling), collard greens (essentially cabbage) a little jug full of sauce and a chargrilled piece of corn. My main gripe with this dish was the corn. For a place that wants to maintain a strict formal atmosphere, Kings really shouldn't have given us a piece of food you can only eat by picking up with your fingers and unattractively munching on, getting food all over your face. The malt (male-alto) opposite me decided to to compare it to finding David Cameron in Kings bar, not suited to its surroundings. It could have done with a ton of butter, or really anything to lift it from just being a piece of corn. The chicken breast was cooked really well though. I'm always pleasantly surprised when I find that a kitchen has managed to mass produce well cooked meat and this chicken was succulent and flavoursome and tasted even better with the gravy (plus I always find it incredibly satisfying when I get to pour things myself, and I love mini sauce jugs). The collard greens were pretty boring to be honest but the sweet potato fritter (whilst having the odd texture of a thick mashed potato cake ) was actually really tasty even if the texture didn't really add much. It was sweet and salty and bursting with sweet potato. I was very pleased that this time kings didn't overcomplicate this by adding too many unnecessary foams/popcorn/jelly. In fact the only hint to Kings nouveau cuisine approach to formal was a little smudge of sweet potato puree which was likewise really tasty, sweet and salty. I thought that this was a reasonable portion (Kings formal can occasionally leave you feeling hungry). I think Kings are finally starting to get the message that students want simpler, tastier and bigger amounts of food.
After a little light Acappella entertainment (another perk of super hall, I presume this is where my extra £2 goes), we were brought the dessert. I honestly had no idea what key lime pie was before, and Im not necessarily sure I know what it is now. As far as I can tell from Kings, it is a cheesecake with a faintly lime flavoured cream. I was a little disappointed that they didn't appear to have put lime zest in any of it, which might have made it taste more limey. It was delicious, but it wasn't key lime pie. In order to add a nouveau cuisine twist, we were treated to a really good, thick dark chocolate ganache but a disappointing 'chocolate soil' (another favourite of Kings) was just bitter to the point of tasting like a burnt crunch, it probably would have been better to have extra biscuity base for crunch. The imagination again appeared to have run out for Stornoway. The gluten free offering was textures of fruit (balancing out textures of vegetables from earlier), again they had cut them up into interesting shapes, but it seemed a shame that whilst they were paying the same amount, those with allergies weren't given a dessert with similar substance.
On the whole Kings did seem to have toned down the pointless foams and jellies, the portion sizes were satisfying and the overall impression was of a tasty, filling meal. However they did fall short a few times on flavour and execution. I'm still not sure that they couldn't do more with the money they have (the price we pay is subsidised by college). Nevertheless I'm still excited for Christmas formal next week.