STILL chattering with excitement, the crowds outside the Giffords Circus big top began to disperse, some back to their cars to wind home through Blenheim Palace’s twilight skies, others, ready for more, headed for Circus Sauce.

Unremarkable from the outside, the white marquee, once opened, revealed a bohemian world of gastronomy, which for many signalled the highlight of the evening.

Styled like a film set, the decor was a wonderful meeting of worlds, both retro and contemporary, old and new, town and gown, all designed with an unmistakable sense of humour, and an homage to seasonality and locality.

Welcoming and enticing, the trestle tables stretched away from us, lined with dripping candles, flowers in jam jars, Emma Bridgewater crockery (the pottery guru is Nell Gifford’s half sister), circus performers scattered throughout and the general public, delighted to have booked a place in what is one of the country’s best pop-up restaurants.

Large groups sat together, others socialised with newcomers, all sharing their food in the convivial atmosphere created by Circus Sauce’s head chef Ols Halas.

What was initially a much smaller operation back in the day – a one man band with a tarpaulin attached to a caravan – has metamorphosed into a much bigger and more efficient operation.

Which means the 60 seater restaurant now involves numerous chefs, all passing up and down the long interlinked mobile kitchen at the back, painted the unmistakeable Giffords burgandy, and managing to produce such exquisite offerings I wondered why chefs bothered putting down roots anywhere permanent.

The amuse bouche whetted our appetites, as we sipped our BYO chilled rose, the arancini shaped balls of mash, peas and mint served with a spiced mayonnaise, beautifully seasoned so you could taste the pop of pea and the hint of mint, the soft potato contrasting with its crispy shell.

Then the starter – a nettle soup with penny buns, which alarmed some, worried about their tastebuds, until they dipped into the rich green concoction and the flavour dumbfounded them.

Penny buns it turns out are like savoury profiteroles, in this case stuffed with a thick porcini sauce, the perfect accompaniment, like emerging into the culinary equivalent of a forest glade, an ambitious undertaking at the best of times, let alone in a pop-up restaurant.

Then a deep-fried breaded aubergine slice with caponata – a Sicilian vegetable stew - laid in a rich tomato sauce for the vegetarians, and maple roast duck with braised fennel and walnuts for the carnivores, brought over on a giant serving platter to share. But the piece de resistance was the root vegetable gratin, more of a dauphinoise, its creamy cheesy sauce and the soft bite of the mandolin’s thinly sliced offerings, baked slowly in cream, garlic, thyme, nutmeg and plenty of seasoning, to give it that rich, creamy, moreish texture, grilled for maximum enjoyment. I could have eaten the entire bowl with a spoon.

Meanwhile the wine was flowing, the conversation ebbing and the portions generous as the circus atmosphere and conviviality spread.

But then an announcement; the chefs entertainment was about to begin and up went the hatches to reveal some very promiscuous puppets hanging their spindly legs over the edge, flirting, singing and frantically trying to remember their lines, reducing us all to stitches, as the in-house cabaret section kicked into action. It was a brilliant note to finish on, and yet the fun wasn’t over.

A triumphant finale was still planned in the form of a resplendent and defiantly camp dessert that Liberace himself would have been proud of, rather representative of Giffords itself I thought.

As for dinner, with food like that I can see the attraction. It’s certainly a good enough reason to run away with the circus.

Katherine MacAlister

Circus sauce, Gifford’s

Oxford University Parks until sunday