You get to Midsummer House across a Common, walking past grazing cattle. The house itself is on the river bank, with a weeping willow nearby: a lovely setting yet only a few minutes’ walk from the historic part of Cambridge. Daniel Clifford’s cooking has a reputation for modernity, yet for the most parts the chemistry set cooking was kept firmly in check: just one test tube appeared in the meal.
What follows are notes from a meal in January 2012.
The dining room at Midsummer House recently had a facelift, and the restaurant now seats 55 at full capacity; there is a private dining room and lounge area upstairs. We ate in the main conservatory, which has a view over the attractive garden. Gougeres made with Parmesan, gruyere and cheddar appeared, along with a Blood Mary sorbet, as we considered the menu choices: a tasting menu at £75, and a lengthier one at £95.
The wine list has almost 300 wines available, ranging from £28 to £8,000, and an unusually high average price of £274, reflecting an unusually wide range of fine wines, such as several vintages of Penfolds Grange Hermitage and Henschke Hill of Grace. Mark-ups average around 3.3 times retail price, but vary significantly throughout the list. For example Ant Moore Riesling was a chunky £49 for a wine you can find for under a tenner, Chateau Musar 2003 at £85 for a wine that retails at around £17, yet VDP de l’Herault, Domaine de la Grange des Peres at 2002 was at £120 for a wine that you can find for £57. The grander wines can also have quite high mark-ups e.g. Grange Hermitage 1985 at £900 for a wine that you can find for £204 in shop, yet Mouton Rothschild 1996 was listed at £900 yet costs £397 to buy. Bread is made from scratch and was of high quality, both brown and white bread having good texture (7/10). Mineral water was £4.75 a bottle.
Paris mushroom velouté with coffee jelly and shallots was an unusual idea, the flavours coming through strongly; coffee would not have been my personal choice with mushrooms, but it was interesting (5/10). I much preferred very carefully cooked fillet of salmon with a cauliflower and almond puree, white chocolate and caviar sauce, quetta (a grain), roasted chopped almonds and braised iceberg lettuce. Cooked lettuce is not really my thing, but the salmon was lovely (7/10). Also excellent was a single large scallop, timed to perfection and retaining its natural sweetness, served with celeriac puree, and a garnish of truffle and julienne of apple, with a blob of apple caramel. This was a simple dish yet superbly executed (8/10).
White Cornish crab meat was mixed with tomato and cucumber, shaped into a disc and topped with avocado and garnished with coriander and savoury tuiles: crab and avocado is a classic combination of flavours, and the elements were of high quality (7/10). Sea bass was pan-fried and tucked under a decorative disc of fried lettuce, the fish resting on a base of Jerusalem artichoke puree, pickled Jerusalem artichokes and chicken jus. The use of pickled artichokes was a clever idea, adding balance to the rich chicken jus (7/10). Venison was coated with cocoa nibs and roasted pine nuts, served with dried sweet corn, parnsips and cabbage braised in Douglas Fir butter with shallots cooked in raspberry vinegar, served with a pool of sauce thickened with chocolate. The venison was excellent, the sauce suitably rich, the cabbage a good foil for the venison (7/10).
A pre-dessert consisted of caramel on which was fennel, marinated black olive and lemon cream, with a black olive tuile as garnish. This just seemed odd to me: I don’t really know how to score it. The desserts we ordered were, by contrast, back in normal territory, with no shrubbery in sight. Poached figs and dates had excellent flavour, served with fig cannelloni, gingerbread ice cream and cinnamon (7/10). I really enjoyed a superbly made pistachio soufflé, the airy texture excellent, the mix inside cooked evenly and having lovely pistachio flavour throughout (8/10).
Coffee was unusually high quality, served with excellent puff pastry flavoured with kirsch and deep-fried, with a filling of apple compote, custard and calvados. The apples used actually come from the three apple trees in the garden of the restaurant (8/10). A range of chocolates was also offered of assorted flavours: tamarind, coconut, bay leaf, orange, mint, pistachio, and there was also a whisky sour jelly. Service was faultless, and the bill came to £134 a head. Classy cooking.
What follows are notes from a meal in May 2009.
The a la carte menu was £68 for three courses, with a tasting menu at £85 and a lunch menu at £38. The substantial wine list has plenty of well-chosen growers at mark-ups that apparently are regarded with horror by some locals yet seem almost fair after the gouging lists of central London. My favourite Italian white wine, Vintage Tunina 2004 is £76 on the list here compared to a retail price of around £26. Leeuwin Art Series Shiraz 2004 is £59 for a wine you can buy in the shops for around £14, while at the more rarefied end of the spectrum, Kistler Vine Hill 2004 is £231 compared to a retail price (if you could find it) of around £100, while Opus One 1997 at £244 is a relative bargain, since this could set you back getting on for £200 in the shops these days. Bread is made from scratch and is a choice of either white or brown slices, both very good, with airy texture (7/10).
A palate cleanser of pink grapefruit and champagne foam was a pleasant way to begin, and was refreshing (6/10). This was followed by an enjoyable dish of smoked haddock with grain mustard and mustard cress, the elements going really well together, with a barely cooked egg lurking in the depths of the dish and giving an enjoyable additional flavour and sensual texture (7/10).
My scallops were hand-dived, plump and sweet and served whole rather than sliced, which is just as they should be. They were nicely timed, served with celeriac puree, a little caramel and a fan of Granny Smith apple slices giving some welcome acidity (strong 6/10, pushing 7/10). Other enjoyable starters tried by my companions were home-smoked mackerel with excellent pickled cucumber, bourbon, caviar and lime, and a confit of red mullet with Parmesan puree and Iberico ham.
My main course (which featured on the Great British Menu TV series) was slow-roasted pork, with pork belly, Savoy cabbage, apple and shallot. The pork itself was excellent, with cooking juices poured over it at the table, and the cabbage was very good indeed. A garnish of a stick of crackling gave a pleasant crunchy texture contrast, while a fondant potato was hollowed out, with a little pork inside (8/10). This was, by common consent, the star of the main courses tried.
Cheese was supplied by Premiere Cheese. I often complain about cheese boards in England (many of which are supplied by this company), but often I think it is restaurants not being careful enough in selecting cheese that is ripe, rather than the suppliers necessarily being at fault. Certainly the mix of English and French cheeses here were in perfectly good condition (7/10).
A pre-dessert of tiramisu was very good, the coffee flavour quite restrained (7/10), and with a fine chocolate sorbet having perfect texture. My dessert of apple tarte tatin was enjoyable, but the pastry seemed a little undercooked (6/10), and while the garlic and bay leaf ice cream on the side was not as weird as it sounds, who would sensibly choose this over just a vanilla ice cream? A test tube of apple puree was a good demonstration of why a test-tube is a silly way to serve food, since fiddling around with a straw to get at the contents of the test-tube was, for me, just an annoying distraction.
A generous round of very good beignets and a selection of chocolates were served with the aromatic, strong coffee. Service under Hervé Dubois, who I always felt was one of the better maitre d’s in the UK ever since his time at the Capital and at the old Petrus, was very good indeed, efficient and attentive without being intrusive.
Overall I found this a very enjoyable experience, the caveat being it did not really hit the culinary heights as often as I had hoped it might; however this was as much to do with my elevated expectations as to any problem with the dishes. There were no real errors, the menu was enjoyable, the cooking capable, the setting and service lovely.