Dining in Cambridge
Sunday, January 08th , 2012
Having been to a restaurant called 35 this week, I tried 36 this week (I did actually try to get in to the new 34 on Grosvenor Square too, but couldn’t get a table at a sane time). I guess that coming up with inventive restaurant names is getting more difficult. 36 is at The Dukes Hotel in St James, and now has chef Nigel Mendham (previously of Michelin-starred The Samling) at the helm. The ambition of the level of the cooking is quite high, and only partially succeeded. The best dishes, such as a quail starter, were good, but there were a number of issues and a general tendency to over-complicate dishes. I have noticed a lot of ambitious UK chefs tend to want to add just one more garnish to illustrate how sophisticated their food is. By contrast, cooks such as Michel Guerard in France (3 Michelin stars for over 35 years) sometimes produce dishes with just two or three elements on a plate, but you can be sure that these elements will be impeccably sourced, flawlessly cooked and exquisitely balanced. It was quite early days for 36 and things will doubtless evolve, but it didn’t quite hang together for me, and all at a price point that means that it should do.
Apsleys was on excellent form this week, delivering superb tasting menu for a friend’s birthday. Course after course of high class food appeared, with highlights including a superb pigeon dish with mustard seed sauce and a slow-cooked egg with Alba truffles. The meal was between 7/10 and 8/10 level i.e. firmly in two Michelin star territory, and this is a restaurant that gets much less attention than it deserves in the food media. The food has improved steadily since its opening, and is now operating at a very high level indeed.
Cambridge (pictured) has two restaurants of note, and I was able to try them both on this visit. Alimentum served up an excellent meal, with very prettily presented, technically well-made food. I particularly enjoyed my ballotine of quail, and the cooking of Stella’s halibut main course was extremely accurate. I enjoyed the fun desserts, such as a modern take on Black Forest Gateau. I was surprised at how moderate the prices are here, given the high quality of the cooking, and there is an excellent and fairly priced wine list to boot. I have no idea why this does not have a Michelin star.
Midsummer House was also on fine form: it has a pretty riverside setting, and very precise cooking from Daniel Clifford’s team. An example of this was a superbly cooked salmon starter, but all the way through the tasting menu it was hard to pinpoint a technical error. To be sure, there was the odd touch that was not to my personal taste, but there is no doubt that this is high class cooking. The maître d’, who I remember well from the glory days of The Capital Hotel, is a star in his own right.
My meal at E&O this week was pleasant but a little below par compared to previous visits. A ginger cheesecake for dessert was the best dish, and a fried sea bass dish was fine, but a couple of other dishes, while they did not have real errors, were just not that interesting e.g. a somewhat unbalanced som tam salad with soft shell crab whose batter was a little on the greasy side. This was still a perfectly pleasant meal, and not overly expensive, but seemed to be slipping below the level of prior meals here. I have nudged the web site score down a point to reflect this experience.