Bad news for newt-lovers

L'AMANDIER; 39 Burleigh Street, Cambridge CB1 1DG. Tel: 01223 518322 Open evenings Monday to Saturday, 6.15-11.30. Set menus: two courses, pounds 11.95; three courses pounds 15.95; four courses, pounds 17.95. All major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
IT IS quite possible, on a dark night, to walk the whole length of Burleigh Street in Cambridge without seeing L'Amandier. Perhaps I should rephrase that. It is quite possible, if you are extremely stupid, to walk the whole length of Burleigh Street without seeing L'Amandier. Burleigh Street, I discovered later, is a victim of Sixties planning, a once-flourishing bustle of down-market shops, largely inhabited, my informant said, by colourful down-market villains who were forcibly transported to an outer suburb. The planners have left behind a bleak and lifeless pedestrian precinct, where on a wet night cyclists with whirring dynamos slish past in the dark, an outer annexe to a grisly new Mall. Only the old Co-op Building - the Co-op itself shrunk to two small shops - stands witness to its former proletarian glory. There, however, if you look carefully, you will see, round the corner from Blockbuster Video and above a French patisserie, an illuminated shop-sign for the first-floor French restaurant. It was recommended to me some weeks ago by a reader, and I'm only sorry I didn't get there sooner.

I'd arranged to meet a Cambridge academic friend there, and he had no idea it existed. It has been going for about a year, and is authentically French. The telephone is answered in that language for those who wish to show off their linguistic skills and general savoire-vivre. The restaurant occupies one medium-sized and rather functional room. The decor is plain, with a few coloured wall lights, candles in glass shades on the severe black lacquer tables, red paper napkins, a few French posters and tastefully dim pictures evocative of the homeland.

I got there first, very early, soon after seven, when the restaurant was deserted, had a glass of whisky and sat in the candlelight chatting to the lone proprietress/manageress/ waitress (I didn't actually enquire which she was, though someone called Franck et son equipe were listed on the menu), a robust food enthusiast who talked about the restaurant's plans for possible expansion. She also talked down a squawk box to order my complementary amuse-gueule, some little hot pastry rolls with anchovy. A jazz violinist , presumably Grappelli, scraped away on the tape, and it all seemed very agreeable after the dark and cold outside.

Then my academic friend arrived, and Mademoiselle - actually English - drove us through the menu and the blackboard. She was quite bossy in a friendly way, and advised us against eating too much bread as the portions were big ones. Were we intending to have the cheeseboard, because if we were she would go and bring it up to room temperature (take it out of the fridge). We said we were and she did. The menu offered Alsatian roquefort quiche with salad, seafood vol-au-vent and a chicken liver and walnut salad, but she recommended the New Zealand mussels and the frogs' legs off the blackboard, which we pliantly accepted. After that we considered the main courses on the menu - lamb chop with tarragon sauce (all this was in French as well, by the way), poached chicken, pepper in the Provencal manner and beef stroganoff, but we again chose from the blackboard, he having duck and me a steak au poivre. I also accepted her suggestion of the most expensive red wine on the shortish list, a Bordeaux Chateau Bois Malot 1990, which cost pounds 17.50 a bottle but which cheered us up no end.

We then floated off into the wilder realms of historical speculation. Did the United States start the First World War in order to destroy European power? How did General de Gaulle react to the British and South African capture of Madagascar in the Second World War, till then part of the French empire under Vichy? What were some of our nice old contemporaries, now in the House of Lords, up to in Harold Nicolson's unpublished diaries of the Fifties?

It was quite a wrench to have to think about the food. My mussels - quite why they had to come all the way from New Zealand I forgot to ask - were smothered in garlic sauce and delicious. My friend's frogs' legs looked tragic, lying there in the sauce like sun-bathing nudists who had come by some terrible accident and been lopped off at the waist, their little buttocks uppermost. He gave me one poor little torsoless corpse to taste and I remembered why I never order them: the texture of reptilian chicken, the thought of eating them very distressing to any newt-lover.

Nonetheless the sauce was very fine and authentic, and like everything else at L'Amandier seemed to be made with serious love and commitment to cooking. By the main course I think the conversation had gone downhill into gossip about the London Library, but his duck seemed very good - I noticed he didn`t offer to share it - and my steak au poivre, though a bit flat in shape and gristly at the edges, was somehow very good in spite of that, served with very French chips.

The cheeseboard was a slight disappointment. In France, I thought, it would have been a real board with massive bits of cheese. Here it was a plate with mildly grudging lumps, but the goat cheese was perfectly all right and went very well with the wine. We finished off with two things from the menu, a Normandy pancake stuffed with apples and an orange mousse with chocolate sauce, both of which tasted very good indeed.

I think we may have had a glass or two of armagnac with the coffee, but I would still strongly recommend L'Amandier to anyone looking for good food in Cambridge. It is not cheap, but we did rather push the boat out. The bill came out in cashregisterbabble but I finally persuaded Mademoiselle to write it out in English and it all came to pounds 72.85 without the tip.