EATING OUT / All the dining room's a stage: Midsummer House, Midsummer Common, Cambridge
Sunday 04 September 1994
Inside, the stage is set. Every surface - the walls, doors, banisters, radiators, everything - is painted in a mottled blue. The floor, too, is covered with marble-look tiles in the same colour. A flowers-and-birds frieze runs along the dado rail. The effect is of serious luxury, deep, dark and almost menacing: interiors magazine Florentine palazzo meets Derek Jarman's The Tempest.
From the hall you pass into what would have been the 'two-down' in the house's previous incarnation as lock-keeper's cottage, now a small dining-room and reception area, and through to the conservatory extension where most of the tables are. There we took our seats on the extremely wide-bottomed chairs (perhaps for the wide bottoms of the Cambridge businessmen who have honoured Midsummer House with their Best Business Lunch award), for the evening's performance.
Our taxi driver from the station (who had dined at Midsummer House and loved it - though it wasn't as cosy as his favourite local eaterie, Restaurant 22) had informed us that it is part-owned by Chris Kelly, the journalist and presenter of the BBC's Food and Drink Programme. I don't know if he wrote the menu but it had the ring of someone who enjoys the sound of food. Every item contained a story - certainly enough detail for a short poem. We learnt the colour of our tuna's extremities, as in 'grilled yellow tail tuna with toasted sesame set on a noodle and beansprout cake, balsamic and thyme jus (cooked pink)'; the time taken to bake the tomato terrine (eight hours); and how our scallops met their end ('scuba-dived').
As I placed my order for the seviche of scuba- dived sea scallops served with citrus on arugula leaves, our waitress's expression slipped from helpful to concerned. She explained that perhaps I had not realised that seviche was the same as ceviche with a 'C', many people didn't, and that if I didn't want my scallops raw, though marinated for 24 hours, I could have them gently poached. This was an accomplished performance; she left not a nano-pause for me to reveal my ignorance.
While we waited for our food to arrive - my companion had ordered the long-gestated tomato terrine - we looked to see who the producers had laid on for our entertainment. I spotted a couple of A-level students with their parents - that day the results had been announced - but my friend, preternaturally young-looking himself, had them down as young Tory MPs, possibly in their first PPS jobs.
Beside us, in the more intimately lit dining- room, a diner a deux. The night before, Desmond Morris had revealed to the nation that it had been 'scientifically proved' that shared meals form part of the elaborate courtship ritual of the human species. I can now gladly offer my observations to add to the body of scientific evidence: at the start of the meal she leaned forward, he back; then he forward, she back. By the end they were forehead to forehead, palm to palm. Could Professor Morris's intrusive cameras have been hiding in the soft furnishings?
The scallops were fine - though I wish I had dared to have them raw - and you could taste the trouble they'd gone to with the tomatoes. The climax of the evening, however, was the main course. My companion described his sauteed sweetbread and veal kidneys in shallot and Dijon mustard sauce as achieving the fragile balance you want from offal - between delicious and disgusting. I didn't think I could pass up the opportunity to try hare in chocolate sauce - more properly, fillet of hare in summer cabbage in barolo sauce with a hint of bitter chocolate and fresh pea croquettes. (The use of bitter chocolate with meat is a Mexican thing, I'm reliably informed.)
It was amazing: medallions of butter-tender hare, wrapped in a thin layer of pate and cabbage; the croquettes, perfectly spherical and nestling in a water-lily-shaped potato basket, the sides made of the thinnest crisps, the base of mashed potato. For those who like to eat out what they would never ever make at home, this was the dish. And all this conspicuous effort tasted alarmingly good - straight-to-Addenbrooke's rich, but delicious.
In a feeble fantasy that I might re-create the effect myself, I asked the matre d' what was in the pate. She returned with word from the kitchen that it was chicken, herbs and cream. Had she spoken to the chef? No, he was not here tonight.
This was the first hint of the real-life drama we had stumbled into. Hans Schweitzer, creator of this extravagant menu, was not there that night, nor the next - nor would he be ever again. He had gone to Barbados. It gets better. He had gone to perform his magic at the Sandy Lane Hotel, a place still no doubt recovering from being Michael Winner-ed. In January, the film director and restaurant scourge of the Sunday Times revealed that he had spent pounds 29,000 for 22 nights there and, to put it mildly, the food had not come up to scratch.
To those who won't be able to make it to Barbados, I offer two crumbs of comfort. One is that Hans's menu will continue to be cooked at Midsummer House for about a month, until a chef is appointed by the new owners - who have a five-year lease with an option to buy. The second is that the leasees are Crown Society, part of the company that does the catering when the leaders of the Western world eat together - at the G7 conferences.
Our meal for two, which included a bottle of Fleurie at pounds 15, coffee and a pudding each (apricot tart and an extravagant briochey thing with sticky toffee sauce - both delicious but we were too full to properly appreciate them), came to pounds 80 excluding tip.
Midsummer House, Midsummer Common, Cambridge, tel: 0223 69299.
Open Tuesday to Saturday for dinner, Sunday to Friday for lunch. Set dinner pounds 24- pounds 40.
Set lunch starts at pounds 13.95. All major credit cards accepted.
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