Food & Drink: The pauper's feast

Eating out: Oysters for everyone? Then head for Cambridge, where Loch Fyne are throwing pearls before Tracey's brother
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The Independent Culture
When Argyll's Loch Fyne Oyster Company was founded 20 years ago, consumption of what was once a cheap and plentiful staple had fallen to an all-time low. From a Victorian peak of 1.2 billion, Britons were eating just five million a year, and the oyster had become an expensive delicacy. While not exactly reinstating it as a fast food to rival McDonald's, Loch Fyne has helped to change the oyster's fortunes a little. Now Scotland's largest oyster producer, it distributes over a million a year to specialist shops, supermarkets and restaurants.

With success came expansion, and the company's original premises, a converted cow byre beside the loch, was turned into an oyster bar, where pilgrims could enjoy smoked fish, oysters and mussels. Further outposts followed in landlocked Peterborough and Nottingham, and now the brand is set to roll out around the country.

The newest branch opened earlier this summer in Cambridge, a city which can't be said to boast a vibrant restaurant culture among its many attractions. I should know; my brother lives there, and our family excursions to punter- packed riverside pubs inevitably end in disappointment and mutual recrimination. Typically, just as the first promising restaurant opens in Cambridge, Peter has decided to move to Catford, so our recent lunchtime visit to the Loch Fyne Restaurant was freighted from the start with a pre-emptive sense of nostalgia for what might have been.

The 500-year-old Little Rose pub has been converted into a higgledy-piggledy series of interconnecting dining rooms, complete with a take-home counter selling crustacea and smoked fish. Floors and furniture are of glowing old pine, and brick walls and exposed ceiling-beams give the place a reclaimed, quayside feel. Apart from some photographs of misty Loch Fyne mornings, theming has been kept to a minimum.

The day-long menu is organised so that you can mix and match between light dishes, or opt for a more formal three-course arrangement. For breakfast, you might choose smoked kippers; for lunch a mussel and vermouth stew, and for high tea, smoked fish pate with oatcakes. More substantial daily specials - trout with almonds or lemon sole with lemon butter - are chalked on a blackboard, and smoked salmon recurs in several different guises. As, of course, do oysters - Loch Fyne specialises in the rock, or Pacific variety, rather than the more expensive natives, and serves them at pounds 8.90 for a dozen.

I started with a traditional French oyster fisherman's meal - half a dozen fresh oysters served with hot venison sausages, a combination whose symbolic resonances would have delighted Sigmund Freud. He would probably have had something to say, too, about my subsequent attempts to force an oyster between the reluctant lips of my squirming younger brother. "Chew it, don't just swallow," I encouraged, "it might grow on you." "I'm more worried that it might grow in me," Peter protested.

The Loch Fyne oyster is a subtle creature, its brininess tempered by the rainwater which runs into the loch from the surrounding hills, and had my brother overcome his aversion, he would have discovered just how well a bite of spicy sausage works in conjunction with the saltiness of an oyster and a swig of crisp, cold white wine - the restaurant has selected its own, ultra-dry label to accompany crustacea.

Peter was more comfortable with his own starter of Kinglas fillet, five thick slices of smoked salmon fillet, served sushi-style with a wasabi- flavoured mayonnaise. "The fish is really smoky all the way through - not salty or oily like normal smoked salmon," he approved.

The Loch Fyne smokehouse uses oak chips from old malt whisky casks, and I sampled more of its output with my main course, the "Loch Fyne ashet", a cold platter featuring four varieties of smoked salmon. Dill-fringed gravadlax was sweet and silky, in contrast to the bradan rost, a dense, salty fillet roasted in the smoke kiln, with a glazed crust resembling Peking duck. The line-up was completed by a slice of classic smoked salmon, and bradan orach, a more heavily smoked variant whose fishiness was submerged in its powerful smokehouse aftertaste.

Peter's fish pie was presented wine-bar style, baked in a gratin dish and topped with piped mashed potato. But its genteel appearance disguised a feast of haddock, cod, scallops and smoked salmon fillet, delicately cooked to retain their flavour and texture, and obviously not just rehashed from yesterday's leftovers.

Service from the youthful, be-chinoed staff was patchy, but winning - when we asked for water, our waiter enquired "bottled or tap?", which is almost unheard of. He also gave the puddings an enthusiastic hard-sell. In my case, this was unnecessary - having eaten only oysters and smoked salmon, I still felt as though I was gearing up for my main course.

My roast nut and chocolate tart was sinfully good, with whole almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts enfolded in a stiff chocolate goo. Peter's chocolate mousse was served with an orange sorbet, a taste combination which will forever remind our generation of that ultimate indulgence, the Terry's Chocolate Orange. "This mousse is perfect - it takes me right back to Paris," Peter said urbanely, referring to the school exchange trip he had made when he was 16.

Including wine, we paid pounds 30 a head, though the loose structure of the menu means that cash-strapped undergraduates could escape for a lot less, then return with their parents for a special-occasion lunch.

As we left, late afternoon sunshine was pouring in through the high windows and the restaurant had taken on a golden smokehouse glow. "You can imagine how snug this place is going to be in winter, with the windows all steamed up," Peter sighed, thinking of his move to London. Still, with branches of the Loch Fyne Restaurant opening soon in Barnet and Twickenham, it can only be a matter of time before this appealingly unpretentious new venture reaches Catford.

Loch Fyne Restaurant, 37 Trumpington St, Cambridge, 01223 362 433. 9am- 10 pm daily. All major cards except Diners Club. Disabled access