Like most of our university towns, Cambridge suffers from a surfeit of over-priced restaurants and a chronic shortage of moderately priced, rewarding food. The visiting parents of students, hearts bursting with pride, uncomplainingly pay more than they should, and because they don't know the city well, go to the most obvious places – that is, where everyone else is getting ripped off too.
Two factors accentuate the problem. First, because of the ongoing despotism of our education system, the students mostly hail from rich families, who have less need of value for money. Second, the city's medieval beauty and pedagogic inheritance attract hordes of tourists. They, too, fuel demand for unexceptional dining. For example, Galleria and the River Bar steakhouse, either side of Magdalene Bridge, excel in serving reasonable food at unreasonable prices.
This creates a huge opportunity for Alimentum. The sad closure of Bruno's on Mill Road means that it should vie with Backstreet Bistro on Sturton Street for the title of second-best restaurant in Cambridge, after the two-starred Midsummer House. Though let down by a few simple mistakes and one insuperable one, the core ingredients of an outstanding restaurant are in place.
Nothing can be done to overcome the problem of location. Far from the city centre, Alimentum is situated on a busy road, next to the main railway bridge, opposite a giant Travelodge, under a set of new flats, and in view of the giant club where I used to go raving. Punts and Pimm's o'clock this ain't.
But something can be done about the grisly décor and spirit-sapping anti-ambience. An attractive bar confronts the newcomer, but it unfurls into a long single room with dark-red upholstery, sleek, grey, lacquered surfaces, and dark walls boasting concentric circles. Keerti, my brother, remarks that these, together with music fit for a spa – all glockenspiels and tumbling waterfalls – seems designed to hypnotise.
Thankfully the menu is straightforward. There is a seven-course tasting menu for £60, with £30 flight of wine, but Keerti has the à la carte menu (£40 for three courses, £30 for two) and I have the fixed-price (£19.50 for three courses, £15.50 for two). A warm cauliflower emulsion, with cold apple and cumin oil, is a delightful amuse-bouche. My pork pressé, made from cheek meat, comes with an excellent sweet-and-sour glaze and immaculately tangy spring onions. Keerti has scallops for the first time, and is an instant convert. I can't blame him: the little goblins are beautiful, soft and giving, and come with a gorgeous boudin blanc (a white sausage made of pork without the blood), leeks, potato and truffle garnish.
The main courses are much flatter, however. My braised blade of beef comes with an excellent onion marmalade and serviceable potato purée and kale, but is too dry. And sat on the plate are mini boiled carrots, cooked in such a way as to have drained flavour from them rather than intensified it. These dull orange vagabonds now appear on Keerti's plate, too. His stuffed saddle of rabbit is slightly over-salted, breaks up too readily, and is unforgivably at the luke end of lukewarm. What a pity, because with the mustard purée and a little taragon sauce, it heats up to make a splendid mouthful.
Two exquisite desserts begin a welcome recovery. A rhubarb parfait with sorbet is fabulously refreshing and bold, but the highlight of the day is Keerti's olive-oil panna cotta. Decorated with a strip of pear and fennel, its pungent, roof-of-the-mouth appeal is full of sunshine, and goes well with an excellent Rhône Viognier (£10 for a 250ml carafe on a very fair wine list).
Mark Poynton, who came from Midsummer House to be head chef at Alimentum, and is now chef-patron, is an immense talent. Though let down by avoidable and very eliminable errors, his is an innovative, clever kitchen, rectifying Cambridge's gastronomic record. It will have a star in the near future.
I should just mention that Poynton already has one front of house. Kyle Shimmon, his sommelier, who hails from Stellenbosch in South Africa, is the best waiter I've seen. In a town swollen with students lacking civility and charm, he strikes me as someone from whom they have much to learn.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Alimentum 152-154 Hills Road, Cambridge, tel: 01223 413 000 Lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat; lunch, Sun. £120 for two, including two bottles of wine
Ivory tower idylls
Binsey Lane, Oxford, tel: 01865 728 891
An old pub with a large garden by the river, this makes a great stop-off for a walk, and wins near-unanimous praise for its delicious and most interesting food
Rhubarb, Prestonfield Hotel
Priestfield Road, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 225 1333
With its amazing OTT décor, the magnificent dining-room of this country-house hotel, just outside the city, is perfect for romance; the cooking is usually very good, too
1 York Road, Bristol, tel: 0117 924 0357
Chris Wicks' superior cooking – which often demonstrates some seriously original ideas – makes this bistro in Montpelier, north Bristol, well worth seeking out
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.comReuse content