As someone who writes about restaurants, I find it easier not to get to know chefs and restaurateurs. After all, no one sets out to launch a bad restaurant, or hire a mediocre team, and as soon as you start hearing the human stories behind the places you've laid into, it becomes impossible to be too critical. Yes, the service was terrible that night, but the manager's wife had just gone into labour, and the head chef resigned two weeks ago. And the bank just foreclosed on the loan. Now, about that star rating ...
Unfortunately, cyberspace has made it harder to avoid accidental encounters with those pesky human beings behind the scenes. Thanks to the owner's blog on Alimentum's website I already know far too much about this Cambridge newcomer to view it with the professional detachment needed for the job. I know that the owner sold his sandwich delivery business to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant. I know the problems he had with the fit-out. I know that the chef de partie walked out shortly after opening night, leaving the kitchen brigade four short. I even know the date of the owner's wedding anniversary. How can I possibly give Alimentum a bad review?
With heavy heart I note on arrival that for all the owner's pre-opening fretting about the installation of the music system and the portal frames around the banquettes, he hasn't mentioned one major problem: the location. Alimentum is in a new-build development on a busy arterial road opposite a leisure park. It's way out of the city centre, with little prospect of passing trade, and yet there's nowhere to park. The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows is of a boarded-up garage and a Travelodge. Frankly, the portal frames around the banquettes should be the last of his worries.
Inside, though, it's a different prospect. The design is a glamorous high-style antidote to the timid, tasteful neutrals that have become the norm. The sleek black lacquer surfaces, dark red seating and blonde parquet flooring would be quite at home on the Upper East Side, never mind just off the Cambridge Ring Road. On the bar, a whole Iberico ham waits to be carved and nibbled with something from the short, fairly priced wine list, available in bottles or carafes. The weekly-changing modern French menu has heartening echoes of Soho's Arbutus; seasonal, unpretentious, ethically sourced and you want to try everything on it. Thank God!
By and large the execution lives up to the promise. Head chef Anton Escalera has worked in some of the world's top kitchens, including Harvey's under Marco Pierre White and with Ferran Adria in Spain. But there is nothing gimmicky or attention-seeking about the food he's producing here. Of our starters, one was sensationally good, a ravioli filled with finely minced chicken in an intense madeira-scented reduction, laced with girolles and slivers of Iberico ham. A cold assembly of smoked eel, laid over sliced ratte potatoes and artichoke and topped with slices of summer truffle was anaemic by comparison, but that was the only glitch in an otherwise faultless meal.
I remember a sensational suckling pig prepared by Escalera when he was at the helm of El Rincon, his short-lived Spanish restaurant in Chelsea. His way with a nice bit of pork was again in evidence here, with a two-way presentation featuring a tender slab of belly under a crisp crackling lid and a meltingly fibrous confit of darker meat. On the side, a version of pommes lyonnaise interleaved with wafer thin slices of ham.
Also unorthodox, in the context of a modern French menu, was the partnering of sweet roasted lamb rump, lamb sweetbreads, and a rich moussaka layering confited shoulder meat with aubergine. The latter came in a separate casserole dish, and regrettably, our waiter muddled the order, giving the lamb moussaka to my guest, who unsurprisingly found it a puzzling accompaniment to her pork belly. We pointed out the mistake, and the dishes were eventually switched with an apologetic mumble, but it's an error for which I imagine some of Chef Escalera's fierier mentors might have strung our waiter up by the sweetbreads.
Given that the front-of-house team have largely been recruited from Michelin-starred establishments (and the restaurant was only a quarter full), service was error-prone, from the production of a St Clair Sauvignon Blanc in place of the St Veran we'd ordered, through to my guest and I getting each other's coffees at the end. But it goes without saying that if the maître d's wife did in fact go into labour during the course of the evening, then I formally withdraw this criticism.
Desserts included a delicately composed peach Melba, layering poached peach, almond ice cream and raspberry coulis in a Martini glass, and a chilled "crumble" featuring frozen nuggets of caramel in an apricot cream. The enlightened wine policy enabled us to enjoy an £18.50 carafe of 2004 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Du Vieux Telegraphe, without splurging £52.50 for the whole bottle, bringing our bill to £55 a head, including service.
My guest, a Cambridge resident long frustrated by the lack of interesting places to eat locally, was delirious. "And a Hotel du Vin's just opened here too. You wait years for somewhere decent to eat, and then two turn up at once ..." A meal of that quality should really end with a moonlit stroll down by the Cam, rather than a dash across a dual carriageway and a scary walk through a trading park to find the car. But in a town where fine-dining opportunities are severely limited, Alimentum deserves to find an eager clientele. In fact, I'll go further, and say that if you live anywhere near the place, please go there as soon as possible. The owner sounds like a really good bloke, and I would hate his blog to have an unhappy ending.
Alimentum, 152-154 Hills Road, Cambridge (01223 413000)
Dinner around £55 a head including wineReuse content