The corners of our mouths are consistently going up though, and it would be churlish to suggest that it's only a sense of the ridiculous that is working this effect. It isn't the surroundings either - a suburban conservatory attached to the back of the distinctly Pooterish Victorian house in which the restaurant is located, a short walk away from the tourist scrum of central Cambridge. The dining room is pleasant enough, but on a day of unbroken sunshine it is steadily edging from temperate to tropical. It is the food that left us feeling benignly amused rather than tetchy, and the process begins with the second amuse-bouche to arrive at the table, an excellent froth of fresh peas, tiger prawns and tiny dice of jellied prawn aspic, which is served in a square glass posey vase. That's posey as in forget-me-nots, but keep the other meaning on hand.
We steer a middle course between the lunch menu at £30 and the tasting menu at £65 by choosing from the carte (£50 a head for three courses - with a whole lucky bag of little treats thrown in "free"). Eric begins with a terrine of veal sweetbreads, chicken and foie gras, served with sautéed ceps and truffle yoghurt - a geological section of taupe and beige and brown with a polished, museum-display finish. I pay a supplement of £7 for a navarin of lobster and duck gesiers with a tortellini of crab, baby vegetables and white port jus - what you might call a Surf'n'Pond combo. Both dishes are delicious and the gizzards - which can sometimes be a little leathery - are beautifully tender. After encountering a lot of timidly undersalted food recently it's also good to find the seasoning here perfectly judged.
Our main courses aren't quite as successful. A confit of sea bass in vanilla oil is fine but the texture of a timbale of spinach, chilli and crab doesn't quite work with it. And while the Miro swipe of red pepper puree looks dazzling it doesn't entirely marry with the other flavours. My lamb, perched on a neat plinth of squared-off couscous and topped with golden wafers of potato, is more tried and tested in its combinations. Although most of the components are excellent - in particular the confit tomatoes and a perfect piped border of broccoli puree which acts as a dyke for a gleaming lamb jus - the lamb doesn't yield to the knife as easily as it might.
Desserts push the graph sharply back up again - a cone of peanut parfait with banana sorbet and banana marshmallows, and a millefeuille of vanilla, fresh raspberries and white chocolate mousse served with fresh nettles. The millefeuille turns out to not really be a millefeuille at all and the nettles appear to have been pressed and are disappointingly innocuous - but as a whole the dish is wonderful. Coffee arrives accompanied by a humidor containing a selection of home-made chocolates - we go for bergamot, eucalyptus and a stunning white chocolate and curry number. And then, in a Mr Creosote touch, a napkin full of puffy diamond-shaped beignets arrives, along with pots of apple and caramel sauce to dip them in. Too much? Well, probably ... but they're so good we eat them anyway.
Midsummer House, Midsummer Common, Cambridge (01223 369299)
Three courses from the carte, without wine, £50 (minus the supplement)
SIDE ORDERS: HISTORY BITES
By Caroline Stacey
All senses are pampered at Pimpernel's. Set within Bath's landmark Georgian crescent, the food and interior are exquisite. Try lunch - it's a deal worth seeking out.
Royal Crescent Hotel, 16 Royal Crescent, Bath, 01225 823333
At this Edinburgh hotel restaurant unfussy, unforced luxury comes with modern classical cooking - eg. game consommé with veal sweetbreads and truffle.
Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh, 0131-557 6727
The Old Parsonage
A lovely Oxford hotel wearing its history lightly, and with dining that shrugs off the weight of the past. A relaxing, well-run room serves up grilled lobster, Caesar salad, and steak and chips.
1 Banbury Road, Oxford, 01865 310210
It's luncheon not lunch in the dining room of the awesome mansion beside York racecourse. Antiques are everywhere, and jackets de rigueur. A thoroughbred destination for lunch, tea and dinner.
Bishopthorpe Road, York, 01904 641241