Midsummer House, Midsummer Common, Cambridge
For a special meal, the two-starred Midsummer House is worth a punt up the Cam
Amol Rajan was appointed editor of The Independent in June 2013. He was previously Editor of Independent Voices, a comment, campaigns and community platform across print and digital. He was earlier Deputy Comment Editor, Sports News Correspondent and a news reporter. He writes a restaurant column for the Independent on Sunday, and has a column in the Evening Standard (Mondays), Independent and i (Fridays). He used to work on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff, and at the Foreign Office; he is also a trustee of Prospex, a charity for young people in Islington. He has written a book called Twirlymen: the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers.
Sunday 16 October 2011
You want to talk about money? Fine, we can talk about money. A few weeks back I reported my grim experience of the two-Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park in Devon, a joyless corporate retreat charging £110 for a five-course tasting menu with coffee and petits fours (though other, shorter menus were also available). In the process I managed to infuriate some of you by seeming to be one of those spoilt rascals who gets paid to write about food and manages, somehow, not to enjoy it. My beef with the place was that the prices were wholly unreasonable, despite the excellent food.
Well, it will hardly make your weekend, but I am thrilled to report that, as you would expect, two-Michelin-starred food doesn't have to be so forbidding. It can even come at a significantly better price. Still expensive, I know, but at Midsummer House in Cambridge there is both a 10-course tasting menu for £95 ("Taste of Midsummer") and the seven-course tasting menu for £75 ("Taste of the Market") I sample, which is outstanding. In other words, if you're going to save up for a starry Michelin meal, you should exercise more, not less, discretion – and heading to this Victorian villa just off central Cambridge is about as sharp a choice as you could make.
There is a remarkable absence of pretension about Midsummer House. Architecturally, it is underwhelming – a plain townhouse on the bank of the River Cam, adjacent to the common on which an excellent annual fair is held, and opposite the rowing houses of the universities' colleges, wherein some students obtain levels of fitness their peers think obscene.
My girlfriend Charlie was once one such student, and it is with her that I walk in to the restaurant to be seated in a plain conservatory that has been added to the original building. It is very domestic, with dispiriting taupe walls – why do so many restaurants have taupe walls? – and pleasingly average upholstery. I have argued before on this page that the less one has to think about décor, the more likely the food will be enjoyed, and here is no exception.
The Taste of the Market menu is a series of what my wonderful colleague Lisa Markwell calls "flashes of intrigue". It starts with a pea foam and succulent, crunchy prawns atop a tomato jelly. The colours are dazzling, and the flavours are strong and earthy. Salmon rillettes follow, with pickled vegetables, lime and wasabi – the last of these delivered in foam form, and ever so slightly whiffy in a bad way, like Mr Muscle. But the brief aroma of detergent is interrupted by an excellent confit of chicken wings with endive and reblochon, a French cheese whose name derives from "reblocher" – to pinch a cow's udder again.
The menu is cleverly balanced, with a gentle rhythm between strong and soft flavours uniting each offering. For instance, the crayfish and pork belly served up next comes with a very rich cauliflower and cobnut purée, which itself is set against a sharp, pickled apple that renders the reblochon a distant memory. By now I feel that most parts of my palate are spoken for, so that when another plate emerges with duck, sweet-potato-and-orange purée and cherries, I fear it will be beyond me. But this turns out to be the best yet: a marvellous medley of hot meat against zesty fruit.
Naturally, a Cambridge house named for the summer solstice will be inclined to fill its menu with the flavours of an English summer, and the common thread in the final desserts achieves this effect. The lemon posset with raspberry jelly and lime is superb and boastful, and there is lemon sorbet with strawberries and elderflower to finish – tart and sweet and the epitome of England.
You can get a flight of wines from around the world for £55 – five lots of 125ml, finishing with a Moscato that has just the slightest fizz and sings sweet harmonies with that elderflower. The wine list is overpriced, of course, with virtually no bottle available below £30, so the flight is a worthwhile investment.
At more than £140 for food, drink and (excellent) service, this is a meal for a very special occasion. Yet it is an almost faultless parade of beautifully crafted plates, enticingly sequenced and flashing not just intrigue, but ultimately delight, too. That is more than can be said for many of its equally garlanded rivals.
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
Midsummer House Midsummer Common, Cambridge, tel: 01223 369 299 Lunch, Weds-Sat; dinner, Tues-Sat. About £300 for two, including wine
85 Old Hunstanton Road, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk, tel: 01485 532 122
Relaxed and tasteful, this old coaching inn is a great place to enjoy a small selection of mostly local produce, cooked with skill and care
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Despite its grotty location, this ambitious three-year-old is drawing customers for chef/patron Mark Poynton, his flair and imagination
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The Crépy family's French market-square restaurant-with-rooms has it all: terrific cooking (with cheeseboard to die for), efficient service, a superb wine list and wonderful village setting
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com
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