Across all nations and centuries, the essential ingredients of a wonderful restaurant form an enduring trinity: delicious food, affordable prices and a lovely setting. I'm not sure I've been to any place in England that more effectively combines these criteria than the Three Horseshoes in Madingley. Let's take them in reverse order.
A 20-minute cycle ride west of Cambridge, Madingley is a small, tranquil village distinguished by the presence of Madingley Hall, where the future King Edward VII rented a room while an undergraduate at the university. Today, the hall is a conference centre and home to the university's Institute of Continuing Education.
If you are driving up to the village from either Cambridge or London, you'll pass a very beautiful American cemetery, where nearly 4,000 US servicemen are remembered. Picturesque is putting it mildly.
The Three Horseshoes is a thatched building which was once the village pub. For two decades, the chef-proprietor has been Richard Stokes, an alumni of the River Café in London. He kept the bar in the front, raised the quality of the upholstery, and converted the conservatory into a spacious and well-lit dining-room. What he also appears to have done is taken a solemn vow to keep his prices down and his standards up.
Even the drinks are relatively cheap: classy cocktails for a fiver, a Tom Collins for £4.50, and plenty of good wines at £5.50 for a large glass. But the best value is in the food. On one side of the menu is a fuller list with snacks, small plates, mains, cheese, dessert, dessert wine and hot drinks; on the other side is a bar menu with the same categories but an altogether different selection.
Oysters that are £1.50 each, cheaper than a bottle of water in WH Smith, are very good. There is a smoked eel with green tea, sesame purée, edamame beans, coriander cress and wasabi cotta (£9), which is exquisite save for the smear of wasabi, which tastes more of cream than Japanese horseradish. The slow-cooked egg with salt and vinegar crisps, sauce soubise, salmon eggs, chives and onion powder (£6) is very classily done.
That's as nothing, though, compared with the hand-rolled agnolotti (ravioli, basically) stuffed with Swiss chard and ricotta, new season's olive oil, Parmesan and fried sage – £8 for a small plate and £12 for a large one. I've gone for the small one and regret it on first bite: this is as close to perfection in a plate as I've had for a long time. The sage is elegantly presented, the pasta couldn't be cooked better, and the chard and ricotta make a deliriously happy union inside it.
The cabbage risotto with fontina, garlic, thyme and Pinot Grigio (£8/£12 again) is cheesy and chewy in equal measure, which is as it should be, and my dining partner's poached cod with piquillo peppers, saffron and pimenton sauce, saffron puffed rice, mussels, spinach butter beans and chorizo crumbs is a lot going on in a small space. That seems to come at the cost of the cod, which is, for me, a little underwhelming and devoid of flavour.
There are marvellous cheeses to follow, however (three for £10, five for £14), and, on the dessert menu, a spot of gold: I would think it worth coming to this part of the world just for the passion fruit "snow egg" with coconut marshmallow, white chocolate and vanilla custard, and passion-fruit granita (£8). Other than the snow egg, which is a poached meringue, I can't really begin to do justice to the rest of this dish, so would encourage you to scrap your plans for next weekend and head to Madingley to order it at the earliest available opportunity. There's also a fine affogato with vanilla-bean ice-cream, biscotti and hot espresso (£7), and you can get Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk at £3.50.
We leave extremely full and satisfied, having had two drinks each, and a bill that's come to £123. If you're not stuffing yourself for the benefit of readers, I think you could probably do it for a ton.
It's not perfect – that wasabi didn't pack a punch, and the cod was a little flat – but at this price, for this food, in a location as gorgeous as Madingley, I should think this easily one of the best restaurants in England today.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
The Three Horseshoes High Street, Madingley, Cambridge, tel: 01954 210 221 Lunch and dinner daily. About £100 for two, including wine
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