Monday, 4 April 2016
Usually the way I go about organising a weekend break out of London is to find a particularly interesting restaurant, make a Saturday lunchtime booking, and then cross my fingers I can find a hotel that won't break the bank and - the real challenge - a train journey that doesn't involve changing 6 times and costs more than a return flight to Florida. When did we start getting used to the idea that the single biggest expense of a weekend away is the 50 minute ride on a grotty old Great Northern train and not either a Michelin-starred lunch or the attractive city centre hotel? Where the hell is my money going? It certainly isn't spent on plush upholstery or clean toilets.
Anyway, for various reasons, this trip was a little unusual. Firstly, it was the hotel that was organised first. Via various PR channels, Hotel du Vin Cambridge very kindly offered their services for a night, which meant I next had to decide where to eat for lunch on Saturday at (fairly) short notice. And unlike most of my foodie trips around the country, I didn't manage to find a table at my first choice (in this case Midsummer House), and instead found a table for 2 at Mark Poynton's Alimentum. I also, given the tight timelines, probably didn't get the very cheapest train ticket available but even so, £78 is a ludicrous amount of money to pay for a trip for two lasting under an hour each way. But it's fine and I'm not letting it get to me, OK? I'm not.
As a thank you for their efforts I should first say that Hotel du Vin is as good as a city centre hotel as you could want in a town like Cambridge - a ramshackle Georgian terrace blessed with high ceilings and wobbly floors, updated with ironic drunken May Ball frescoes and lovely soft carpets, comfortable and plush while still retaining a certain cheeky charm. The room - well, suite really - was grand and spacious, with a vast monsoon shower and separate bath, and with a nice view over the rooftops. The trick to city centre hotels - in fact any hotel, and restaurants too for that matter - is to use as much of the style and charm of the location as possible, and to this end Hotel du Vin is very successful. It feels like a Cambridge hotel, only one with a nice big flatscreen TV and minibar. I enjoyed staying there very much.
But I imagine you're not here to read about how nice my hotel was, but about dinner at Alimentum. We were the first people to arrive at this strange new building on the outskirts of town, and so we probably didn't get the best first impression. Staff were perfect, don't get me wrong, but the intimidatingly empty dining room wasn't helped by an approach to interior design best described as "90s provincial nightclub", all red leather and black wood, and it really took a little time to get used to it.
But as with so many of these things, as soon as enough starts going right, the minor annoyances just fade away. A tray of amuses were the first indication that we were in safe hands - a wonderful delicate squid ink cracker topped with cod's roe emulsion (very Rogan-esque I'm sure they won't mind me saying), and some beautiful grueyere croquettes, boasting a supremely thin casing and deeply rewarding smooth cheesy filling.
Bread was all made in house, and as is usually the case anywhere they bother to go this extra mile, it was very good. Milk bread with maple syrup was light and fluffy, and a cute mini whole meal loaf had a lovely moist crumb involving sage I think.
Pre-starter of butternut squash soup had that lovely fluffy consistency of the finest Fine Dining soups. Truffle oil added a proper luxurious note and the pumpkin seeds had been carefully roasted to a perfect brittle texture, without a hint of chewiness.
My A La Carte starter of wild garlic with langoustines was the kind of dish you always hope to be served at a place like this, but sadly only very rarely are. Boasting a geometric exactness that surely must have involved a herculean amount of effort, the promise of the immaculate visuals were more than met my the smoky taste of the grilled langoustine, the fresh sea-tang of the Avruga caviar and the wild garlic mousse artfully bound with spaghetti. On top, some baked Jerusalem artichoke crisps added crunch. A dozen techniques and textures, each performed at the highest level, and presented with an artist's eye, surely this wouldn't have looked out of place on any 3-Michelin star restaurant menu. I ate it in a kind of stunned reverie.
A mackerel starter also had a very pleasing geometry, ballotines of just-cooked fish pairing extremely well with some sweet (possibly slightly dehydrated somehow) grapes and stalks of green fennel shoots. OK, perhaps it wasn't quite as knockout as the langoustine but this was from the prix fixe menu and necessarily used cheaper ingredients; it was still great fun to eat.
The prix fixe main was this attractive tower of pollock with asparagus and truffle. As with the mackerel starter, it was doing the correct prix fixe job of applying top-end techniques to cheap(er) ingredients - yes, perhaps a fillet of halibut or turbot would have been a slightly more interesting fish, but it would have also been twice the price. Pretty, too, isn't it?
The ALC main on the other hand, of 80-day aged Hannan beef (if you recognise that name it may be because they also supply Hix's Tramshed in Shoreditch) with sweetbreads, was allowed to go that extra mile with the top-end ingredients and boy, was it worth the effort. Most importantly the beef itself was stunning, as good as an example of the British/Irish grass-fed style as I can remember having in many years, deeply minerally and (for want of a better word) "beefy", with soft ribbons of fat and moist medium-rare flesh. With it, confit potatoes of such exquisitely calculated layering, resembling tiny books, it seemed a shame to eat them at all. And breaded sweetbreads, morels soaked in beef jus and parsley puree, each adding complexity of flavour and colour. Another truly superb, unashamedly high-end dish that satisfied on every level.
Pre-dessert was so good it threatened to overshadow the desserts proper. A frothy passion fruit "soup", just the right (and extremely addictive) balance of sharp and sweet, and a blob of perfect blood orange sorbet. Beautiful in every way.
The "chocolate" dessert was a neat Millionaire's Shortbread style thing with more excellent ice cream and blobs of sharp passion fruit jelly.
And this arctic roll was an equally enjoyable marriage of dairy, cake and summer fruits, which also swiftly disappeared without a trace. If I'm going to be brutally honest (and after all, this is presumably why you're here), neither of the desserts really lived up to the level of quality set by the savoury courses, but they were still a long way off disappointing.
Petits fours included a clever take on a "Wagon Wheel", a nougat and a salted caramel truffle made with goat's milk. They also didn't last long.
As I somewhat drunkenly tweeted towards the end of the meal on Saturday, given the near-faultless meal I enjoyed there it seems scarcely possible that Alimentum should have ever been my 2nd choice for anything. I'm sure Midsummer House is lovely, in its Victorian villa with views of the river Cam, but I can't think of a single person who'd feel that the food served at Alimentum, even factoring in the disadvantage of a dining room with all the personality of a branch of Foxtons, wouldn't be worth the money they were asking for it. Reward for the journey to Cambridge and then some, I thank my lucky stars that a certain other restaurant had been full that day, my weekend would surely have been the poorer otherwise. From now on, Alimentum, you're my #1.
I was a guest of the Hotel du Vin but I paid my own bill at Alimentum. HdV would like me to point out two offers they currently have on: ‘Dinner, Bed & Breakfast’ from £195 and ‘Champagne & Stay’ from £180. Both look like good deals to me.