12a Club, Cambridge

Cambridge Market Square
View over Cambridge's Market Square from the 12a Club

I live twelve miles outside Cambridge, far away enough that the only traffic is tractors and the occasional little girl on a horse. I’m in town a few times a week, but you’ll have noticed that I don’t have a lot to say about Cambridge on Gastronomy Domine. It’s not, to put it politely, a restaurant or bar destination. The city has what the papers call a “carbon-copy high street” problem: a survey last year found it the third worst town in the country for independent retailers and restaurants.

There’s a historical reason for this. Almost all of the property in the city centre is owned by the university colleges, and their monopoly on rents means that they can raise prices to a level that’s just not attainable for small businesses. As a result, the city centre has silted up with chains. It’s kind of depressing to reach the realisation that Jamie’s Italian is the best you’re going to manage without hopping on a bike or getting a cab. (You’re not going to be driving; the parking situation is horrible too.) The bar situation is, if anything, even worse – massive chains like B Bar, All Bar One and Revolution crammed to sweaty unpleasantness with student rugby clubs and belligerent sixth formers.

So when my buddy Douglas asked me to come with him to check out a new bar right on the Market Square, about as central as you can get, I was unenthusiastic. “It’ll prolly be horrid,” I texted back; “Central Cam, ffs. All the bars here = rubbish.”

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be proved wrong in my life.

The 12a Club is on the upper floors of one of the only privately owned buildings in this part of town. The colleges and city council have the ability to impose some rather stringent licensing restrictions on new openings, and the restrictions they hit the owners of 12a with would have stopped most businesses dead in their tracks. The licence says the bar has to operate as a private members’ club. There can be no advertising; all new business has to come in by word of mouth. And 12a isn’t even allowed a sign outside the door. Add to this the fire department’s refusal to grant a hot food licence because of the age of the building, throw in some health and safety regulations about not being allowed to open the lovely Victorian sash windows, and you’ve got the sort of business that’s going to require some very creative thinking and a couple of air conditioning units to get underway.

12a Club
Main bar area, 12a Club

We were buzzed in through a little door between a touristy Italian restaurant and Marks and Spencer, climbed a narrow flight of stairs – and found ourselves in a 21st-century speakeasy. This is the direction the restrictive licensing has inspired the owners to take the place in: quietly masculine dark woods, raw brick and distressed leather, decoration recalling the 1920s, huge vases of lilies, and a soft vintage feel. The room pretty much instructs you to sit back and get comfortable with the aid of some snappy waitress service; the handsomely stocked bar provides all the extra encouragement you’ll need.

The champagne and wine list is, in keeping with the secretive nature of things in these parts, hidden in the back of an old book. A bookmark turns out, on closer inspection, to be a cocktail list: fantastic, grown-up, pre-prohibition cocktails of the sort we’ve almost forgotten about, all Aviations, Gimlets and Gourmets. This list is only a suggestion, meant to set the tone for your evening; even if you’re more the pink girly drink kind of person, they’ll happily knock up any cocktail you ask for. There are some people seriously educated in the art of the cocktail behind this bar, though, and it’s worth trusting their expertise and widening your horizons a little beyond strawberry daiquiris. There are six different kinds of bitters on the bar, floral syrups, a jar of house-made limoncello infusing away, and by far the most comprehensive and eclectic list of spirits that I’ve seen this side of London.

Menus and top hat
A stack of wine lists masquerading as books

It was the little details that really caught me at 12a. The smell of wood polish in the main room; the ice in my drinks (not cubes, but hand-carved spheres, so your cocktail isn’t diluted by a fast melt); the exceptional drinks smarts of Mark, our host, who works front-of-house and performs alchemy behind the bar. He offered to “surprise me” with a cocktail – and he’d been listening so carefully to my waffling about food and drink over the preceding hour that he managed to get my taste down absolutely pat. An Old Fashioned with Gosling’s dark rum and shavings of dark chocolate, pepped up with one of those bottles of bitters (I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask which one) which married the rum to the chocolate so smoothly it was almost enough to bring a tear to the eye. Hands down my favourite cocktail so far this year. A visit later in the week with a whisky-hound friend from New York saw Mark speak to him for a minute about his preferences and come back with a soft whisky finished in sauternes barrels which, he said, suited him so well it was as if Mark had read his mind. On our original visit, Douglas was presented with a Cambridge Butterfly: a work-in-progress cocktail that isn’t yet on the menu. Grapefruit, Butterfly absinthe, and god only knows what else. I hope it makes it onto the permanent list; I don’t think I’ve tasted a cocktail with such an interesting flavour profile before, swinging wildly in the mouth from citrus to liquorice to sugary sweetness to a floral intensity.

The 12a Club is pretty new, and they’re still tweaking the formula. There are ideas for a salumi room; for a less tightly-focussed wine list (at the moment most of what’s on offer is Italian wine, which can be a little impenetrable for some); for monthly tastings of wines, whiskies and rums; members’ events like a 1920s New Year’s Eve party; and quarterly charity nights. A change I’d really like to see is the addition of an espresso machine, but given that this is the only thing that occurred to me after a couple of weeks’ considered attempt to find something wrong with the place, I’d say that they have things pretty much down pat as it is.

Behind the bar
Behind the bar

As of June 7, there’s a plan to open in the day so that members can have access to the two very private upstairs rooms, which have all the audio-visual equipment needed for business meetings. At the moment, these rooms are free to use on a first-come, first-served basis for members. (They’re also very pleasant for less serious get-togethers.) This sort of focus on business clients is a smart move; I can’t be the only person in these parts who has an occasional need for meeting rooms, and my experience elsewhere in the city has been both expensive and totally uninspiring. These rooms are much more up my street: beautiful, comfortable…and with waitress service and a champagne list.

The club has a bare-bones website with contact details and membership information. Head on over to have a look!

Asia – The Pan-Asian Dining Room, Regent St, Cambridge

Regular readers will know that I have always had a mild distrust of those restaurants which purport to specialise in the foods of more than one culture. You know what I mean – those places offering up dim sum alongside sushi, or Thai food with Japanese soba. So I went to Asia, up at the Catholic church end of Regent Street in Cambridge, with a bit of trepidation. (Full disclosure here – I’d been invited by the owners and got a free meal.)

Asia (the restaurant, not the continent) is smart enough not to try to do Japanese food, but explores Chinese, Thai and Indian foods in a very similar way to that you’ll find in Malaysian cuisine, with food from all three cultures served up alongside each other – and thankfully, they do it all very well indeed. This is actually a combination of cuisines that makes really good sense. It can be a bit disconcerting ordering Indian and Chinese side dishes to go with a Thai main course, but once you get into the swing of things, the flavours – aromatic lime leaves here, Goan curry spicing there, oyster sauce and fermented beans over there – gel surprisingly well. Ask the very helpful waiters if you’re trying to work out some good flavour combinations; they know the menu backwards and are very ready to help. Ingredients are fresh and, where possible (obviously, you’re going to run into trouble sourcing mangoes in East Anglia), local.

It’s a big space, and just avoids that hard-surface thing where restaurant interiors become loud and boomy. It’s all handsome, contemporary dark wood and marble juxtaposed with Indian and South East Asian artifacts – a Thai screen, an Indian limestone frieze – and the odd bit of upholstery. It’s spotlessly clean, it’s a very pretty room to eat in, and the welcome and service, which was warm, friendly and helpful, didn’t seem to be at all different from what the guests around us were getting. So far, so splendid – and did you know that Kingfisher, the Indian restaurant lager people, are also doing a very good fizzy mineral water now?

We opened with my favourite Thai salad, Som Tum, all green papaya, sour lime, savoury fish sauce and dried shrimp, with two fat prawns. Dr W went for scallops, and the restaurant must be proud of these, because they’re stupendous and very unusual – sweet Scottish scallops, seared to a barely-cooked wobble with a coriander crust, served with salted yoghurt and, right out of left-field, olive purée. (They say the purée is Peruvian. No, I have no idea either, but it was good, and perfectly salty against the sweet flesh of the scallops.)

Mains are served individually, not family-style. This is not the Upton way of doing things, especially when everything on the table is so interesting, and we wanted to put the dishes in the middle so we could share. Waiters swished around elegantly as soon as I asked, conjuring hot, clean plates out of nowhere. And just as well too, because Dr W’s Goan halibut curry in a lovely rough tomato and tamarind sauce was a firm, moist beast, so there was no way I wasn’t going to eat half of it. We’d also gone for a dish of Kai Krob, a Thai chicken in pieces, cooked in a light, floury coating that was halfway between chewy and crispy – fabulous – with a good hit of sweetness and a scattering of intensely aromatic kaffir lime leaves.

Presentation’s great here, such that we found ourselves remarking that one of the side-dishes (shitake and oyster mushrooms with home-made garlic chilli sauce and yellow beans) was much less pretty than the other things on the table, particularly the Bombay potatoes, all scattered with crispy vermicelli and punctuated with bright green coriander. But beauty’s only potato-skin deep, and the Bombay potatoes tasted pretty ordinary, while those mushrooms (must have been the home-made sauce) had us wiping the empty bowl with a naan. A naan, I will have you know, that was studded with dates – if you get that Goan halibut curry, the date naan is a brilliant foil to it.

A short pause for hot hand towels soaked in eau de cologne. Rumpole of the Bailey once bit into one in a dark Chinese restaurant, mistaking it for a spring roll. You will know better.

The dessert menu is short, especially when compared to the pages and pages of mains and starters that go before, all divided up by origin and method (so tandoor dishes are listed on one page, classical dishes on another, noodles on another). To be honest, it was a bit of a relief; main courses and starters were so generous we were pretty stuffed by this point, and weren’t up to hard decision-making. Dr W nearly went for something called Funky Pie, then changed his mind (if you go and order a Funky Pie, do let me know what it is – I’m intrigued), settling for Indian carrot cake (Gajar ka Halwa), all dense and moist and achingly sweet. I went for the crème brûlée, thrilled to see that they’d got the accents in the right place on the menu, and ended up wishing I’d had the saffron-poached pears instead – it tasted beautiful, but the acid from the mango had turned it into watery whey and curds under the crisp sugar crust. A single dud in an otherwise really enjoyable meal.

There are currently some promotions on the restaurant’s website (click on the ‘information’ tab), which include a 10% discount for students. Without discounts, you’re looking at around £5 for a starter. Mains start at £7.25 – the price rises steeply once you get into things like lobster, but starving students looking to impress attractive art historians should head on over, try for a table by the huge window so you can people-watch, tell them I sent you, and get ordering.

Chocolat Chocolat, St Andrew’s St, Cambridge

I’ve wittered on at length here before about the sad fact that Cambridge is something of a food desert. Restaurant-wise, we could still improve a lot, but if you’re a food shopper, things seem to be looking up considerably. Besides long-standing old favourites like the excellent Cambridge Cheese Shop in All Saint’s Passage, the increasingly impressive offerings at the daily market, Origin8 (a deli where you can find some obscenely good pies and organic hogroast) and local village offerings like the River Farm Smokery in Bottisham (look out for Dan on The Great British Menu on the BBC) and the farm shop at Burwash Manor Barns, the city has just found itself home to one of the loveliest chocolate shops I’ve ever set foot in. This is a very splendid thing, and I hereby upgrade Gastronomy Domine’s assessment of Cambridge’s food situation from desert to leafy wetland.

Chocolat Chocolat (which is so new that it doesn’t have a website yet, and so good that they named it twice) is on St Andrew’s St, just by the entrance to the Grand Arcade. Isabelle and Robin Chappell have imported a sugary morsel of France to the city – Isabelle prepares Bayonnaise slabs of chocolate at her tempering machine by the window, Robin serves up what I am certain is Cambridge’s best icecream (the Alfonso mango sorbet is rich, curiously creamy and made me consider driving the car over and stealing the freezer), and the whole shop ripples with gorgeously selected frou frou.

The main event is, of course, chocolate, and here you’ll find tiny tongs and little wooden punnets which you can fill with hand-made chocolates from several chocolatiers, hand-picked by Isabelle and Robin. There are also chocolaty offerings from Dolfin, Bovetti and Willie Harcourt-Cooze – the Bovetti black mustard seeds enrobed in dark chocolate (there’s also coriander seeds in milk chocolate and anis in white) and the Dolfin bar flavoured with masala spices are must-tries. Robin says that Bovetti’s paté a tartiner (imagine Nutella, but approximately a thousand times nicer) sold out pretty much as soon as they opened, but more is on the way. There’s so much on offer here that it’ll take even the most dedicated chocoholic weeks to work their way through the whole selection – which is precisely as it should be.

Isabelle is originally from France, and alongside the chocolates, she and Robin have imported some sugary nibbles I’ve never seen on this side of the Channel before. Fight through the inevitable crowd of French students to get to the Carambars (a stick of caramel which should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been on a French exchange), the chocolate-coated marshmallow bears and the utterly divine callisons. There are Cote Garrigue jams in flavours like lavender and Cavaillon melon; nougat straight from Montelimar, scented with rose, violet and pistacho; Anis de Flavigny cachous; Palets Bretons (the world’s butteriest, most friable biscuit) and Madeleines from Commercy. Robin doesn’t know it, but in promising Pain d’Epice (gingerbread – but so much better than what you’re used to) direct from Dijon soon he made my heart flutter like a schoolgirl’s.

I plan to head back as soon as possible to apply a further good, hard sugar shock to my pancreas. Chocolat Chocolat is one of the most exciting additions to the town centre I’ve seen in years – head over there as a matter of urgency if you’re in town, and tell them I sent you.

Mrs Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book – Baked apple pudding

I note that every year, all good intentions aside, I encounter a total failure to blog the moment I get on skis. Apologies – put it down to grotty resort food; the protein-hunger you get with after a day of exercise which kills off any ability to distinguish between the delicious and the simply calorific; and general exhaustion. (Honestly; you’re lucky I’m blogging now. I swear that jetlag only gets worse as you get older.)

I’ve a few more posts from my American odyssey to bring you, but I’ll intersperse them with some recipes and non-US reviews – like today’s. Just in time for the Darwin bicentennial, I was invited to the launch of a new edition of Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book: Revived and Illustrated in Cambridge. I cursed a bit about not being able to make it (I was at Disneyland that day – which although fabulous, doesn’t have any food worth writing about besides candy floss, popcorn and California’s greasiest wurst), and was delighted to find a copy of the book on the doorstep when I got back home.

When we consider the lives of the great and the good, it doesn’t usually occur to us to wonder what they ate. I mean – think of Darwin, and what comes to mind? I bet it’ll be a list along the lines of On The Origin of Species, Galapagos finches, the Beagle, beards – we dehumanise our icons and reduce them to a series of cyphers.

Emma Darwin’s little recipe notebook offers a fascinating and humanising glimpse into the family’s domestic life. They’re commonplace, simple Victorian recipes – it’s the notebook of a charmingly ordinary woman. This edition expands the little book into a good-sized, handsome cookbook by reproducing many of her handwritten pages, alongside some great food photography, some very pretty contemporary prints of ingredients like chickens and celery, and detailed notes by the editors on each recipe. There are fascinating peeps into the Darwins’ domestic life here – you may well be aware that Darwin sufferered for much of his life from a mysterious illness he is thought to have picked up in Brazil, but probably didn’t know that his doctors forbade him from eating pork (he ignored them in the case of bacon), or that he blamed rhubarb for some of his stomach problems.

Here’s Emma’s recipe for a baked apple pudding in batter. The editors suggest you use well-flavoured dessert apples, and serve with a sprinkling of sugar and plenty of cream. To serve six, you’ll need:

6 apples
2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for sprinkling
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
1 tablespoon butter
3 ounces (75 g) flour
1 cup (250 ml) milk
2 eggs

Grease an ovenproof dish deep enough to hold the apples and batter. Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C).

Peel and core the apples. Place them in the prepared dish. In each hole, put a teaspoon of sugar, a little grated lemon peel, and top with a small piece of butter. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the apples from the oven and raise the temperature to 400°F (200°C).

While the apples are baking, sift the flour into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the milk, a little at a time, and mix to a smooth batter. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.

Pour the batter over the apples and bake for about 30 minutes, or until well risen and brown on top. Sprinkle with sugar and serve at once with cream.

Alimentum, Cambridge

Finally – a foodie oasis in Cambridge’s wasteland of chain pizza restaurants and noodle bars. Alimentum, which has just received three well-deserved AA rosettes, fills me with a sense that perhaps things in this town aren’t really so bad after all; here, at last, is a restaurant which pays the attention to detail you really want to see in a fine-dining joint.

A few factors make Cambridge a disaster for those looking for a good meal. Almost all the commercial property is owned by the colleges, who keep rents high – as a result, chain restaurants are the most likely to find pitches in the city viable. We’ve got a very fluid population, with students appearing and then disappearing for half the year, and tourists filling the town to bursting point in summer, then buggering off again. The size and employment clout of the university means that most of those applying for work in restaurant kitchens often come with experience of working in a college buttery and nothing else – worlds away from the magic going on in kitchens like that at Alimentum. I very seldom eat in the city – London is only 45 minutes away, and there I can find the sort of restaurants I like.

Alimentum has turned things on their head – Londoners are coming to Cambridge for supper, because Alimentum is only 45 minutes from King’s Cross.

The restaurant is run with a strict ethical ethos. This means local, ethically raised meats from farms which are visited by the restaurant owner. Used oil which is collected and turned into biodiesel; dishwasher water which is recycled and used for heating. There’s a Crustastun unit in the kitchen which is used to humanely kill crabs and lobsters, and even the furniture in the beautiful deco dining room is ethically sourced. All this and fantastic food – it’s glorious to be able to indulge yourself and save the world all at once, as you sip your cocktail through a biodegradable straw.

I started with some crisp-skinned, honeyed quail, served off the bone with a savoury little breaded croquette of risotto. Every preparation on the menu is intricate, but showcases each main ingredient – a main course of beef used the brisket, cooked until gelatinous then shredded, pressed, breaded and fried until golden. The fillet, cooked to a juicy medium-rare with a savoury crust, was cut into thick slices and perched on top, everything bathed in an unctuous demi-glace. This is good, good stuff, deeply beefy and gorgeous on the plate and on the tongue.

Dessert was a jelly made from local strawberries. Not too sweet, and intensely fragrant, it arrived in a pyramid, each side tiled with a sliver of Valrhona chocolate, drizzled with an intense 30-year-old balsmic vinegar. If pudding could sing, this would have been belting out Mozart operettas. There’s also a great (and wonderfully stinky) cheeseboard, which the charming waiting staff will talk you through.

This was a tough menu to choose from; everything sounded tempting, and every diner at my table had a plate I just had to pinch something from. The restaurant’s signature slow-cooked belly pork with pig parts was heartbreakingly, stickily, cracklingly good. The wine list (which, along with the frequently changing menu, is available on the restaurant’s website) is terrific, and the Malbec we selected was a fantastic pairing. Cocktails are also really good fun: my favourite was The Cucumber Number, with Hendrick’s gin, cucumber, raspberries and Framboise liqueur.

It’s worth checking the restaurant’s website for their various special deals – if you book for the Tuesday jazz night, you might see me there.

For shame!

I don’t know what makes me sadder in this article – the behaviour of the animal rights terrorists or the final capitulation of the restaurant. Members of an animal rights group threw bricks through the windows at Midsummer House, attacked their conservatory with glass-etching fluid, used paint stripper on the doors and spray-painted the building with slogans in protest at the restaurant’s use of foie gras. Chef Daniel Clifford has, after consultation with police, reluctantly responded by taking foie gras off the menu. Yet another let-down for diners in Cambridge, in a week which has also seen Bruno’s Brasserie announce its closure.

I bang on at length about foie gras here. It’s delicious, it’s been around since the ancient Egyptians, and it is not necessarily a cruel product. I recommend a trip to any of the small farms in the Dordogne which practise gavage, or force-feeding, if you are worried or curious about the animal welfare issue. I visited such a farm a few years before I started Gastronomy Domine, and saw happy, fat birds who often line up to be fed at mealtimes. Prices for the terroir-raised French stuff are much higher than those for the mass-produced Chinese product, which I do have reservations about: reservations which stop me from buying cheap foie gras. I’m perfectly happy to eat it and serve it to my friends otherwise; foie gras is a tremendous delicacy.

A quick Google (I’m not doing these guys the favour of linking to their site) for the people responsible for the awful vandalism at Midsummer House reveals a horrible level of sophistry (their basic conceit is that the fatty liver is a diseased liver, and that therefore Midsummer House is selling diseased meat) and a pretty transparent credo – they’ve got several banners up saying “Ban foie gras! Go veggie!” Violent, militant vegetarians are a group that have always bemused me utterly. It’s all very well softly denying your canine teeth exist and lovingly stroking a chicken, but when you do this at the same time as buzzing a brick through a restaurant window at 7pm, you’ve got a problem.

They’re denying the little person on the reading side of the menu a choice. If enough people are buying foie gras in shops and eating it in restaurants to make it a commercially viable product in this country (which it is; Selfridges have stopped selling it because of the animal terrorist threat, but you’ll still find it in the food halls at Fortnums and Harrods, as well as at a myriad smaller delis and, of course, on a bazillion restaurant tables), then this looks a lot to me like those diners have weighed the moral case and come out on the side of a nice, juicy foie. For god’s sake – you can buy the stuff at Costco, which suggests to me that the demand is out there. It’s Midsummer House’s great tragedy that the restaurant’s charming position, off the roads, in the middle of an approximately unpoliceable common, make it a much easier target for criminals wanting to make a violent point. Commiserations to Midsummer House, and I hope that foie gras makes its way quietly back onto the menu when the fuss has died down.

If you know anything about the attack on Midsummer House, which the staff discovered on Sunday morning, you can contact police on 0845 456 4564 or call Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.

Roast garlic and a jar of infused honey

Smoked garlicI managed to get my hands on a couple of bulbs of fat, golden, oak-smoked garlic this weekend. (Cambridgeshire readers should head straight over to the River Farm Smokery in Bottisham for more smoked goodies.) It’s beautifully pungent stuff; years ago, I bought a plait of smoked garlic for my parents, who ended up having to keep it in the garage to prevent the whole house from taking on a smoky, garlicky taint. If you’ve not tried smoked garlic before, it’s pretty easy to imagine, but the reality is always a little startling. This is a fiercely flavoursome product. You can make a little go a long way, but I really like to use whole cloves of it in casseroles or around roast dishes. Much of this bulb found itself being used in a roast lamb dish with beans – just follow this recipe and add about eight whole cloves of smoked garlic in place of the chopped fresh stuff – you’ll need a couple of extra cloves to stuff into the skin of the lamb as well.

Garlic cloveWhen garlic is smoked, its cloves soften a little and turn a lovely buttery yellow. The smoking process forces some of the natural sugars in the garlic cloves to bead on the surface of the clove, under the papery skin, becoming sticky, tacky and sweet. You can use these cloves wherever you’d use raw garlic; the whole bulb is also exceptionally good roasted. Try making roast garlic and fresh tomato pasta with a smoked bulb for great depth of flavour. I really like the roast cloves popped out of their skins and spread on a good crusty bread, sprinkled with a little salt. The squashed, roast cloves are also fantastic stirred into mashed potatoes.

Infused honeySmoked garlic and honey are two flavours which, for me, seem to have been invented for each other. I kept five cloves of the garlic back to make a jar of smoked garlic honey baste. To make your own, you’ll need a jar of honey (mine is some of our local wildflower honey – anything with a delicate, flowery flavour will do, though; try clover, orange blossom or lime blossom honey) and five unblemished cloves of smoked garlic. Empty the jar of honey into a saucepan and warm it with a jam thermometer in the pan until it reaches 100° C. Put the whole garlic cloves at the bottom of a sterilised jar and pour the hot honey over them, then cover and refrigerate. The garlic will start to give its smoky fragrance up to the honey almost immediately, and the honey will have a noticeable flavour after a day or so, but for best results the jar should be left for around a month before using. Brush the infused honey over meats before roasting or grilling, use as a surprisingly delicious dressing for baked apples, or spread on some toast and nibble with a glass of whisky for a midnight snack.

Bruno’s Brasserie, Cambridge

Bruno's BrasserieUpdate, 19 February 2008
Sadly, Bruno’s is closing after this weekend, doubtless to be replaced by yet another branch of Starbucks or Subway. Thanks to Dan for the tip.

Update, 10 July 2007

A thousand apologies to Dan from the River Farm Smokery in Bottisham, who is, in fact, responsible for the very lovely smoked tomatoes mentioned below – I mistook them for the restaurant’s own. Dan – I am still having dreams about those pigeon breasts you guys provided for the beer festival. Keep up the good work!

Cambridge isn’t exactly buckling under the weight of good restaurants. It’s odd; Cambridge is an affluent city, and the university gives it a really cosmopolitan feel which just isn’t reflected in its restaurants. We groan under the weight of a million branches of Pizza Express and chains like Café Rouge and Chez Gerard, largely thanks to the enormous property prices in the city, which mean that independent restaurants are hard-pressed to afford a pitch. There are still a few happy standouts (the place I live next door to, 12 miles outside the city, is one of them; email me if you want more details). Midsummer House, with its two Michelin Stars, is a very fine restaurant in the centre of the city, although if you, like me, are mildly annoyed rather than amused by some of the twiddles, froth and frills associated with molecular gastronomy, a visit can be a pain in the wallet you might prefer not to bear. Over in Little Shelford, Sycamore House (only open from Wednesday to Saturday) is excellent – I’ll post a complete review later this year.

Bruno’s Brasserie (52 Mill Road, Cambridge, CB1 2AS, Tel: 01223 312702) has been a Cambridge standard for good French bistro food for some years now. The restaurant used to have a Michelin star, and I’ll admit to being a little hornswoggled by some of the aesthetic changes they’ve made since losing it; the food remains very good, but the linen tablecloths and napkins have gone (to be replaced by nothing at all and sad paper squares), and the restaurant has repositioned itself as a ‘restaurant and gallery’. Cambridge happens to have some good galleries, especially along King’s Parade (check out Primavera when you’re in town for some really interesting paintings, jewellery, pottery, glass and sculpture). Bruno’s is not a gallery. It’s a restaurant which displays local painters’ work, sometimes pretty weak, for sale to diners. Acres of canvas does not necessarily make up for the lack of a tablecloth, especially when the paintings are a bit…you know. Still – on to the food and the wine.

Salade LyonnaiseLinen and questionable paintings aside, I really like Bruno’s. It’s one of the few good restaurants I’ve found which can cater easily for large groups, and in the past I’ve been to events where friends have rented out half of the restaurant. Service was prompt and excellent even when there were thirty of us. This is good French food with some accents from other cuisines, so starters include this Salade Lyonnaise with a perfectly poached egg alongside more exotic dishes like the mussels in a lime and coriander broth.

The wine list is thoughtful and well-chosen, and there’s also a good cocktail list. The restaurant was very helpful with the wine when my friend celebrated a big birthday there, and allowed the pair of us to prop ourselves up at an empty table and taste a selection from the list. Three ‘palate cleansers’ are also on offer between courses: a champagne and vanilla sorbet, a very lovely passionfruit and lavender sorbet and a watermelon and vodka granita. These will cost you an extra £1.50, but they’re worth every penny.

SteakMain courses are built around really excellent cuts of meat. On previous visits I’ve enjoyed the belly pork (which is almost always on the menu). This beef fillet was cooked exactly medium rare (often a difficult task, for some reason, in British kitchens, many of which seem to only specialise in differing shades of grey). It sat on a crisp and delicate rosti, and was topped with a fierce and very tasty Roquefort butter – sometimes the restaurant also offers a foie gras butter. Those tomatoes you can see were a lovely surprise; they were smoked in the restaurant kitchen and served cold (although one of our dining companions said he would have found them much better if they’d been hot, like the rest of the dish).

Strawberry shortcakeI felt like revisiting my 1980s childhood and ordered the strawberry and almond shortcake. This was served with basil leaves and a basil coulis (basil is a lovely herb with strawberries). The fragile, friable shortbread was delicately spiked with almonds, and the strawberries were cheeringly sweet given this summer of no sunshine we’ve been having. This reminds me – if the rain does stop any time soon, ask for a table outdoors on the lovely terrace.

If you visit Bruno’s, parking on one of Mill Road’s side streets or at the Queen Anne car park on Parkside is always available. The restaurant is popular, so you should be sure to make a reservation.

Eat, Cambridge – Superfood salad

Places where you can eat well and inexpensively don’t proliferate in Cambridge. Fortunately, there’s a branch of Eat, a take-away sandwich, soup and salad shop I first discovered when working in London about five years ago.

At the time, I was working for an art dealer in Mayfair, and there was nowhere cheap to find lunch anywhere. I found an Eat concession in the (usually very expensive) food hall at Selfridge’s, and ended up visiting daily for the excellent and very fresh food, which costs no more than a Marks and Spencer sandwich.

Eat opened a shop in Cambridge (on Petty Cury) a couple of years back, and it’s always packed. Head upstairs and try to get a table by the window for a great view down Sidney Street while you eat your sandwich.

There’s an emphasis on food that’s healthy, with wheatless sandwiches scattered among the filled baguettes and chocolate bars, but no feeling that you should be eating the healthier options, or that eating healthily is a penance. Regular readers will be aware that a consumption of superfoods is not one of my priorities – this said, this Superfoods salad is one of the best thing Eat does, right up there with the hot sausage and mustard mash pie.

This salad is full of lightly steamed vegetables, which have been prepared carefully so they don’t lose any of their crunch or their emerald green. There’s calabrese broccoli in there, some fresh peas and broad beans, and butternut squash, which has been cooked to a perfect, toothsome softness and rolled in poppy seeds. Raw, sprouting seeds feature strongly, with a pinch of strongly flavoured, sprouting onion seeds scattered on top, and crisp baby beansprouts in the mix. A scoop of goat’s cheese, some toasted seeds, raw, shredded beetroot, salad leaves and a sharp dressing made with lemon juice finish the salad.

Of course, I ruined the health-giving properties of the salad by drinking a diet cola with it. Still – yum. If you’re near a branch, drop in and give them a try.

Burwash Manor Farm Larder

Burwash Manor Farm (New Road, Barton, 01223 263423), just outside Cambridge, is host to a rather special selection of shops. We’d dropped in to pick up some peg rails from Providence, a Shaker cabinet and interiors firm run by a couple from New England. I then swung by Nest to check out the salvaged 1950s kitchen equipment and refurbished typesetters’ cabinets, grabbed a quick cup of tea and a toasted teacake in the tearooms, and finished the shopping day in the Larder, a delicatessen whose owners have a real eye for quality products.

The Larder benefits enormously from being on a farm; on the day we visited, three people were outside the shop in the rain cleaning and preparing asparagus straight from the fields. Asparagus is popping up a few weeks later than usual this year, because it’s been so cold. Grab some now if you can; the season is very short. (No pics of the asparagus for you today – it was so good it deserves a post of its own.)

Everything on offer is organic, much of it from small suppliers. A lot of the fresh produce comes straight from the farm. This does mean that sometimes the product you’re after might not be in stock, so if you want the sourdough starter (which always sells very fast), the fresh eggs from the cheerful-looking hens, or happen to be after a particular type of vegetable or fruit, ring ahead to check on stock. (Alternatively, just do what I do: roll up and pick from the enormous selection on offer, letting availability dictate what you’ll have for dinner.)

Local produce is strongly represented, with apples and juices from Coton orchard, just around the corner; wines from Chilford vinyard on the other side of Cambridge; local beers; and local pork pies and cheeses. Everything you might want from further afield is on offer, from organic Darjeeling tea to Ortiz tuna and soft chorizo for cooking. Loose produce is carefully labelled, so the buyer is aware of its source and its organic credentials.

I’m in awe of the owners’ ability to pick suppliers. The balance of locally and exotically sourced produce is really well-measured, and the products are chosen with a flair for flavour and quality; Valhrona chocolate rubs shoulders with Cox’s apple juice, paella rice and marinaded mussels. And the cheeses – oh, the cheeses. I think this picture can probably more eloquently describe the fantastic sprawl on offer than I can.

We bought a selection from the chilled cabinet for supper; some caperberries, some pork and apple chutney pies, and a little crottin of goat’s cheese with a piece of truffle pressed into the top, scenting the whole cheese. Some crusty bread and some tomatoes later, and we had an instant supper. Do visit if you get the opportunity; you’ll be unable to leave the shop with your hands empty.