With so many good restaurants in London, why leave the capital in search of culinary adventure?
The food is unlikely to be better. Travel costs mean it won’t be cheap. If you drive, you can’t drink; if you take the train, you listen to idiots with mobile phones.
It’s enough to make you lose your appetite.
Midsummer House is worth the aggravation, the rail journey of about an hour from London and the dull walk from Cambridge train station to the pretty Victorian villa that houses chef Daniel Clifford’s restaurant beside the river Cam.
You dine in a conservatory looking out onto the garden and as Clifford’s cooking is seasonal you can feel suitably in touch with nature as you look at the menu over a glass of Shawsgate Vineyard, Bacchus, 2011, an English white.
The tasting menu is called Taste of Midsummer, which can be confusing on a spring day. It costs 95 pounds ($143) for about 10 courses, plus 70 pounds for five matching wines. This is no cheap day out: It is more birthday or anniversary territory.
The reason you go -- apart from the joy of traveling hopefully while listening to fellow passengers’ inanities -- is for Daniel Clifford’s cooking. Clifford is fluent in the language of modern gastronomy but doesn’t bore you with it.
He took over at Midsummer House in August 1998, won his first Michelin star in 2002 and his second in 2005. It’s technical cooking in the service of the ingredients rather than the ego of the chef.
You won’t find a multiplicity of elements on your plate, nor a disconnect between what you think you ordered and what shows up. (If you watch the TV show “Great British Menu,” you get a good idea of Clifford’s style.)
Your meal may start with an amuse bouche of bloody Mary sorbet with gougettes, followed by blue-cheese panna cotta with fresh pear and broccoli veloute. Dishes may include sweetbreads, pistachio, maple syrup and mouli; roast brill, surf clams, cucumber, wasabi and sorrel; and slow roast beef cheek, sauteed tongue, horseradish, turnip and Paris browns (mushrooms).
Pistachio? Maple syrup? Wasabi? This isn’t a U.K. Independence Party approach to gastronomy. It’s outward-looking and inclusive, like the matching wines, which come from Spain, Austria, Italy and France as well as from England.
The dining room is as quiet as a country vicarage. It was as if the battery on my decibel counter took a rest as the noise level drifted between 45 and 48. The peaks coincided with my breathing after that unaccustomed walk from the station.
I arrived at midday on the dot and was later joined in the dining room by a jolly table of diners who looked like they might be academics from the university. The decibels edged up to about 60 by the time a dessert of crisp fig cannelloni with cinnamon foam and gingerbread ice cream arrived.
If you don’t want to eat or spend so much, there are cheaper options, such as a three-course lunch menu for 40 pounds. The wine list takes no prisoners. To give an example, the Ruinart Blanc de Blanc NV is 150 pounds.
There is a solution for drinkers. There’s a very good pub right next door, the Fort Saint George. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited it last year. It’s one of the oldest inns in the city and traces its history to the 16th century.
The world outside London isn’t so bad after all.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? The basic lunch menu is 40 pounds for three courses, 50 pounds for four and 60 pounds for five.
Sound level? Hushed. Below 60 decibels.
Inside tip? Don’t miss the pub next door.
Special feature? It’s not in London.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Yes.
Midsummer House is at Midsummer Common, Cambridge, CB4 1HA. Information: http://www.midsummerhouse.co.uk, +44-1223-369-299.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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