Midsummer House, Cambridge

Midsummer House is widely held to be the best restaurant in Cambridge. Given it’s also one of only nineteen restaurants in the UK with two Michelin stars, I was prepared to be impressed. Then again, given it has a reputation for service that’s snooty to the point of open class war, I was prepared to be impressed through a veil of gentle fury.

Happily, the food was flat-out excellent, and the only thing that made me feel not really wealthy enough to be welcome was the wine list. I’ll get to that later, because although it didn’t remotely marr the meal it’s a serious problem for the overall quality of the experience.

Mango and passion fruit delice, with lemongrass ice cream

No, the service was pitch-perfect, and the food while not exactly subtle was probably the best I’ve eaten. The TL;DR version is that it’s absolutely worth going, and it helps to have a slightly sweet tooth.

We were a party of nine in the private dining room, and so were restricted to their private dining menus. We opted for the £76, as it actually seemed marginally more interesting that the £90. This wasn’t a problem, but I’d be curious to go back for the full tasting menu experience. There were three nominal courses, and enough amuse-bouche, pre-this, post-that, and nebulous extras to constitute an entirely separate meal. In fact, by my count,   I ate three desserts last night.

The food

Pea veloute
Pea veloute with tomato jelly and tiger prawns

The amuse-bouche was a pea velouté over a tomato jelly, with tiger prawns. It was light and silky to the point of foaminess, and would have been a credibly-sized portion for a starter or frankly a light lunch. The tomato wasn’t overwrought, and the freshness of the peas sat nicely with the lightness of the sauce. The tiger prawns didn’t really add or detract. I guess that’s a recipe design criticism, but then I bloody love huge prawns, so I’m not at all complaining.

My starter was a celery and watercress bavarois, with a  “cannelloni of goats’ cheese”,  pickled walnuts, and horseradish ice cream. The cannelloni was a slender, brittle tube of something I rather embarrassingly can’t identify. It could perhaps have been very carefully worked pastry, but had a colour like beetroot. Either way it was splendid. The goats’ cheese and walnut pairing is a natural, and they were well balanced.

Celery and watercress bavarois
Celery and watercress bavarois, with goats’ cheese, pickled walnuts, and horseradish ice cream

The bavarois, like the velouté, was exceptionally light, tending to a foamy texture. Unexpected foam was to be a motif. Celery is risky to put front and centre, as it can readily trample other flavours, but this was perfectly held in check. The horseradish ice cream I could have just eaten by the bucket. Again, not overpowering, it was refreshing and crisp with just enough heat.

As a  main, slow roast beef is hard to fault. I couldn’t. It had been done at a low temperature to retain an almost raw texture, and was a top notch piece of meat to start with. But here’s where I do start to find fault a little. The shallot marmalade the beef was served with was powerfully aggressive – incredibly acid and rich. Several of us didn’t finish it, and this kind of strong-arm tartness did get in the way a little. An issue that would recur with the passion fruit gel in the dessert. The celeriac purée was beautifully soft, and a far more successful combination.

Slow roast beef fillet, with celeriac puree, shallot marmalade, spinach, and red wine sauce
Slow roast beef fillet, with celeriac puree, shallot marmalade, spinach, and red wine sauce

At this point, I lost track a little. There was a “pre-dessert”, which always strikes me as overdoing it a little, and like the amuse bouche it was giant. Also like the amuse bouche it was a layered creamy affair, and I wish I’d made a note of quite what. Basically, it was a kind of fancy Eton Mess, but blueberries and very possible lemon curd had got involved. At this point I was having an animated discussion about the limitations of the wine list, and the details escaped me.

The actual, factual, official dessert was a mango and passion fruit delice, served with lemongrass ice cream, and a passion fruit gel of such alarming tartness that I assume its made by pouring fruit into whatever they use to manufacture industrial diamonds. It was bloody brilliant.

Mango and passion fruit delice, with lemongrass ice cream
Mango and passion fruit delice, with lemongrass ice cream

It was also a foolish choice compared to the pistachio soufflés everyone else ordered. Those were magnificent. The delice was, yes, light and a little foamy. This does appear to be an in-house predilection. I’m not really complaining, they do it well, and in any case, that wasn’t what I was paying attention to at this point. No, here it was all about the combination – the sweet but not excessive mousse, searingly tart gel, and soft, sweet ice cream. Substantially, these were the same texture and balance fireworks as with the starter, with the intensity cranked up.

Bottereaux with caramel and calvados sauces

With coffee there were various petit fours, and plates of botteraux with caramel and calvados dipping sauces.

The wine

The wines we had were broadly fine. But the wine list is a mess. It’s like they’d pinched it from a wholly different restaurant – one that lives up to Midsummer House’s bad reviews on TripAdvisor. It’s alarmingly top-heavy, the markup at the bottom is taking the piss, and there is close to nothing in the middle. It’s almost entirely French, comes without tasting notes, and seemed in a way that the general service and ambience did not, to bellow “no riff raff!”  with the air of a dyspeptic, gout-addled Dickensian magistrate.

Their website advertises a specific list for the private dining menu. It’s short, well manicured, and priced as I’d expect. We were actually handed the full list, and had a great Australian Riesling, an overly-tannic Bordeaux with far too much sediment (I think an over-priced Saint Emilion, but again I didn’t take notes), and some delightful PX with dessert.

The wines were ok, but the experience of choosing them was borderline hostile. The list runs for around thirty pages, tops out at £8000, and I couldn’t see a single red under £55.

Expecting a perfectly pleasant bottle of wine for £50 shouldn’t make me feel like a provincial rube, no matter how many Michelin stars you have.

Perhaps I’ve been harsh there, but the disconnect with the rest of the experience really made this conspicuous.

Wrapping up

I don’t want to end by throwing my toys out of the pram over the wine selection, so I’ll point out again that the food was excellent. The starter knocked my socks off, and the service was great.

If you can face the price tag, you should go to Midsummer House. It absolutely is worth it.

If you can’t, I’ll just point out that Cotto is about half the price, and probably about three quarters as good.

3 thoughts on “Midsummer House, Cambridge”

  1. This reflects my tasting menu experience last year. Perfectly executed cooking, great flavours and you definitely don’t leave hungry but it’s all rather safe and classic for my palate.
    The other alternative is obviously Alimentum which is between Midsummer and Cotto pricewise but uttlerly sublime in terms of food and has a rather accessible wine list from all over the world with a decent number of wines available by the glass/carafe.

  2. I went to the fat duck a month ago and have to say how pleasantly shocked I was by their lack of snootiness. They may have had more waiters than necessary, but they somehow knew exactly when you were about to ask something and appeared at right moment out of nowhere.

    The food was exceptional (frankly I’d be surprised if it wasn’t) but they had a similar wine list issue. It wasn’t so much a list as a giant leather bound codex. There *were* a few reds under 50, but almost nothing had tasting notes unless it also appeared in the wine tasting menu. So even if you’re packing a platinum credit card, how do you go about choosing amongst the hundreds of wines? I think the expectation is that you have a long chat with the sommelier about flavour pairings and the cycle of the moon before picking something at random

  3. Yeah, I’ve heard that about the Fat Duck. My housemates went last year and said they’d really calibrated the service/ambience to be welcoming.

    You’re probably right on the sommelier shtick, but then you’d rather expect one to come scuttling over with a handful of astrological charts, and try to up-sell you miscellaneous Rothschilds. I suppose we could have asked to talk to one, but I was rather expecting not to have to.

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