The centre of Cambridge is a miserable place to drink. I’m not going to rant about this, but between soulless chains, student vomit production-lines, and brave attempts that have failed by becoming a restaurant with an unconvincing pub-shaped mask on, there’s basically nowhere to go for a beer. So when the Pint Shop announced they’d be selling around ten craft keg beers, another five or so cask ales, and serving food while giving equal space to drinkers and diners it seemed a bit good to be true.
After having dinner there last week, I can confirm that it is both good and true.
If you want to skip the rest of this review, the tl;dr is: go there and eat the Triple Cooked Ox Cheeks – they are heart-stoppingly delicious.
Adam at Pints and Pubs has done a write up of the beer and the history of the Pint Shop, and you can find a good set of photos of the place here. Those will give you a fair idea of what it’s like – it’s modern with retro detailing to the core, and far more spacious than I expected. They’ve done a nice job of the décor.
The beers I had were well kept, and skewed (largely though my choice) to the “cold, fizzy hoppy” end of things – Kernel’s Table Beer, Magic Rock’s Curious, Camden’s Ink stout, a Rogue IPA, and probably at least one more. We were there for a while and it does get hazy. It’s good beer in a pub with a nice ambience, but I really wanted to talk about the food.
There were a group of us, so we all got to try a fair few things, and the selection was generally excellent. It’s broadly traditional British, but with some nice contemporary execution details, and nothing too wanky. They do a lot of big, rich, slow cooked meat, and they mean business about it.
After starters and bar snacks (including sensational home-made pork scratchings with fennel) the menu is divided into spit roast, charcoal grill, and braises. The starters are similarly about putting big produce front and centre.
I kicked off with fried herring, crusted, with an egg and caper sauce, also managing to try the “country jar pâté” served with pickled plums. The pate stole the show there – it was thick and rillettes influenced, wrapped in bacon and served with thick slices of fresh sourdough. The sweet zing of the plums slices through the richness, complementing perfectly, and the pâté itself was incredibly rich and soft.
The herring was good – well cooked and flavourful. But the sauce just wasn’t to my taste. It was a kind of deconstructed mayonnaise. An affair of mustard, vinegar, and chopped egg with capers. The fish took the salt and acid well, but I should have steered clear of it. Hard boiled eggs just aren’t for me, and I should really have known better.
Between us, we attacked four of the mains. The beer-brined spit-roast chicken, with chips and curry butter, the heavenly triple cooked ox cheeks (served with sprouting broccoli), a steak with shallot and marrow butter, chips, and impressive onion rings, and the lamb loin chops served with pan hegarty. This, apparently is a nebulously northern potato bake full of onions and cheese.
The weakest was probably the chicken, but that’s not saying much. It was still tasty as all hell. The idea under it seemed to be a kind of fancied-up chicken and chips, but via coronation chicken. The brining preserves moisture, and the spit roasting keeps things tender, then the butter sneaks in that kind of light British curry edge. It won’t win any prizes, but it works really well.
The steak was a steak, and although I didn’t try it, I’m told it was a good one. I’ve also heard very, very good things about the chips, and you can get them at the bar with curry sauce. This is heroic.
The ox cheeks though. Oh, those ox cheeks. Fucking hell, they’re amazing.
They’re a well-exercised cut with plenty of flavour, and the Pint Shop didn’t muck about with them. They’d been slow cooked to the point of falling apart, and then served simply, no fuss, in a very, very rich reduction of juices. This was given a delicious gloss and thickness by the cooked-down gelatin. The outside had a very faint charr to it, adding yet another layer of sticky richness. This was like the alchemical distillation of beef – utterly rich, deep, and savoury.
The sprouting broccoli on the side had scattering of what I think was hollandaise, bringing in a very slight sharp note along side the crunch and richness. Broccoli is a great pairing – the umami can go toe to toe with the richness of the beef, but it’s still definitely got a fresh veggie crunch, and you get to pretend you’re being healthy.
This was one of the best dishes I’d had in quite some time.
We didn’t stick around for dessert, but it’s worth mentioning that they’ve had quite a neat idea about how to serve them. One of the sweets was available as a kind of mini portion, in case you fancied a frisson of sugar but the (more than ample) mains hadn’t left space. With a marketing hat on, this is marginal cost/customer experience genius, and even without, it’s a charming little idea.
On balance, I’d definitely say go and give the Pint Shop a try. So far they’re doing a good thing well, and I’ve got high hopes that it won’t go awry. There’s plenty of space to drink in, and the dining area is off to one side, so you don’t have that Brew House experience of practically being shoo’d off with a broom for daring to look at one of the restaurant seats from an over-crowded bar. Fewer twats with popped collars so far, too, though you can’t really regulate that.
But yes, The Pint Shop seems to be the pub the centre of Cambridge needs, and one of its more credible restaurants. Give it a go.
(It’s on Peas Hill, behind the Guildhall)