Osteria Waggon and Horses* is in Milton. As the city grows out to meet it, that’s almost, a bit, if you squint, close enough to say that Cambridge finally has somewhere worth going for Italian food.
Crikey, that’s been a long time coming.
Inside, it’s bright and airy with a little lounge area, and just a few bits of pub poking through. Yes, it says, this is a restaurant, but by all means have a drink – it’s not fussy. That’s the mood. Osteria was friendly, sociable, and delicious.
The menu’s simple, a few things to each course, the way I like it, and front-loaded with a range of little aperitivi to share. You could easily linger over plenty of those and a bottle or two of crisp white on a nice summer evening, before moving on to some pasta. That’s more or less what we did.
We started with a few aperitivi, a bottle of verdicchio, and a basket of excellent bread. There was sourdough soaked with bone marrow, succulent and rich to the point of a brioche note, but with the bread’s sour bite running through it. With this, little Ely radishes with a whipped soy butter and toasted seeds, a coarse hazelnut hummus with crudites, and curls of salt beef with mustard and deep creamy fat.
The hummus was nicely rough, and quite a big flavour although without the hazelnuts dominating. The beef and radishes were simple things allowed to stand out. The Tagliere di Formaggi selection I saw going to another table made me wish I’d just ordered that instead of pasta.
They’re pairing a lot of carefully-sourced local food with a few Italian imports, to create something that deploys the idea and method of a rustic osteria, rather than attempting to ape one whole and out of context. This carries through to the mains and pasta: Cromer crab, agnolotti with a beef and rabbit stuffing, simply-prepared flat fish of the day.
The agnolotti were small, and cooked just so. Fresh pasta with a little bite, thick, but not overpoweringly so. The rabbit stands out a little against the background, bringing the slightly-coarse filling together with a gentle gamey edge. They’re sauced with sugo d’arrosto – a rich reduction of wine, stock, butter, and herbs. This was glossy, silky, and enormous. Delicious.
The pappardelle were everything I love in pasta. Big and flat and just rough enough in texture that each ribbon can hold a little sauce. It was served with what must have been close to a whole crab, and a simple cream sauce, purslane and toasted seeds scattered over. The portion was huge, and I don’t think got finished, but it was a splendid use of the crab.
The flat fish (plaice, I think when we visited) I didn’t get to try, but the pickled fennel slivers seemed like a fun flourish.
My favourite flourish, though was the “sage ash” on the side of the agnolotti. I’d not come across this idea before, and wondered if it was a daft gimmick. Perhaps. But if so, it’s a daft gimmick I’m 100% behind. It’s sage, burned hot and fast, ground with tapioca for texture, and finished with maltose and sage oil to rebalance the flavours and ensure it’s not unpleasantly gritty-powdery. The result is a beautiful pinky grey, and aromatic. Sweet sage and a contrast of mild charcoal on the palate. It presents beautifully, and made a pleasant alternative to fried sage over the pasta.
Mains average around £15, and the aperitivi sit in the £2.50 – £4 range per dish. Wines are sensibly priced, almost entirely Italian, and around half are available by the glass. That’s always nice to see. There’s a set menu, and a heavily-reduced pasta lunch. It’s just a well balanced offering.
The owners were lovely – friendly and helpful, and obviously deeply involved with and fond of the food. The menu is heavily Italian, and we weren’t too familiar with some of the terms, but they seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to tell us about the food rather than judging or sneering. Sure, from a casual usability point of view, I’d prefer something more approachable, but I enjoyed hearing the details.
I enjoyed the food, too, as you can probably tell. It’s so refreshing to get away from copy/paste chain Italian, and into somewhere that understands produce. Those agnolotti, too – succulent and rich.
Ok, so Milton’s not really on the way to anything in Cambridge. You’re not going to just be passing of an evening unless you live there. But Osteria Waggon and Horses only a twenty five minute walk from my house. On a warm evening, that’s a walk I can see myself taking a few more times, and one I’d thoroughly recommend to others.
*Minor rant warning.
Ok, the name. Osteria Waggon and Horses? I just can’t make the bits fit together in my head. Doesn’t scan. The name is bolted on to the old pub, and feels oddly like a metaphor. Or at least an interesting symptom of what I think of as the Cambridge Restaurant Crisis.
Broadly: tiny town with little room to grow, plus the UK’s morally-harrowing property situation gives you untenable overheads for opening any non-chain, not massively-financed business anywhere with any footfall to speak of. The outcome: nobody without vast cash reserves can afford to start anything anywhere people might actually want to go.
That’s easing up a little, but not because things are getting cheaper. And even those with money aren’t guaranteed a hit. The ill-fated Syrens stank of spending-daddy’s-money-on-my-gap-year-fantasy, and I don’t think I ever saw more than about five tables filled. Anyway, embarrassing tits-mermaid folly aside, the only real solutions are to be rich, or to work around the cost. Sure Cambridge isn’t light on the former, but for everyone else the latter means going out of town and/or flipping (probably tenant) pubs into restaurants.
That’s risky for a whole spectrum of reasons, not least the requirement to awkwardly pretend to be a pub for at least some time. Also, the hit you take on the identity you can stamp on a place. Hence the Wrestlers. Hence various iterations of the Alex. Hence an awkwardly-located Italian restaurant with an awkwardly mismatched name. Hence half the food worth eating in Cambridge being served out of the back of a twee retrofitted camper van. Dissonant branding isn’t the end of the world, but it’s another tiring chapter in the exhausting saga of Cambridge Property Prices Are Why Nobody (Under Fifty) Can Have Nice Things.
Ahem. Right. Go and eat at the nice restaurant in the little village. It’s got a great ale pub nearby too.