Osteria Waggon and Horses, Milton (almost Cambridge)

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.

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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.

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Sticks n Sushi, Cambridge

Sushi elevates the useful cliché of little things counting for a lot to raison d’être. Perfect little touches are the whole deal. Sticks n Sushi served us pretty damn good sushi, but they delighted us up front with the best edamame beans I’ve eaten. Lightly seasoned, and grilled to bring out the savoury, these were just everything you want from a sushi appetizer, and they set the tone for a meal of quality produce with considered touches.

Table for 2 sushi platter - sticks n sushi

Sticks n Sushi has been open for a little over a month, but scheduling shenanigans mean I’ve only just managed to get there. While they’re new in Cambridge, they’ve been going for twenty-two years, have twelve branches in Copenhagen, and another four in London. The deal is a slight sushi modernization, yakitori on the side, without recourse to overbearing fusion.

It works.

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Bundobust, Leeds – sensational Indian street food (and craft beer)

This weekend we were up in Leeds for the Thought Bubble comics festival (podcast here). Even when it isn’t full of enthusiastic nerds Leeds is a fun city. It’s got some storming places to drink beer, a lively (and growing) food scene, and since 2014 it’s had Bundobust.

This is one of the best places I’ve eaten all year.

It’s also – and get this – completely vegetarian. In fact, it’s often vegan. How cool is that? Packed to the gills in Leeds centre, serving eclectic veggie street food and exciting beer that puts some of my Soho favourites to hide-under-a-rock levels of shame.

Bundobust selection

So what’s it doing?

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Reys, Cambridge – rotisserie chicken

Reynard is a trickster figure, a Loki-ish fox dude from Medieval picaresque. “Renard”  is the French word for fox. Foxes are of course iconically partial to a spot of chicken, and Reys is a rotisserie chicken restaurant that’s gone in hard on the impish vulpine branding. All orange and jaunty furnishings, the chairs have foxtail stripes. That’s certainly cuter than blood and feathers in the henhouse.

Reys, Cambridge - downstairsThey sell roast chicken. It tastes like good roast chicken, and it doesn’t cost too much.

Everything else is just a little peculiar. There’s this slight Korean edge running through the menu that doesn’t quite sit with the Ikea farmhouse ambience, never really explained. The starters are cursory. But the chicken is fine. It just all doesn’t quite make sense.

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Ember Yard, London – pork and fire

Ember Yard - Iberico presa
Shitty phone picture, because restaurant at night

Ember Yard is the most recent venue (2013) from the Salt Yard Group – a small chain of tapas-inspired charcuterie bars founded by a couple of bored ad execs who thought it might be a laugh to open a restaurant. Now, that doesn’t necessarily end well, and if I’d known in advance, I might not have gone. But I didn’t do my homework.

Instead, I looked at the menu, then spent the rest of the day idly dreaming about Ibérico ham.

That was the right decision, and it wasn’t actually full of assholes, but, well, they list the species of wood used on the charcoal grill, for fuck’s sake. It’s a damn good thing the food tastes amazing.

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Where to eat and drink in Cambridge

Periodically, I get asked where’s good to eat or have a pint in the fair – but slightly dull – city of Cambridge. For convenience, here’s my (occasionally sarcastic) list.

I’ll try to keep it up to date.

(Halibut with peanut and squash, at Alimentum)

These aren’t detailed, and I’ve not include anywhere I haven’t been yet, so there’s probably a few good places missing. They aren’t in any order.

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SmokeWorks, Cambridge

As Cambridge slowly gives up even pretending not to be a London suburb, the accretion of restaurants you might actually want to eat in goes hand in hand with the complete inability to afford houses you might actually want to live in. A mixed bag, to put it mildly. But when I heard that we were getting a BBQ joint in that Bodeans/Pitt Cue style, I was excited.

The horrifyingly distorted economics of my hometown are somewhat beyond the scope of a paean to pulled pork. You could mutter darkly about gentrification or something, but in the centre of Cambridge that’s taking the piss. Plus, I suspect the tears shed for the demise of the Eraina actually fall more from nostalgia for greasy 1970s moussaka than any understanding of how food is meant to work.

No, the vaguely-Greek-if-you-squint trip around the Med in a deep fat fryer has been replaced with SmokeWorks, and I could not be happier about it.

Smokeworks (2)

(There’s a great set of photos here from the opening night, by Karohemd)

The food, of course, is the important part. And the short version is: it’s great.

Let’s get a bit more detailed.

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Giggling Squid, Brighton – offbeat Thai

When I walked past Giggling Squid, I had a funny feeling I’d been there before, half-cut, about ten years ago, with a friend and his mother. That was quite an evening, and not conducive to long-term recall. Looking at their website, I’m not so sure. It had all the feel of a funky local independent, and appears to be a funky local chain.

Fuck it. The definition of “independent” is stretched paper-thin across music, shops, restaurants, publishing, and who knows what else. And chains aren’t axiomatically evil, whatever the strong correlations. Certainly, Giggling Squid didn’t feel like sitting down to dinner with The Man.

Duck spring rolls, at Giggling Squid

What it did feel like was a good Thai restaurant with an interestingly offbeat menu. There was plenty on there I’m not used to seeing, including a decent selection of fish, some standard curries with a twist, and some fun sounding bin ends from Quaff (a local wine merchant I’ve still not managed to get to, but heard great things about).

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Alla Stella, Desenzano (Lake Garda, Italy)

We were looking for somewhere to eat on our last night in Lake Garda, and had a couple of places in mind. Some of the TripAdvisor reviews of Alla Stella were a little mixed, so we weren’t initially sure, but after sticking our heads round the door, we didn’t even bother looking at the rest of the places on our list. It smelled fantastic, and the ambience was spot on.

Crushed potatoes with anchovies and tomatoes

Alla Stella is jammed into a side street, a narrow building with a couple of rooms and a little covered courtyard. Embracing the bare-stone vaulted ceilings, but steering clearly away from twee stucco tourist tat, there’s a modern bar vibe with eclectic furniture. There’s glass and metal, and a really nifty fireplace. Basically, it’s what my living room would look like if I had money; right down to the giant hams hanging in a niche near the bar.

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Boopshi’s, London – schnitzel & spritz

Set on Windmill st, just off Tottenham Court rd, Boopshi’s was relatively quiet on a Saturday afternoon, and a thoroughly pleasant place for a late lunch. It’s bright and airy in a way that “modernized Austrian schnitzel joint” just does not suggest. It’s more style bar than beer cellar, and I absolutely do mean that in the good way. It’s tasty.

Boopshi's exterior

Eating in London, I seem to wind up at these mildly-ridiculous monoconcept noshing houses. As a grotesque self-parody, I’m ok with this, and Boopshi’s is another good one. So was Bubbledogs, who only serve champagne and hot dogs, and you can probably guess what Garlic and Shots do. They’re on the list for next time.

Boopshi’s serve schnitzel and spritz. Schnitzel and spritz are good, and we had plenty of both on our trip round central Europe last year. Oh, they have other things too, things I’d like to go back and try, but the stars are the schnitzel and spritz.

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