Cambridge today is a town of two halves. The architectural spendour of King’s, Trinity and St John’s, lining the picturesque beauty of The Backs, is well known to all. Most visitors arriving at the station take a right turn for the historic centre. However, a turn in the opposite direction, and only three minutes by taxi, will take them to Alimentum, the Michelin starred restaurant in the southern, less familiar, but rapidly developing part of this university town.
Far removed from the narrow streets and ancient college buildings to the north, Alimentum is housed in the ground floor of a new block of flats on the busy Hills Road – where it widens as a dual carriageway – diagonally opposite a modern shopping mall adjacent to a private housing development. The location, together with its proximity to the station – only 50 minutes by fast train from King’s Cross – and the decision to open all week are major bonuses, attracting London foodies as well as local, well-heeled professionals and academics.
Beyond the spacious bar, complete with jazz piano and high stools, the long, high ceilinged restaurant has a smart, informal feel. Smoked glass windows and plain white walls – apart from the red cushioned section at the far end – throw into sharp relief the polished wooden floor, well-spaced dark lacquered tables, and comfortable leather seating. Thankfully, the lighting is not turned down to ridiculously low levels, unlike many high end restaurants, so diners at Alimentum can actually appreciate dishes in their full glory.
The 60 cover dining room can be divided in half by a folding partition to create a private dining area. The major attraction of this end of the restaurant however is the cleverly positioned low window looking into the kitchen. Diners can observe the intense activity of the cold starters and dessert section: bread, fruit and vegetables are swiftly sliced; salads precisely arranged and delicately dressed; savoury mousses carefully piped; sauces artistically drizzled, smeared and doted; ice creams and sorbets deftly shaped into quenelles; crumbs and chopped nuts neatly scattered; and blow torching used for bruleed finishing. And, constantly in the background, the chef-patron’s eagle eye inspects all dishes leaving the passe.
Mark Poynton’s modern European cuisine developed during his seven years at Midsummer House where he was head chef. Since joining Alimentum in 2008, then becoming its owner in 2010, his cooking has reached greater heights. Recognition in his own right came quickly, with the award of three AA rosettes, high marks in The Good Food Guide – including being listed in the Top 60 best UK restaurants – and a Michelin star, the ultimate accolade, in the 2013 Guide edition.
I first sampled his cuisine at his pop up restaurant at the Landmark hotel in November 2012. Now, a year later, I was able to visit Cambridge to enjoy again his highly skilled, inventive and complex cooking. With a talented brigade of eight, Mark employs contemporary techniques to supplement, but not overwhelm, a solid classical base. Impeccable, carefully sourced seasonal ingredients are used in multi component dishes revealing layers of flavour. They impress by their painstaking preparation, accurate timing, harmonious combination of taste and textures, and exquisite presentation.
Creativity and passion matched by accomplished execution are much in evidence in the ambitious menu structure. Terse listings of main ingredients understate both content and composition, adding to the excitement when the dishes finally arrive.The fixed price lunch and early evening menu offers excellent value at £24.50 for three courses, £18.50 for two. A wider choice is available from the carte (£49 for three courses. £36 for 2), whilst two tasting menus are offered: the seven course Taste of Alimentum (£72) and the ten course Surprise Menu (£85). Wines flights to match these, priced at £35 and £42 respectively, are a relative steal at this level. For those who prefer to choose themselves from the international wine list, they will find a good range by the glass, carafe and bottle, without the aggressive mark ups seen elsewhere.
Visiting on a Friday evening, the buzz of real enjoyment created by contended diners became more palpable as the restaurant filled up. The clientele, including students with their parents, groups of young executives and mature couples, reflected the general appeal of the restaurant to a wide social mix.
The Surprise Menu was selected to demonstrate the extensive range of skills and versatile use of seasonal produce.
Nibbles of savoury popcorn and crisp gougeres, generously filled gruyere, were enjoyed with a glass of wonderfully fresh, Deutz Brut, NV champagne.
A warm mini sage and onion loaf had a crisp crust and firm, well flavoured crumb. By way of contrast, slices of milk loaf were more delicate, giving also a nice retro touch.
The inventive element to the cooking was quickly evident in the amuse bouche, a playful interpretation of carrot and coriander soup. A base of caramelised carrot was topped by a silky veloute and crowned with an intense quenelle of coriander sorbet. This witty offering was a miniature triumph of contrasting tastes and temperatures.
Beetroot, goat’s cheese, carrot and orange:
Gently pickled golden and red baby beets and carrots were partnered with a light, creamy but not cloying goat’s curd mousse, encased in a cylindrical beetroot tuile. An intense orange gel, acting as a dressing, cut the richness of crumbled goat’s cheese, extending the sweet and sour notes, whist micro leaves gave a herbal, decorative flourish. These humble ingredients, with contrasting crisp and soft textures, were elevated into a refined, elegant dish which was visually stunning in its vibrant colours. The matching Sauvignon, Chateau Reynon Blanc, Bordeaux, 2007, was suitably light, crisp and clean.
Quail, breast and legs, broccoli lime and peanut
Resting on a bed of smooth pea puree and garnished with wilted bok choy, the well flavoured game comprised melting confit leg and a soft, caramelised breast. Peanuts added crunch whilst an intense wine reduction was acidulated with lime, an inspired touch adding a refreshing lift to a rich dish. Again, the matching wine – “Babiana”, Vondeling, Paarl, South Africa, with its balance of spice and fruit, and an underlying minerality, worked well with the food.
Plaice, langoustine, cucumber, fennel and seaweed
Accurately timed fillets, double layered and topped with firm, sweet langoustines, were sauced with a well-executed chive beurre blanc which did full justice to the seafood. Garnished with shaved fennel and seaweed, this was a fresh, lively dish with subtle aniseed notes. The white wine, St-Aubin, en Remilly 1er Cru, Voincent Girardin, Burgundy, 2010, with its good acidity and minerality complemented the food well, adding to the enjoyment.
Monkfish, pork belly, onion and bay leaf
This “surf and turf” combination was a veritable tour de force of tastes and textures. The moist, meaty monkfish tail and soft, unctuously rich, slow cooked pork were highly compatible partners. Onion puree added an earthy depth, endive gave crisp texture, and bay leaves added a herbal, gentle fragrance. This robust dish was served with Pinot Noir, Robert Oatley, Mornington Peninsula, Australia,2011, a light bodied, gently spiced clear red which paired up equally well with the fish and meat.
Beef fillet, parfait, artichoke, cep, salsify, beetroot, hazelnut
Succulent squares of medium rare fillet shared the plate with two delectable parfaits, one of foie gras, the other of ceps. Their rich flavours and soft textures were balanced by the acidity and crispness of artichoke Barigoule. Other autumnal vegetables – salsify, Swiss chard and beetroot – alongside layered potatoes, hazelnuts, a rich jus and the heady fragrance of shaved truffle, added to the embarrassment of riches, making this the most sensual, indulgent dish on the menu. How fitting that it was paired with a full bodied red of great depth and character – Cabernet Franc, “Figure Libre”, Gayda, Languedoc, 2011
The three sweet courses showed the strengths of the pastry section and the meticulous same attention to detail as the savoury dishes
This pre dessert served as a palate cleanser, with its refreshing tang of yogurt sorbet set alongside cubes of barbequed pineapple garnished with shards of meringue.
Banana Parfait, pecan granola and smoked maple ice cream
Here was another successful marriage of tastes, textures and temperatures.
Blackberry, apple, hazelnut and cassia bark
This autumnal dessert comprised whole blackberries, an intense sorbet and a lively apple semi freddo, both of exemplary consistency. Cubes of apple jelly and a crumble of hazelnuts given the cinnamon flavouring of cassia bark added textural and flavour complexity, again demonstrating the fertile imagination and creativity of the chef.
Overall, this was a most accomplished meal, with no anti-climaxes as is often the case with desserts in a tasting menu.
Wine pairings were expertly selected and concisely presented by the sommelier. The mainly young front of house team, ably overseen by Des (Daniel Huby) the restaurant manager, provided knowledgeable, professional yet relaxed and friendly service. This, together with the excellent food, wine and lively atmosphere – there is also live music at weekends – have contributed to Alimentum’s success as a destination restaurant. Mark Poynton and his team clearly deserve the recognition they have received and move from strength to strength. Fine Dining Guide will certainly follow their progress with interest.