Competition between England’s two ancient universities has always been fierce, with top place in the academic league tables frequently changing hands. However, in the race for gastronomic excellence, Cambridge has for many years outrun Oxford, (Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons does not count as it lies outside the city limits), being the proud possessor of two Michelin starred restaurants. Of these, the more established and highly garlanded is Midsummer House, which holds two of the coveted stars.
Set on the banks of the River Cam, by the Common which gives the restaurant its name, the unremarkable exterior of this grey, two storeyed Victorian villa gives little idea of the contemporary and spacious interior that lies beyond the modest canopied entrance. A large conservatory extension more than doubles the original dining area, giving a light, airy feel. It has views of a delightful walled garden outside and the busy kitchen inside. The décor, in natural tones, is complemented by comfortably upholstered chairs and well-spaced tables with fine napery. Equally sophisticated in feel upstairs are the private dining room, and glass walled lounge which opens out to a terrace overlooking the Cam.
Daniel Clifford’s cooking, rooted in the classics, employs finely tuned skills, advanced techniques and a measured creativity to produce highly refined dishes. Their clarity of flavour, precision of temperature, variety of texture, allied with well-balanced if sometimes unexpected combinations do full justice to the supremely fresh, high quality seasonal produce. Ingredients are sometimes cooked in very different ways on the same dish, be it, for example, broccoli, celeriac, apple or venison. Presentation often involves a degree of restaurant theatre, with ingredients being carved or sauces being poured at the table. Whether choosing the three course Classic, the seven course Market, or the ten course Taste of Midsummer menu, diners are assured of a truly memorable gastronomic experience.
A Market Menu lunch in early February began with crisp, warm gougeres generously filled with gruyere. These went well with the house Bloody Mary – vodka infused tomato foam spiked with shallots and peppers and garnished with a celery sorbet. This amuse bouche, demonstrating both classical and modern techniques, definitely served its purpose of exciting the taste buds.
The first course saw Cashel Blue cheese rendered into pannacotta form with the correct degree of wobble, smoothness and lightness of touch. Crisp, charred broccoli florets added a gentle bitterness offset by the soft sweetness of fresh pear, the whole dish being brought together by a warm, intense broccoli veloute poured at the table. Served in a rustic pottery bowl, this dish was a triumphant balance of tastes, textures and temperatures.
Next came a whole celeriac, cooked for four hours on the outside barbeque, and halved and scooped at the table. The warm, soft flesh with its mild celery flavour, proved a good foil for the well flavoured ham hock with parsley. Texture and flavour were added by a crisp celery Branston pickle and flakes of charred celeriac skin. Dusted with fine celeriac powder, this was a tour de force in elevating that humble, knobbly vegetable to gastronomic heights. (Wine: Midsummer House Klein Steenberg, Sauvignon blanc, South Africa, 2012)
The fish course showcased an accurately timed and perfectly seasoned tranche of pan roasted cod. A thin golden crust crowned delicately soft, translucent flakes of flesh. Wild garlic and onion puree, together with chanterelles and trompettes de mort added well-judged herbal and earthy notes which complemented the beautiful freshness of the fish. The dish was finished with a rich consommé poured from a cafetiere. (Wine: Summerhouse Pinot Noir, New Zealand, 2009)
Next came a dish that exhibited the strengths of game cookery. Venison loin, slow roasted to medium rare, was flavoursome and meltingly delicious. A suet pudding containing the shoulder, with the rich jus cascading out when cut, was an inspired addition, adding contrasting texture, depth of flavour and an element of fat which the dish needed. Parsley root, onion puree and a chiffonade of savoy cabbage proved suitable garnishes, whilst the fragrance of pine lifted the whole dish. (Wine: Joseph Swan Vineyards, Mancini Ranch, Zinfandel, USA, 2006)
The impressive selection of artisanal cheeses, supplied by Premier Cheeses, proved to be an embarrassment of riches. We chose Epoisses, Roquefort, Chaource and Morbier, which all came in perfect condition of ripeness and flavour.
A composite pre-dessert featured baked yoghurt vanilla base, apple crumble, apple sorbet and apple crisp. The marriage of flavours, textures and temperatures was again exemplary.
The final course had a distinctly Christmasy feel. The poached figs and dates had an excellent, rich flavour enhanced by the reduced spiced wine syrup. A crisp cannelloni tuile, filled with cinnamon foam was light and airy, whilst the velvety textured gingerbread ice cream gave a creamy finish to the dish. (Wine: Banyuls, Cuvee Tradition Moulin de la Rectorie, France, 2011)
Other aspects of the meal were first rate, from the white and brown sour dough bread, to the warm sugared beignets served with good coffee. The seamless service was friendly, efficient and knowledgeable without being obtrusive. The flight of wines, chosen from a wide range, proved to be excellent pairings for each course.
Since arriving in 1998, Daniel Clifford has gradually developed both a premises and a cooking style of which he can be justifiably proud. He gained his first star in 2002 and a second in 2005. As most chefs would acknowledge, holding onto stars is in many ways more demanding than being promoted to them in the first place. That Daniel Clifford and his team have done so for over ten years – in addition to gaining four AA rosettes and 7/10 in the Good Food Guide – is a testament to their consistent high level of skill, creative talent and inexhaustible energy. Nor is further promotion in restaurant guides out of the question given the progress seen so far. Fine Dining Guide will follow the fortunes of Midsummer House with interest.