It’s a brave chef who leaves his Michelin starred restaurant in the provinces to undertake a guest slot in the great metropolis. With an unfamiliar kitchen, new brigade and front of house team, let alone a different clientele, the exercise is fraught with potential difficulties. Reputations painstakingly developed over years might be ruined in the same number of days.
Mark Poynton of Alimentum in Cambridge, is one such chef who has seized the opportunity – along with the risks – to showcase his cuisine to a wider audience at the Landmark Hotel; and from the outstanding meal Fine Dining Guide sampled early into his three week stay, he is doing it with great aplomb. That he has managed to offer two tasting menus as well as the carte in a new, albeit temporary, environment, is a testament to his organizational and leadership abilities as well as his expertise as a chef. Indeed, he has only brought with him one of his kitchen team and his restaurant manager.
The grand indoor setting of the Winter Garden, complete with palm trees and glass roof high above the atrium, could hardly be more different from the contemporary designer surroundings of his 60 cover restaurant in Cambridge. Opened in 2007, Mark joined Alimentum as chef patron in 2008, the year it was awarded three AA rosettes. It has subsequently been listed amongst The Good Food Guide’s 60 best UK restaurants and gained a highly coveted Michelin star in the 2013 guide.
Such accolades reward the food’s inventive artistry, masterly precision, and meticulous attention to detail. How refreshing to hear Mark describe his cooking as “complex, carefully crafted and very technical.” His labour intensive efforts, aided by the latest culinary technology, emphasize purity of taste with balance of flavours, textures and temperatures. The presentation of his dishes is exquisite.
Amongst his influences is Daniel Clifford of the two Michelin starred Midsummer House, where Mark was head chef before coming to Alimentum. Like Mark, Daniel also guested in London – at the Cube at the Royal Albert Hall.
A special seasonal tasting menu began with excellent canapés of mini gougeres generously filled with a tangy soft cheese.
An amuse-bouche of parsnip and apple veloute, laced with a mere hint of truffle oil, was light and well flavoured. Caramelised parsnip popcorn was a nice innovative touch.
Scallop ceviche was beautifully delicate and fresh tasting. The apple marinade gave a sweetness countered by a spicy horseradish granite which enlivened the whole dish. By avoiding an excess of citrus that can often ruin a ceviche, this dish proved to be a brilliant balance of tastes, textures and temperatures. The crisp, clean mineral qualities of the white wine added to the enjoyment of this course. (Wine: Albarino, Rias Baixas ,Galicia, Spain, 2010)
A quennel of venison tartar was meltingly soft and well-seasoned. The accompanying “Textures of leek” included the charred white stem and a burnt leek puree which gave a slight bitterness which married well with the gentle, gamey flavour of the meat. The often discarded green leaves of the leek were used in a decorative flourish. Visually stunning, this dish was another harmonious essay in taste and texture. The full bodied red wine, with not overpowering spicy and black fruit notes, went well with this course. (Wine : Shiraz, Stonemason, Ballast Stone Estate Currency Creek, Australia, 2010)
The next course proved to be a veritable masterclass of fish cookery. A tranche of eel benefited from its light smoke which showed its rich oily flavour and firm texture to full advantage. Perched on a bed of lightly cooked cabbage it was surrounded by a light but deeply flavoured broth. Trompette mushrooms gave a delicate, chewy texture whilst the whole dish was lifted by the heady aroma of white truffle shavings. The white wine, with is lively acidic note was nicely judged pairing. (Wine: Reisling, Bischofliche Weinguter Triea Mosel, Germany, 2011)
The meat course was another tour de force of precise, innovative cooking. A tournedos of sirloin was tender, moist and bursting with flavour. The star of dish, however, was a croquette of oxtail oozing with unctuous richness – a real taste explosion in the mouth. Hazelnut praline added a sweet textural element that worked surprisingly well with the beef. With its pureed vegetable garnishes and a red wine sauce, this was a highly satisfying composition. This course needed a full bodied red which the spicy Chateauneuf du Pape fulfilled. (Wine : Chateauneuf du Pape, Vieux Chemin, Revoltier Southern Rhône, France, 2010)
For those who cannot decide between cheese and dessert, “Perl las ice cream with Waldorf textures” could prove ideal. The strong but delicate Welsh blue cheese formed the basis of a silky smooth ice cream as well as being crumbled as part of the Waldorf textures. This playful interpretation of the classic salad also included celery jellies, apple cubes, walnuts and semi dried grapes. (Wine : Taylors 10 year tawny port)
Three accomplished desserts all strong on technique, flavour, texture and modern presentation, followed in quick and mouth-watering succession. The sommelier excelled in the difficult task of matching wines with such a range, all of which contained an iced element.
A pre dessert comprised baked white chocolate with refreshing ginger beer granite.
An intriguing “Yogurt baked, coffee and Baileys” featured luscious smooth ice creams spiked with shards of sugar tuiles (Wine: Coteaux du Layon, ‘vieilles vignes’ Loire Valley, France, 2009)
An intense passion fruit sorbet and puree worked well with crisp honeycomb and amoretti. (Wine : Jurancon, Domaine, Cauhape, ‘Octobre’ Jurancon, France, 2010)
Finally, a deliciously moist and light pistachio cake was paired with well flavoured apricot sorbet and enhanced by Amaretto foam.
Overall, this meal exhibited cooking of a high order, with strengths in every department. It reflected Mark’s passion as a driven chef whose creative imagination is matched by the finely tuned skills needed to make his ideas work. It is London’s loss that his time at The Landmark is so short, which in itself justifies a drive up the M11 to eat at his own restaurant. Fine Dining Guide hopes to visit Cambridge soon and will follow Marks’ career with interest.