22 Chesterton Road, Cambridge, CB4 3AX www.restaurant22.co.uk
Always eager to learn more, Jo goes to Cambridge to try a restaurant that's rising well above the student fodder that's mostly on offer
I’m usually suspicious of restaurants ‘named’ after the number of the street they’re on. ’If they’re that unimaginative about the name, how inventive will the food be?’
But in this case, 22 isn’t just the number of cards in a Tarot deck or a Taylor Swift song; it’s also the bingo caller’s ‘two little ducks’, apt for a restaurant just a few stones’ throw from the River Cam.
Continuing with numbers, Cambridge has always been lacking in really good independent restaurants – there’s still just one Michelin star in this sophisticated city, at Midsummer House. The rest are mostly chains and an explosion of Chinese restaurants and noodle bars, catering to the huge numbers of students and tourists from Asia.
As a result, the locals are abuzz with 22, an elegant restaurant within a classic Victorian townhouse. It’s been through several incarnations over the years but Alex Olivier and Sam Carter have been at the helm since March, Alex giving up her job as a commercial property solicitor and Sam having worked as a chef at Michelin level at both Hambleton Hall in Rutland and Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in London.
The appealingly short and simple modern British menu changes weekly, depending on what the local suppliers bring. When I visited, the à la carte menu was on the cusp between summer and autumn – a bit of a bipolar time, with summer truffles and autumnal game vying for plate space.
Snacks that smack of sophistication kicked off the seven-course tasting menu (£50): nocellara olives alongside a disc of summer beetroot with goat’s curd and toasted pine nuts – texture, freshness and flavour with a sour hit in one bite, then a beer-battered prawn atop garden pea purée and a triple-cooked potato chip, a clever riff on fish and chips with mushy peas.
The amuse-bouche was a sensational palate prepper: ultra-smooth, rich button mushroom velouté with texture from pecorino panko breadcrumbs, a hint of tarragon and tangy pecorino foam, then a starter of heritage carrot cooked in chicken stock and orange juice and another one coated in panko flavoured with garam masala, with crisp chicken skin and dots of coconut cream. Earthy and sweet with a hint of Asia, this was really inspired.
Monkfish was all the rage in the 1980s but seems to have fallen out of flavour. The fish course here suggested time for a revival: beautifully cooked, meaty Cornish monkfish with a creamy brown shrimp and butter sauce given a flavour and texture boost with smoked sweetcorn and camomile adding an intriguing element.
Guinea fowl has to be one of the joys of September eating and deserves more recognition so I was delighted to see it on the menu. My main of Suffolk guinea fowl, sprouting broccoli, girolles mushrooms and Madeira jus was a real and traditional ode to autumn, although the rich guinea fowl croquette alongside the meat was a tad too filling, with three courses to go.
The cheese course featured an intelligent choice of five from Britain and France. My advice would be to choose three to avoid overload, served with Alex’s mum’s apple chutney and lovely rye bread and crispbreads.
A palate-cleansing pre-dessert followed that was so refreshing and one of the highlights of the menu: clean flavours of Pimm’s jelly with apple and mint sorbet, strawberry, cucumber and mint, like a deconstructed glass of Pimm’s on the plate.
At the end of what had been a fairly rich tasting menu, the dessert’s whiskey-laced chocolate sponge felt a bit like overkill, although the other elements of blackberry mousse and honeycomb were excellent; I wished they had been the main players.
But any quibbles are minor. This is ambitious cooking that deserves recognition: seasonal, accessible and well-executed. It’s no surprise that Alex and Sam are being so lauded locally. Let’s just say, you should get their number.