Daniel Clifford’s two Michelin-starred restaurant is situated in a quaint and inconspicuous country house by the River Cam, next to a pub and beer garden. The entire operation fits into a venue the size of…well, a house. There are forty covers most of which are in the naturally lit conservatory, although there is a moodier room that used to serve as the house’s parlour. There is also a private dining room on the first floor and a lounge overlooking the garden. We were seated in the cool parlour dining room, a welcome respite from the summer heat (the restaurant is half an hour’s walk through scenic Cambridge from the railway station).
Chef Clifford himself has the proper culinary credentials, having won Great British Menu and trained under Marco Pierre White at The Box Tree. Having run Midsummer House for the good part of two decades, it won a Michelin star in 2002 and a second one not long after. He cooks in the modernist style, a form of cooking that is ironically beginning to show its age. Since simpler, honest cooking seems to be gaining traction in the UK, I went to Midsummer House to see how one of the stalwarts of fine dining is holding up in these changing times.
this was my third “torched mackerel” dish in about two weeks and I was slightly disappointed that a top restaurant has jumped onto the mackerel train. Fortunately however, the dish was well thought through and ultimately the best version I’ve tried
Once my friend and I settled in at our table, a waiter wheeled in a cart straight from the back catalogues of BoConcept, from which five bottles of bubbly emerged in slow motion. I whistled to break the silence, which was met by a sheepish grin from the waiter. They do this at every table, and watching other guests’ facial expressions was a source of cheap entertainment throughout lunch. A stream of canapes arrived, all of which were delicious but unmemorable. It was during the presentation of these bite sized starters that I noticed most of the staff explained the dishes’ constitution in an overly cautious way insofar as it was awkward. Were they bullied into submission by the rainbow tie-wearing restaurant manager? Or were they intimidated by me, the crazy Asian guy asking questions about espuma? God only knows. Don’t get me wrong, the service was not poor, it’s just that in my book meekness does not inherit you the Earth!
The amuse bouche out of the way, our first proper starter was a blowtorched mackerel on a bed of chopped mackerel, apple and modernist caviar-shaped spheres. At this point I have to point out this was my third “torched mackerel” dish in about two weeks and I was slightly disappointed that a top restaurant has jumped onto the mackerel train. Fortunately however, the dish was well thought through and ultimately the best version I’ve tried – the contrasting temperature and texture between the two layers worked out really well, as did the “caviar” in complementing the crispy, oily flavours of the mackerel fillet. A sauce made with Jack Daniel’s managed to eliminate the degenerate reputation of that whiskey and coated the tongue with a certain tanginess. This dish really demonstrates that the kitchen creates food that lives up to its expectations that comes with two stars.
What followed was a lemon sole dish topped generously with perfectly grilled prawns and served with a seaweed hollandaise sauce that confused the palate, in a good way. The main comprised duck breast roasted medium rare, a cannelloni of duck confit and turnip puree. Once again, the jus shone, suggesting perhaps the sauce guy in the kitchen is due a pay rise. Of the two desserts, a passion fruit and yoghurt sorbet with dark chocolate was tasty albeit unremarkable, while an ewe’s curd dish topped with strawberries inspired. This was served with lovage, a crisp herb grown in the Midsummer House garden, classic yet quirky. At the end of the meal, the restaurant presented us a pleasant surprise in the form of a bowl of beignets with caramel dipping sauce. I am a sucker for little pastries and I would give bonus points just for these.
This is a restaurant that cooks to a consistently high level and will comfortably keep its reputation and ranking as one of the country’s best restaurants.
Overall, lunch provided remarkable value, as for half the price it shared some courses with the longer 8 course tasting menu, and did not look like the restaurant was cutting corners on ingredients. The wine list is one of the most extensive in the UK, but mark-ups were consistently high. For example, a 1996 Pichon Baron will set you back by an eye-watering £900 and Mouton Rothschild comes in at four digits I didn’t bother to register. I was pleased that Midsummer House did not attempt to serve unrecognisable spheres and cubes, instead using modern techniques to tweak classic pairings and try out interesting flavours and textures, the latter of which I tend to rate highly. This is a restaurant that cooks to a consistently high level and will comfortably keep its reputation and ranking as one of the country’s best restaurants.
by J Khou