Some long-standing restaurants are a bit Trigger’s Broom: the name might stay the same but if the management, ownership, food and perhaps even the ethos change, is it really the same restaurant? Some present-day versions of these institutions build upon and improve the originals (arguably The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny or The Quality Chop House fall into this category); other reboots are best avoided (exhibit A: Langan’s Brasserie). All the more reason why they need to be reviewed and re-reviewed.
Restaurant Twenty-Two in Cambridge has been around for 40-odd years but in 2018 it was taken over by partners Sam Carter and Alex Olivier (chef Carter has a background working in Michelin-starred restaurants and Olivier works FOH). I had never visited any previous incarnation of the restaurant so approached this with as open a mind as possible (though my taxi driver raised my expectations when he said “ooh, you’re going to 22, fancy!”).
Set back from the river Cam in a residential area, the restaurant is housed in one of those Victorian semi-detached homes that are so often converted into suburban dental practices. On entering though, this is nothing like a trip to the dentist. Instantly soothed by the Scandi minimalism, the cosy dining room oddly reminded me of Den Rode Cottage in Denmark, with the lighting set to hygge mode (I’m obsessed with soft lighting in restaurants – no-one wants to dine like you’re on the Piccadilly Line). It’s a setting you want to linger in but if I have one gripe about the whole experience it’s the turning of tables. I totally understand why small restaurants need to do this, and I wouldn’t want to deprive later customers of this wonderful experience, but it’s still annoying to be kicked off your table whilst trying to digest (though they did this very, very politely).
This is a restaurant worth crossing the country (or leaving London) for
Fellow customers (indeed Cambridge Fellows) are probably accustomed to the turnaround issue though. Looking around what was once someone’s front room, other guests seemed to be a mix of visiting academics, students on a date or returning regulars (half the guests seemed to know the staff and vice versa). This is always a good sign. And it soon became clear why a loyal dining community has formed.
The classic aperitif list alone was a statement of intent, containing all of my favourite pre-dinner curtain raisers, from Negronis to French 75s, though being in town it would be wrong not to have a Cambridge gin Martini. This was served with Nocellara olives and divine honey-glazed Cropwell Bishop gougères in their own presentation box. A restaurant that understands the concept of the aperitif usually enters my good books. As for the meal proper, only a tasting menu is on offer (short or long), but I can only hope this is representative of any experience at Restaurant Twenty-Two.
First, a mini brioche with chicken liver parfait bridged the gap between amuse bouche and starter (I don’t accept that bread can be a course, though this brioche turned out to be significant for reasons I’ll come to). And then the first of the paired wines: a deceptive Chardonnay that on the nose had the worrying whiff of rower’s armpit but actually complemented the chicken starter very well.
As for said starter, I usually find waiters telling tableside stories intensely irritating, but the waiter here was amusing and to the point: just a brief explanation about how the dish represents the chicken’s birth, what it eats, where it lives (and presumably some sort of reference about how it dies). Here the herb-fed chicken wing, in two guises, was succulent, with oozing Arlington yolk, sweetcorn and hen-of-the-wood. Playful and delicious.
Next up, fish. Line-caught Newlyn brill was served with a smoked onion sauce and trompette de la mort (to continue the mushroom theme from the previous course). The smoky umami-rich sauce was the star of the show here as, sadly, the fish had been overcooked by a millisecond.
Things were firmly back on track with a main dish of dry-aged saddleback pork and confit garlic, which was skilfully executed. The pumpkin containing slow-cooked pork ragu inside was particularly inspired.
And then a very impressive dessert embracing creativity and seasonality: a chocolate and Jerusalem artichoke fondant. Yes, it sounds bonkers on paper but it worked incredibly well. On the side, in what comedians refer to as a “callback”, the brioche from earlier made a reappearance, the leftovers recycled in a milk stout ice cream to avoid wastage. Clever stuff in a clever city.
No meal is perfect. Aside from the table-turning thing, my dry Martini was too wet, I was a bit deflated by the lack of coffee options (Brew Project filter only), and there was the slightly overcooked brill, but none of these were really fatal. Value-wise, at £90 for 4 courses before matching drinks or service, it isn’t exactly cheap either but for this level of cookery it seems justified and commensurate with other excellent restaurants in the city.
It only took four years to visit but this is a restaurant worth crossing the country (or leaving London) for. You’ll have to fight the local regulars for a table though. (Sadly, duels are no longer permitted on King’s College Bridge but you could battle it out on nearby Jesus Green.)
22 Chesterton Road
by J A Smith