One of my worst character traits is that I am a ‘first impressions’ person. They may not matter to you but for reasons unknown they seem to matter to me, and within the first thirty seconds of meeting someone, arriving somewhere, or trying something new I have decided whether or not I’m a fan. And if I’m not I’ll stick with that view until proven otherwise so it was probably a good thing I decided not to go into legal practice- I’ve got that whole innocent until proven guilty thing all wrong haven’t I?
It’s an awful trait I’m very aware of and now I’m older and wiser, I’m a little less mean girls and a little more forgiving. But once in a while old habits die hard and there comes a time when you’re truly tested, most recently on our visit to Alimentum. Power walking down traffic laden Hills Rd, I checked Google maps several times to make sure we were on the right track, I hoped that once over the rise the landscape would transform to the leafy Cambridge I was expecting, it didn’t. From the outside, Alimentum reminded me of the overpriced but not overly good cafe at the bottom of your apartment block, where you go when you’re too hungover to venture further than your front door; but at this point I’m reminding myself not to judge a book by its cover.
Once inside we weren’t immediately inspired to have a change of heart; I can’t quite put my finger on it but the Michelin star quality just wasn’t there. Maybe the scuffed and scratched tables with the pleather chairs had something to do with it? If there was ever an advertisement for the difference a pristine white tablecloth would make, this was it. Right now all hope rested on the army of chefs I could see through the window to the kitchen to prove me wrong about this restaurant.
Alimentum offer several menu options from the surprise ten course Taste of Alimentum to an exceptionally reasonable, but limited option fixed-price lunch; we went a la carte because three courses is more than enough at lunch time and we wanted more choice. Out came the amuse bouche and olives, a welcomed sight to our starving stomachs. The warm house bread was starting to encourage a change in stance, the silky smooth artichoke veloute with pickled mushrooms, not something I’ve had before, was making me sit up with a little more excitement.
We started with the quail breast and leg with broccoli, lime and peanut, and the smoked eel, chicken wing, roscoff onion, apple and chive. I sliced into the breast to reveal a blushing pink inner, the legs were the kind I’d pick up and gnaw on had we not been in polite company, and I seriously wished I had a jug of the rich, sticky sauce. The eel looked so delicate in the broth, nestled among cubes of apple and charred onions, it tasted anything but weak and wimpy, bringing instead some strong, salty flavours.
After the first course I was ready to admit I defeat; the less than inviting location and drab decor were to be forgotten, the kitchen was succeeding in the battle to win me over.
My main event was the seabass with cauliflower, langoustines, goat’s cheese and Pedro Ximenez; as you would expect from a Michelin star kitchen the seabass was perfect, but as a cauliflower lover I was most excited to see this often dismissed vegetable play a starring role in the dish. Charred florets were nutty and earthy, while the thin slices stood there bold and unapologetic, challenging those who claim this vegetable has no flavour of its own. Oh and do I really need to rave about how sweet and succulent those langoustine were?
However, as much as I loved the seabass, I’ll admit a bit of plate envy for the Denley pork belly and fillet with cabbage and apple. This dish was a show stopper, and it tasted every bit as good as it looked; no dry fillet in sight, unctious belly, both generous portions. Plates would have been licked had we been seated at a more secluded table.
You should know by now that I rarely end a meal without dessert although at lunch time, this seems indulgent, even for gluttonous old me… but I’m never one to shy away from a challenge so there was no hesitation when our waitress asked if we would like to see the desserts. Our one small sign of restraint? No chocolate gateau with passionfruit was ordered despite the ones we spied from other tables looking devilishly good. Instead, after the pre-dessert gin and tonic, we had a curiously named arctic roll and the lemon curd with white chocolate and fennel.
The arctic roll reminded me of a swiss roll but for cooler climates, the sponge was more dense and chilled, what would have been cream was a parfait, and where you might have had fresh fruit there was a ridiculously good apple sorbet and vanilla ice cream. My only complaint was the plate; no, not as criminal as serving it on a slate but it might as well been- no rim to hold everything in and far too small, this was not an easy dish to eat.
When the lemon curd dish arrived, we weren’t sure what to make of these white and yellow blobs with lollipop stick looking things stuck on them, in fact, looking back, I’m still a little bewildered but what matters is that it really, really tasted good. Both dishes were light and oddly refreshing, a stark change from the decadent endings we normally have.
So are you ready for this… a certain someone would say this is a rare moment but I honestly am getting softer in my old age, so here goes: I admit, my first impressions were wrong. The hardworking team of chefs in that kitchen served me my defeat on some creative, tasteful, and tasty plates of food. The atmosphere and ambiance might have been more alluring in the evening, the service we received could have been a little more polished, but the food was good. Oh so very good.
So Make a Move
- There is a frequent train service from London King’s Cross or Liverpool Street stations, taking approximately 45- 90 minutes. Book in advance for tickets costing as little as £10 return.
- Alimentum, 152-154 Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 8PB, 3 course a la carte at £53/pp.
- Take a punt along the river with Scudamore’s and enjoy the views of The Backs, £18/pp.
- Venture to the rainforest at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens, £5/pp.
- Admire pieces by Cezanne and Monet at the Fitzwilliam Museum, free.