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Monday, 9 July 2012

Champagne Dinner at Alimentum

Alimentum was perhaps the restaurant in Cambridge that kicked off the whole foodie scene - it arrived early in the new millennium before Hotel du Vin, The Punter and the make-over of Fitzbillies at a time when the only good restaurant in town was Midsummer House (even before it got its Michelin stars).

In those days, a good meal in Cambridge involved a drive to The Tickell, The Three Horseshoes or The Pink Geranium - all of which have changed hands since.

We went to Alimentum once in the early days - and were underwhelmed; the location was terrible - a street corner out of the centre opposite the leisure park and a petrol station.

The decor, dark wood with an S&M-infused black and red sub-theme, tried rather too hard to be edgy and ended up not working, whilst the food was good enough, but nothing special and served in smallish portions.

Whenever I mentioned my lack of enthusiasm for Alimentum to local foodies, the response was always "You must go back, it's a lot better now".

I got my chance a few weeks ago when, as a result of some quick-fingered googling, I got the answer right to a question and won a seat at a Champagne tasting and dinner with Nick Adams MW.

The full story is that chef Mark Poynton moved from Midsummer House to Alimentum in about 2008 and then added proprietor to his responsibilities after buying the place out of liquidation in 2010.

The restaurant has now set its sights on becoming Cambridge's second Michelin-awarded establishment, which I think is more of a necessity than vanity, since with nothing remotely interesting in the immediate area, it needs to be a destination in its own right.

The interior has changed a little for the better - not completely made over, it no longer feels quite so darkly, so boudoir-ishly oppressive.

The location has not - but the partial misting-effect of floor-to-ceiling glass windows smooths out some of the rougher edges of the views. And, simply put, the food is now worthy of that coveted Michelin star.

My highly unscientific rule-of thumb is that one star gets you very good food indeed, two gets you dishes that bear no resemblance to anything you've had before, whilst three is reserved for the kind of over-top theatre of El Bulli and The Fat Duck.

After the Champagne tasting, we started on the four course menu created by Mark Poynton with a matching fizz for each course.

Amuse bouche and starter

The amuse bouche of courgette mousse with feta and black olive was light and fluffy but intensely flavoured - the herbaceousness of the mousse was perfectly offset by the strong salty cheese crumbled on top and the earthiness of the delicate slices of black olive.

The wine match for both this and the starter was a Roland Bauchet Selection NV; with mostly Chardonnay in the blend plus around 25% Pinot Noir, it was crisp, refreshing and able to cut through the strong, salty starter, but with enough body to stand up to the weight of the rich-yet-light food.

The starter of lemon sole a la veronique with pickled fennel, grapes and black olive was equally exquisite - a delicate and delicious piece of fish with a foamed creamy sauce and dainty, sweet-sharp-salty slices of grapes, fennel and olives.

Main

The main course of quail featured breast, hay smoked legs and cep puree with lentils and truffle. It was, appropriately, a little more substantial than the two previous courses and again absolutely delicious.

The heart of the dish, for me, was the wonderful cep puree which pulled together the gamey, pink, tender and perfectly cooked meat with the earthiness of the lentils.

The wine match of Drappier Carte d'Or NV also worked really well with this - with a higher proportion of Pinot, it had more of the earthy, forestey, gamey aromas found in the food, as well as the body to stand up to protein-rich meat and lentils.

Pre-dessert and dessert

The pre-dessert of apple and cucumber sorbet with apple and rapeseed oil matched to a Moscato Casa Sant' Orsola NV provided the one bum-note of the night.

Correctly light, delicious and refreshing, the sorbet's sharp greenness from the apple and cucumber jarred with the sweet, primary fruitiness of the Moscato - although both were very good indeed, this was on no level a good match.

However, the Moscato made complete sense when the dessert itself was served - the sweetness of the jelly, apricot sorbet and mousse with basil meringue matched perfectly this time.

And like all the previous courses, it was beautifully made, elegantly presented and deliciously balanced.

Excellent ingredients, perfectly cooked, beautifully presented; a traditional dish served with a couple of twists; the addition of the unexpected flavours from the grapes and black olive; the way it just all came together and worked beautifully - this was highly intelligent cooking that did not wear its status too flashily.

---xxx---

It is one of the best meals I have had in a long time and clearly had its sights firmly set on at least one, if not two, Michelin stars for inventiveness, execution and elegance.

For me, it had that quality that all great, memorable meals should possess - a lively intelligence, a touch of the unexpected, a hint of quirky humour, a sense of theatricality that enhances but does not overshadow the food.

This then was a meal whose aspirations went beyond being mere food and aimed to be an experience, an artistic statement.

And overall, it worked very well indeed; aside from the schoolboy error of the Moscato and pre-dessert the only other "room-for-improvement" comment I can add is my neighbour's comment that more of the ticket price had gone on the wines than the food; the quality of each was uniformly excellent, but a re-balancing of the quantities would not have been a bad thing.

The ticket price was £75pp which, given the quantity and quality of the wines, the presentation by a Master of Wine and the Michelin-star quality of the food, was extremely reasonable.

Other related articles
Fischer's of Baslow
Lunch at Hotel du Vin
L'Alembic, Nuits St Georges
The Box Tree at 50 (written for Jancis Robinson)

Links

Alimentum - http://restaurantalimentum.co.uk/

Champagne tasting with Nick Adams - http://cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/champagne-tasting-at-alimentum.html

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