I don’t like hotel restaurants. At least, the carping misanthrope in me doesn’t. At this point, I’m tugged reproachfully on the sleeve by a very small, pig-tailed version of myself with sticky fingers and the name of a much-loved seaside hotel restaurant on her lips – but that was the early nineties, when a rattling trolleyful of Knickerbocker Glories held nothing but charm, and any chef with the gastronomic chutzpah to add coffee ice-cream to the obligatory list of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry got my vote.
These days, post-Bennett, post-Pinter, post-Fawlty, my objections are just about summed up in the idea of kippers for breakfast. But there’s something enervating, as well, and ever so slightly Twilight Zone, in the fact that the room is used for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner. You find yourself scoping out where the buffet bar should be (“there’s the self-service toaster; I’m two tables down from the Danish pastries”) and inspecting the carpet for the savagely punctured remains of one of those fiddly, unopenable miniature Flora packets that contain just enough margarine to preserve the modesty of a Melba toast. (That, or the remains of a kipper, because let’s face it, they could be anywhere.)
Why am I still carping on kippers? The bistro at Cambridge’s Hotel du Vin couldn’t be less Fawlty-ish. MWB Group Holding, the company that owns the du Vin chain, has the forgivably right-on habit, or I should say policy – it’s not cocaine – of championing the architectural underdog: choosing for its hotels those edifices characterful but unbeloved which, if this were a movie, you’d know were heading straight out of the cupboard under the stairs towards fame, fortune, flying broomsticks and AA Rosettes. Notably, a disused hospital (Birmingham), a renovated prison (Oxford), and a former asylum (Edinburgh). In comparison with which a few town-houses in Cambridge, formerly University-owned (that is to say, formerly owned by Trinity College, to take a stab in the dark with a good pair of night-goggles), set a scene of somewhat less than Shakespearean proportions. However Grade-II listed those proportions might be.
I came to the bistro with my mother, on Mothers’ Day, which seems perilously close to tautology until you realise that although the restaurant demographic did divide down the kind of age-gap you’d expect on Mothers’ Day, those on either side of it kept to themselves. Which is a fancy way of saying that there were older couples, and younger couples, and one pair of teenage love-birds who looked to have hit adolescence only slightly later than our sommelier, but no mothers. Or at least not acting ones.
“Mothers have lunches,” said mine, helpfully. “Scones, jam, tea, and lunches. Not dinners.” Who knew?
It turned out they also have strong opinions about cocktails. I failed to tempt her with a veritable nosegay of a violet and ginger-infused champagne cocktail (because mothers like florals, too, right? Not mine.); and since I wasn’t ready, either, to experience “kicks like a mule, scented like a Victorian” (the greatest line Johnny Cash never wrote) as a flavour-combination, we both settled on the Corsica: a deliciously, tooth-rottingly sweet confection of amaretto, date liqueur, and champagne sufficiently dry, if you can believe it, to claw the whole thing back from sickliness.
These we dispatched pre-prandially (and with such relish that the bartender, overhearing, offered us a taste of some excellent Venetian amaretto by way of lagniappe) in the hotel bar, having beaten a hasty retreat from an entirely empty restaurant on arrival, and in need of Dutch – or, as it turned out, Italian – courage to face the attentions upstairs of thirty (or so) sommeliers with nothing to do but nose out tannins in the tumbleweed.
Among the hotel’s most lauded features is its underground bar (and I mean that not in the sense of blind pigs or New Wave electronica; it’s where the wine-cellars used to be), impressive not least for the feats of adjective-shuffling ingenuity it inspires in hotel reviewers and PR writers alike. (To attempt a round-up, these are vaulted labyrinthine cellars [with optional atmosphere] or [optionally atmospheric] labyrinthine cellar vaults. With a healthy dose of hyperbole. On the whole, I think we can safely assume they’re vaulted.) Actually, it’s a terrific space; more Brambly Hedge than The Bull From the Sea, and all the nicer for it: flagstone floors and brickwork in warm, earthy hues, with muted top-notes of warehouse chic in the exposed-piping light-fittings, and intimate little cellarlets which, named after Cambridge colleges with a true du Vin deference to location, give a discreet tip of the mortarboard to my alma mater. A Latinism I begrudge, incidentally, even on Mothers’ Day, for not really thinking through its relation to graduate students. (Don’t go there.)
Back upstairs, the first thing to be grateful for was the presence of fellow diners. The second was the décor, which is bistro-classy, with bare, polished dark-wood tables, pine flooring, and thick white linen napkins to appease the starched-tablecloth brigade. The Gallic spirit, meanwhile, is kept alive – or at least preserved – in jaunty bunches of dried hops and cheerfully xenophobic caricatures of British wine-drinkers: mostly bankers, it has to be said, and the odd ruddy rosbif with a wine-glass the size of his paunch. Gaul, that is, via the New Yorker. Still, “quirky” is practically part of the job description for boutique hotels nowadays, and this one complies with only slightly laborious gusto. Special mention goes to the perky little swinging soap dispenser in the bathroom, like a next-generation Weeble, and the lobby’s splendid chandelier of upside-down wine glasses. (I was only slightly disillusioned to learn from a spot of Googling that the chandelier struts its crystally stuff in similar fashion on du Vin ceilings in Newcastle, Poole, Cheltenham, Brighton, Birmingham, Edinburgh, York and Tunbridge Wells. And, yes, on flickr too. I find myself hoping, for the sake of its dinner party conversation, that the Weeble is equally well-travelled.)
The menu is sub-divided to prevent, as it were, the locally-sourced mallard from straying onto the pristine green college lawns of the vegetarian section. My mother’s choice of herbed gnocchi with cauliflower velouté and wilted spinach (£12.50) felt very much like the centre-piece of that section (‘pea and mint risotto’ could have done with a hand in the PR department, and the garden salad in the allotment – but we’ll come to that in a moment.)
Eternally thankful as those of us still digesting the nut loaf we ate in 1992 must be for the gloriously rich, punchy, and, in short, Mediterranean-cribbed flavours available to the vegetarian palate nowadays (and, no, I don’t mean hemp-seed loaf; did we learn nothing from the noughties?), it was refreshing to see imaginative vegetarian cookery with a few of those punches pulled. In other words, not a Périgord truffle or a glug of barolo in sight, the chef (and my mother) having opted for an very elegant, very English, springtime dish that resembled nothing more, on first sight, than a plateful of speckled quail eggs. Which, happily, is about as far as that particular analogy can take us, because judging from their lightness, these gnocchi were quenelled miles from the nearest egg. With the very notion of potato passatuttoed from their genetic memory, they were coddled little pillows – the merest hint of pan-searing in the golden tiger-stripes on their undersides – perked beautifully by flecks of spinach (whose counterpart in the garnish, meanwhile, was wilted to just the right side of languid.) The velouté was trademark Hotel du Vin Egyptian linen to the gnocchi’s pillows: delicately pastel-coloured and creamy in the way that asparagus is creamy, without the interference of cream; and besprinkled with dinky little cauliflower florets that demanded chivalrous scooping, being a hair’s breadth too narrow to spear with a fork.
A bit of surreptitious neck-craning discovered most of our fellow diners to have gone for the gnocchi, or else something hip and rustic-looking on a board, with chips. Unduly gratified, however, to find under “Main Courses” something I’d normally have to dredge up from the far reaches of the menu or cobble together from existing ingredients (“Yes, the orange confit, please. Hold the mallard.”), I bit my thumb at the universal palate and ordered the garden salad (£7.50). What I’d failed to notice was that this dish, the veritable “Where’s Wally?” of salads, kept popping up all over the menu: hic et ubique, upstairs, downstairs and no doubt also in my lady’s chamber, like yet another example of trespassing poultry (the gander, that is; not King Hamlet’s ghost.).
So there I was, positively dribbling in anticipation of pea shoots and chives and edible nasturtiums in a lime and cilantro dressing with a soft-boiled duck egg and a water-feature or two on the side – well, I needn’t go on. You can see where this is heading. My salad, sourced from a cheerful, but variegatedly challenged garden, had that ‘just rolled out of the flower-bed’ look: unkempt and pretty much undressed. A bit of foraging turned up a single, gnarly, Beatrix Potter-style carrot beneath all the lettuce. My mother opined, through a mouthful of gnocchi, that listing the garden salad under “Main Courses” was based less on its suitability as a main course than on a principle of universal inclusivity, like New Labour if you keep schtum about Northern Ireland, as they tended to before 2003. (There was a garden salad on the dessert menu too, we discovered later. Nearer the cheese-board than the chocolate tart, but still.)
With those smug little gnocchi fenced in behind pepper-pots and maternal elbows, I was left to fall on the bread, which made for a pricey and not altogether comfortable landing, “a basket of bread and unsalted butter” being listed with the starters at an audacious £2.50. I can never decide whether to put a premium on goodwill or good bread. If a restaurant absolutely must charge for it, you want something special: spanking fresh, the word “infused” in the description, a bit of cultural heritage – whether French fougasse or Finnish limpa, paratha or pumpernickel – and at the very least a smattering of sea-salt for your butter. Here, all that the dried hops had promised of rustic bounty and romping Gallic vigour didn’t go far beyond the bread-basket, which was impressively linen-swathed and suited less for bread than for blackberrying, or strawberrying, or any other of those fruit-procuring participles that go on in the French countryside and the Home Counties. Inside there was plenty of a perfectly average white loaf, and tantalizingly few slices of a granary that might only have seemed nicer because both of us were after it, like an exercise in what Jamie’s Italian and the NHS call managing supply and demand. But I wouldn’t want to queue for the bread, either.
The menu itself – its physical form, that is, rather than its contents, which are substantial – was flimsy; the official line, probably, being that it’s changed daily according to seasonal or local variation. It’s a fine balance, one assumes, with Cambridge mallards: too few tourists, and they’re underfed; too many, and they’re skewered on punt-poles before they reach the du Vin ovens. We speculated, cattily, about a possible connection between the economy drive on the Epson and all the last-minute corrections to a menu required to replicate the words “Garden Salad” in as many places as possible. Of course, the real effect of the rather provisional-feeling single-page menu was to highlight the extreme seriousness of the wine-list, that leather-bound thirty pages’ worth of a vintner’s wet dream. The wines are mostly French, by region – England contributes a single, Kentish white – but an Austrian sponsor is well-represented, and there’s an excellent selection of sparkling, sweet and fortified wines, and sake. A superb dessert wine menu offers a choice of sticky muscats, late harvest Rieslings and Tokajis by the glass, with the solicitously profuse paragraphs of tasting notes that the main wine-list (unsurprisingly: it isn’t the Yellow Pages) lacks.
As for desserts (all at £5.95, except cheese, and the garden salad), we got off to a shaky start. My mother, as usual, put the kibosh on “anything liquorice-y”, which took out my two front-runners: hot chocolate tart with raspberry sorbet and star anise crisp, and Conference pears poached in liquorice with almond cream. As my mother’s kiboshes go, this is a pretty darn firm one, and my last-ditch appeal to “the olde sweete-shoppes and Pontefract cakes of your childhood” met with precisely the response you’d expect. In the end, we went for the hazelnut cake with pistachio ice-cream, to share. It sounded a bit unadorned, to me, after all that star anise – even muffins have moelleux centres, nowadays – but I could think of worse fates than struggling through a mouthful of stale madeira, and, after all, it was Mother’s Day.
I needn’t have worried. Flourless, the cake was astonishingly delicate, as if the chef had simply taken eggs and sugar and done light, fluffy things to them amidst the Piedmontese hazelnut groves. The pistachio ice-cream, balanced on top and melting in graceful runnels over the cake’s warmth, was of the very palest green, and so elegant-looking it could have run a finishing school for the ice-cream industry in the responsible use of food-colouring. In place of adjectives and swanky molten interiors, it seemed, we had the ice-cream insinuating itself silkily from above, and the virtuoso performance of a single caramelized hazelnut atop the cake with a petrified sugar strand spun from it against gravity, and trembling in the whiff and wind of our appreciative sighs.
There’s an engaging little array of curios on the dessert menu, too, for surfeited diners, or those who want a last sugar-hit before confronting the bill. All hover around the £3 mark: petit fours, for the most part, from a Middle Eastern palette, and the perplexingly named “Sorbet and Champagne”, which at £4.50 makes you worry for du Vin profit margins, or else its infringement of trademark laws. We went for the home-made honey marshmallows (£2.50): four vast, quivering white chunks hovering an effortless few evolutionary steps beyond the Flump, that tooth-squeaking helix of aspartame of which my mother and British schoolchildren are inexplicably fond. Somehow (no, I’m being disingenuous; my money’s on the egg-whites), every mouthful of our marshmallows, from the first sticky dusting of icing sugar on the lips to the gloriously squidgy centre, contrived to be both celestially light and robustly, well, mouth-filling, to add tautology to paradox. As for the little fillips of honey that happened when you bit down: if the honey were organic (and perhaps it was), I’d say this was the marshmallow industry’s answer to the Herbal Essences effect.
So I don’t think we got the raw end of the deal, all things considered – and by all things, I mean desserts. Except, of course, when it comes to the garden salad, a raw deal by definition; but even that, by now, was a face more familiar than our waiter’s (service, while remaining friendly, had made like the spinach and wilted during the course of dinner).
In truth, I think I’ll miss that ol’ garden salad.