Images: Daisy Dickinson
Nicola Foley samples the fare at no ordinary school café
The phrase ‘hidden gem’ is bandied around a lot, but you really do have to know where you’re going if you’ve any hope at all of finding Cambridge Cookery School’s Café. Tucked away anonymously in a quiet corner of central Cambridge, just off Hills Road between university buildings and new residential developments, it’s not a place you’re likely to stumble across by accident – but you’ll be glad for seeking it out.
We stopped by on a warm evening in April, immediately greeted with friendly chat, a couple of zingy grapefruit cocktails and a bowl of warm almonds, gloriously drizzled in sticky honey with chilli and rosemary. The vibe of the café, which serves up brunches, lunches and home-made cakes during the day, is minimalist Scandi-cool; all bright whites, natural woods and modern, simple furnishings. Having built up a reputation first as an award-winning cookery school, and then as a favourite daytime haunt, the café is now introducing its latest incarnation, that of neighbourhood bistro and wine bar.
Saturday nights now see the venue laying on a range of sumptuous sharing boards, lovingly crafted cocktails and a small but perfectly formed range of wines. As with everything Cambridge Cookery School does, a passion for excellent quality produce shines through on the menu, which offers a global culinary adventure by way of a handful of internationally inspired platters. Though tempted by the pickled herring and Swedish västerbotten on the Scandinavian board, not to mention the decadent camembert and onion soufflé of the French offering, I couldn’t resist the Italian option – which had my mouth watering with its promises of cured meats, pungent cheeses and garlicky home-made pesto.
As I’d hoped, this generously sized smorgasbord didn’t disappoint – a luscious feast of flavours, the marinated charred vegetables, soft hunks of buffalo mozzarella, truffle-infused honey and fragrant focaccia were particular highlights. A sturdy little lasagne, rich, meaty, creamy and just right, provided another welcome addition.
Over on the other side of the table, my dining partner had hopped continents for a Middle Eastern jaunt with her colourful mezze platter. Smoky baba ganoush and unctuous hummus were joined by baked feta with lemon, plus a handful of juicy olives and a light, crunchy fattoush salad. A steaming bowl of sweet potato and lentil stew with tzatziki made for a hearty centrepiece.
By this point barely able to move but determined not to miss out on anything coming from this kitchen, I also enjoyed a gorgeously delicate, light brownie with natural yoghurt for pudding. It may have meant I was good for little more than a food coma for the rest of the evening but I wouldn’t have missed it – a simple but resoundingly successful dessert.
There may be shortcomings – those in search of a lively atmosphere on a Saturday night may be left wanting, for example – but there are lots of excellent reasons to visit. Lovingly prepared dishes offering huge flavours; beautiful wines and a friendly, relaxed setting – I’d say it’s pretty much everything that you could hope for from a neighbourhood restaurant. Dinner is served on Saturday nights from 6.30pm onwards.