Nicola Foley rounds up the Cambridge food and drink businesses you need on your radar for the year ahead
Made from Scratch
Exciting things are happening in a kitchen over in Hildersham, where a celebrated chef has taken the reins of an old village pub. Once a well-loved local, the Pear Tree Inn closed unexpectedly six years ago to the dismay of the villagers, who launched an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save and run it themselves.
All was quiet until the spring of last year when acclaimed French restaurateur and chef, Gael Lecolley, and his wife stumbled upon the pub by chance.
“It was purely by accident,” says Gael, “but it called to us somehow. My wife, Cat, swore she would never open another restaurant, yet here we are a year later! C’est la vie.”
After a smart refurbishment, the pub reopened as Pear & Olive a few months ago, with an eclectic, stylish new look and new food concept: Scratch Kitchen. Food-wise, the ethos is all about farm to fork, utilising super-fresh, super-local produce. The menu changes weekly, sometimes even nightly, with everything created from scratch the way it used to be and should be, according to Gael.
“This is what excited me about being a chef. We are agile and able to be totally creative and in the moment. I pick my seasonal fruits and vegetables, and base my menu on what I find that day or week and what inspires me,” explains Gael. “Neighbours bring me apples and voila we have tarte tatin on the menu that evening. It is all about creative expression through food and the senses.”
Expect great food, Sunday roasts, jazz music and roaring log fires.
The Thirsty revolution
It’s been just three and a half years since Thirsty appeared on Chesterton Road, but in that time it’s made its mark on Cambridge in a fashion few businesses can lay claim to. First came the shop: a quirky off-licence and bar that breathed a lungful of fresh air into not just the neighbourhood but the city’s drinking scene as a whole, with a friendly, accessible approach to the world of wine. Cottoning on to Cambridge’s burgeoning love of street food, Thirsty began to regularly host food trucks out the front so that punters could enjoy an amazing selection of small-producer wines, craft beers and spirits while tucking into grub from some of the most exciting vendors around.
From here began Thirsty’s forays into outdoor pop-up events, kicking off with the lively Winterfest and St Patrick’s Day shindigs in the car park of Mackay’s on East Road, progressing to the much-loved Thirsty Riverside biergarten at the Museum of Technology and, most recently, a winter residency in the garden of the Gonville Hotel. Under the steer of owner Sam Owens, Thirsty has proven time and again their knack for transforming unlikely corners of Cambridge into buzzing new hangouts – paving the way for others to follow suit with their forward-thinking, collaboratively minded approach.
The Thirsty revolution is set to roll on in 2019, with the recently-announced opening of Thirsty & Hungry, a new bricks and mortar premises in the city centre. Taking the spot of The Urban Shed at 62-64 King Street, this new outpost will be open day and night, and will serve as a café, bottle shop and bar, with food available throughout. Alongside a sizable selection of predominantly Scandi and Northern European craft beer, a focus will be natural wines, available to drink in or take out.
"While Thirsty & Hungry will share the same friendly, indie ethos and quality of product as our other sites, we were keen to expand beyond our traditional comfort zones” says Sam. “The new site gives us the opportunity to combine great wine and beer with great food, great coffee and great non-alcoholic drinks. It should offer an excellent complementary fit to our existing bar-led Chesterton Road and pop-up Biergarten sites. And it's on a brilliant street, close to the centre of town."
Overseeing the kitchen will be Mark Poynton, the former chef-patron at the now-closed Alimentum. Mark, who held a Michelin star between 2012 and 2017, will create a lunch menu of sandwiches and other food to grab on the go, complemented by a range of posh nibbles, sharing plates and lighter dishes designed to match perfectly with the wines and beers.
Thirsty & Hungry will initially stay open into the evening every Thursday, Friday and Saturday and offer brunch from 9am every Saturday and Sunday.
Follow Thirsty on Twitter @ThirstyCamb for updates on its boozy escapades
Against the gain
The humble loaf has had a luxury, artisanal makeover in recent years. Even at your local supermarket, the shelves, once loaded with sliced whites, now bear myriad sourdoughs, ryes and rustic loaves laden with ancient grains. After decades of putting up with flavourless, pre-packaged bread, consumers had tasted the good stuff and they weren’t going back.
Cambridge has been quick to embrace this trend, if the proliferation of artisan bakeries is anything to go by. From Norfolk Street Bakery and Stir to more recent arrivals The Cambridge Oven and Maison Clement on Hills Road, the city’s residents are becoming increasingly spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing their daily bread.
The latest to catch our eye is Grain Culture: a recently launched micro bakery with a stall at the Ely Farmers’ Market. Specialising in small batches of exceptional quality bread, it’s the brainchild of Luca Fiorio, who cut his teeth cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants around Italy.
“When I decided to quit, about two years ago, I wanted to specialise in something,” he explains. “Since the beginning of my career, I always had an incredible passion for bread and it fascinated me, so it made sense to start a micro bakery and produce the best bread possible!”
The small-scale nature of the business is key. Everything is handcrafted with fastidious attention to detail, fermented for 24 hours and then baked, with absolutely no cutting of corners. For Luca, it’s simple: “Grain Culture is a micro bakery and wants to remain as such, producing small batches of real, high-quality bread,” he says. “I want to supply and collaborate with the best, like-minded food business in and around Cambridge, as well as providing for my local community in Ely.”
One collaboration that really had local foodies abuzz was the recent pair-up with Steak & Honour, which saw Luca creating a unique sage and potato bun for S&H’s raved-about Sage Against The Machine Christmas burger. If you didn’t manage to grab one of those, you can find Grain Culture at Ely Farmers’ Market every second and fourth Saturday of the month, where you’ll have your pick of anything from sourdough loaves to cinnamon and salted caramel buns to Polish babka.
Luca is constantly experimenting, but his all-time favourite is the table loaf, which he describes as the fifth member of his family. “There’s always one cut open in our kitchen, it’s there as toast for the school run, there at lunch, there at dinner or for a late-night snack,” he says.
Follow Luca on Instagram at @grainculturehq for updates on his baking adventures
Fine dining on Mill Road
Rewind to 2010 and local chef Alex Rushmer (above right) was a fresh-faced contestant on BBC’s MasterChef, raising the eyebrows of the nation with a controversial blue cheese ice cream. He narrowly missed out on taking home the crown – though did, very respectably, finish in the top three. A year or so on from the series’ conclusion, as many Edition readers will know, he would go on to open The Hole in the Wall in Little Wilbraham, a restaurant that earned two AA Rosettes and numerous glowing reviews in the national press.
By the time The Hole in the Wall closed its doors for good in the summer of 2017, Alex had made the transition from MasterChef graduate to successful restaurateur, bowing out on a high with a promise that we hadn’t heard the last from him.
He didn’t make us wait too long – a little more than a year after stepping away from the hobs at The Hole, he announced his return to the restaurant game with news of Vanderlyle.
Set to open by March, the restaurant will see Alex reunited with Lawrence Butler (above left), his trusted sous chef from The Hole in the Wall. The focus will be on locally sourced, seasonal and sustainable food, served ‘without bluster or pretension’ in a relaxed and intimate setting.
“There will be elements that are broadly similar to The Hole in the Wall,” explains Alex. “The desire to always source the best produce is something that will follow through, as will the direct relationships that I’ve built up with suppliers. What I’m hoping to be able to achieve – through cooking for a smaller number of people – is a level of refinement and precision that wasn’t always achievable at The Hole in the Wall. There will also be a firmer focus on vegetables and a more sustainable style of cooking to reflect the increasingly mindful approach to food that, I believe, we should be taking.”
Residing at 38-40 Mill Road, Alex is excited for Vanderlyle to join the area’s vibrant community of indie traders. “I love the energy of the place and the fact that there is such a wonderful community spirit there,” he says. “If I had been given the choice to open anywhere in Cambridge city centre, I would have had no hesitation in choosing Mill Road.”
Food gets social at The Grafton
Think of the Grafton Centre and exciting indie eateries might not be the first thing that springs to mind, but the recently revamped shopping centre is promising to buck expectations with Food Social, its reinvigorated dining concept.
Already we have Amélie: the lovely family-run café which introduced the city to flammekueche, a pizza-like delicacy hailing from the Alsace region in France. But this cheery establishment – spearheaded by acclaimed chef Regis Crepy and his son Alex – is only the start of the story. The aim is for this corner of the Grafton to be transformed into a bustling food court filled with great eateries.
We won’t have to wait too long for the master plan to take effect – in fact, we’re promised that new cafes and restaurants will be announced early this year.
“The independently owned Amélie chose Food Social for the launch of its new restaurant concept and has been trading extremely well since opening in the last year,” says John O’Shea, centre manager. “We are keen to bring in other new food concepts to the Grafton and are in ongoing discussions with further independent restaurant brands that we know will appeal to our Cambridge audience. We’re keen to work with brands that offer memorable experiences to our visitors that are unique to the Grafton within Cambridge.”
Watch this space!
Follow @thegraftoncambs on Twitter for the latest announcements about new residents at the Food Social
Great food with Provenance
Armed with a vintage Airstream van and a promise of ‘fast slow food’, Provenance Kitchen first surfaced on the local food scene in the summer of 2015. Its concept bridged the gap between street food and high-end restaurant dining, with a menu that utilised top-quality, locally sourced ingredients, often cooked over an open fire or Japanese Konro grill. Typical dishes might include wood-fired plaice with seaweed and caper butter, or rock oysters with tabiko and lime: greasy burgers on a street corner this was not.
After building up a following through pop-ups and event catering, this month sees Provenance taking its enterprise to the next level with the opening of permanent premises in Whittlesford.
Named, appropriately enough, Brix and Mortar, this café, deli and restaurant will see the team continuing its commitment to locality, seasonality and excellent produce, offering top-quality cuts of locally sourced meats, wood-fired fish and vibrant vegetarian and vegan dishes.
The deli side of the business, meanwhile, will be stocked with produce used in the restaurant’s daily menu, as well as artisan breads, organic wines and local beers, plus visitors will be able to enjoy café fare including locally sourced coffee, speciality teas, juices and cakes during the day.
“We want to create a destination that typifies the cornerstone of Provenance,” explains Kate Holden, Provenance co-founder. “It has always been about the food and providing great service for our customers. Therefore, we want to create an environment that brings great food and great people together.”
Doppleganger levels up
If you’ve had your ear to the local food scene ground, you might have already got wind of Doppleganger, the vegan burger outfit that made waves with a hugely successful residency at cocktail bar 2648. With the city already in thrall to its intriguing plant-based creations, the company is about to take things to the next level with the launch of a restaurant in the city centre – and all signs point to it being one of the most interesting new openings of 2019.
The story began around a year and a half ago, when owner Alf Fowler became a vegan. For him, it wasn’t so much about ethical considerations as the exciting challenge it posed for him as a chef.
“It was like learning to cook again,” he explains. “I worked in kitchens throughout my time at university, but they were predominantly meat-based, using a lot of game especially – it was very classic cookery.
“Going vegan seemed like a massive challenge: the idea of not being able to use traditional techniques and ingredients was really interesting to me.”
After trying a plant-based diet for a month, he read into veganism more and began to notice he felt healthier, so decided to stick with it, but found the options for dining out uninspiring. “There was a lot of bean patties and not very adventurous food,” he laughs.
Working at the time as a designer for a consultancy in Cambridge, his boss allowed him to use the office’s Regent Street rooftop as a venue for his first series of pop-ups – and Doppleganger was born. With every event a sell-out, Alf knew he was onto something and began emailing venues in the city to see if they’d allow him to use their kitchens for his new venture.
Eventually, 2648 took him up on his offer and he began making burgers there at weekends alongside his regular job.
Soon, the pop-up was doing a roaring trade and Alf realised he wanted to take Doppleganger full-time, so handed in his notice at his job and took over the kitchens at 2648 on a permanent basis.
Before long an investor took notice and expressed his interest; an “out of the blue” opportunity that set Doppleganger on the path to opening a permanent restaurant in Cambridge. A deal was struck and premises – the building previously home to Caffe Sicilia on Regent Street – was found.
Set to open this month, the eatery sports a sleek, modern look, and a menu packed with tempting vegan dishes. Much-loved local brewery Calverley’s is supplying the beer and to eat, you can expect the kind of adventurous, meticulously crafted burgers that Doppleganger has been winning fans with at 2648 for the past year.
The foundation of the burgers is the dopplepatti; an unami-rich soy protein patty upon which a galaxy of intriguing flavour combos are layered. To give you a taste: the signature burger, the Cali, features a ranch-style garlic and herb sauce, a blanket of vegan cheese, sticky onion marmalade and portabello mushrooms, while the Bbk offers a symphony of miso mayo, lime slaw, a dopplepatti glazed in Korean BBQ sauce, plus spiced jack fruit, pickled pear and cucumber in chilli.
Waxing lyrical on condiments, Alf’s passion is infectious: “If you make a killer sauce, it makes everything come alive,” he enthuses. “We make our own Korean barbecue sauce with fermented black beans, Gochujang, pears, garlic and ginger, which is parsed and sieved and made into a sticky BBQ sauce. The sauces are where it’s at!”
Making use of air-frying and using just a little oil on the patties, Doppleganger’s food is not only interesting but pretty healthy to boot. And it’s not just burgers: mornings will see porridge and banana waffles being served, while desserts include Doppleganger’s take on a cheesecake, made using chickpeas and cashew nuts.
“We’re definitely bringing something new to the city,” concludes Alf .“I want it to be informal, a crossover of an Apple shop meets food! You know how when you go in and they’re so friendly,” he laughs, “that sort of thing – I want it to be like going into someone’s house and for the staff to come and chat to you. I really that think the people, the staff, can bring more to the experience.”
But the opening of the Regent Street Doppleganger is far from the endgame. “The goal is to be more than one restaurant,” says Alf. “Our mission statement is to have a greater impact with every bite. And that’s multifaceted: every bite, the flavours are different, they’re amazing. But then also to have a greater impact on people’s eating habits and, ultimately, the environment and people’s health. There’s definitely a bigger goal than being just a vegan restaurant in Cambridge.”