Monday, March 31, 2008

Midsummer House Review

Midsummer House, Midsummer Common, Cambridge.

I have a guilty secret. The last few weeks in Kigali I've been sneaking furtive looks at restaurant websites. Food porn. Dreaming of where I could possibly casually arrange a serious lunch when I finally returned to the UK. As my tastebuds got more desperate the Michelin star count started rising. Pied a terre? or Tom Aikens maybe? Actually Chef Ramsay's three starrer in London has a lunch offer...

In the end I didn't end up passing through the capital, but spent some time in Cambridge, where Mrs Jiffler had some business for a couple of days. The only restaurant that I'd heard raved about in Cambridge is Midsummer House, a two starred effort overlooking the River Cam. Oh, and look at that - its just a five minute walk from our hotel.

Mrs Jiffler didn't take much persuading in any case, especially as it was me who was buying. Anyhow, we managed to procure a lunch sitting for two on Good Friday from the friendly, courteous, but disconcertingly anorexic looking maitre d'while strolling past on Thursday evening.

On arrival the following day we were greeted by the same anorexic chap of indiscernable Continental European origin. He showed us to our table in the middle of the airy conservatory restaurant. Not the best table in the house, but a few other diners had already arrived, and they had the manner of regular visitors. Bizarrely, views of the River Cam were shielded by a fence. Don't we want the proles looking at us as they walk their dogs?

Cue a shitload of mincing about from assorted waiters and skivvies, all of whom seem to be rake thin, of indistinguishable European origin (bearing in mind Mrs Jiffler and I speak 6 or 7 languages between us we can usually hazard an educated guess), and whose demeanour suggested that they all hated each other. Things seemed a little disorganised to say the least, until a new maitre d' (fitting the skinny profile as before) appeared shaking his head and muttering.

Nibbles consisted of gorgeously mild and nutty lucques olives, flattened cheese breadsticks and potato chips with a fragrant sweet balsamic foam dip. The wine-list arrived (before we'd ordered our food - hello?), and we managed to annoy Lurch, the sommelier by dodging it completely. Mrs Jiffler and I had post-lunch plans, and besides I objected to the serious mark-ups. We stuck with sparkling water at £5.50 (£5.50? Who exactly do they think they are?) - a bottle which encouraged Lurch to top up our glasses every 90 seconds, like we were in some sort of awkward post-communist restaurant where they're trying self conciously to offer 'classy' service.

Our orders were taken swiftly from the lunchtime menu, and we settled back to talking quietly and munching on some lovely sourdough bread with a manly crust. An amuse bouche of champagne and pink grapefruit foam arrived and was dispensed from a chrome fire extinguisher. Very amusing, and lovely in the bouche as well. It kind of reminded me of a Campari based cocktail I had in St Louis at Christmas time. At this point my concerns about the general slap-dashedness of the front of house started to evaporate as I realised that everything I'd put into my mouth up until that point (and the food still hadn't arrived) had been either a new experience, or a superb one.

Both Mrs Jiffler and I opted for a pigeon terrine with griotte cherries to kick off with, which arrived in a generous serving, with a swish of light almost-another-foam sweet potato / carrotty puree thing, and a wedge shaped pigeon samosa poking from the top. The terrine itself was perfectly balanced and textured, with the silky sweet potato bringing a new context to the familiar flavours. On its own, the warm samosa was fine and deeply savoury, although a touch oily for my tastes. The only difficuly came if one was experimental enough (and lets face it, we've just eaten foam, so we're in the mood) to try a forkful of both the warm samosa and the cold terrine at once. We both agreed, its just wrong. Like drinking champagne with fish and chips.

More bread, and more scuttling about of waiters and our mains arrived. Mrs Jiffler was presented with a handsome fillet of sea bream, encrusted skin side with sesame seeds, accompanied by a few stir fried veg and another slick sweet potato/carrot swoosh. She seemed pleased to start off with (although I thought the reappearnace of the sweet potato jizz was a bit lazy), but, as she made her way through the dish, got tired of the overpowering sesame flavour - the veg had been stir fired in sesame oil, and the plate dressed with a drizzle of sesame oil.

I went trad, with a leg and breast of pot-roasted guinea-fowl, creamy leeks, eight (count 'em) peas, a cylindrical fondant potato, madeira gravy and mushroom puree. A posh Sunday roast if I'm honest. They did a better job of the guinea-fowl than I can usually manage, as it was beautifully smooth and succulent. I suspect the bird had been poached in stock before finishing in the oven. Accompanying savouries could have done with a little sweetness to liven things up a little, but were only let down by a laughable potato, which had the appearance, texture, and flavour of something from a McCains freezer bag.

The cheese trolley was ably and generously presented by the maitre d', who talked us gently through the whole board. As usual Mrs Jiffler chose the star players, while I went off-piste. She came up trumps with a perfectly kept creamy soft Surrey Brie, and a gentle not-really-a-blue which exploded sweetly on the tongue and made me extremely jealous. In typical fashion, I went for the stronger stuff on the board, and wasn't disappointed by the smelly Munster-like cheese from the Alsace, a chalky French goats cheese, reliable Barkham Blue, and a seriously strong, yet strangely more-ish Devonshire Blue.

As it was Easter we coughed up an extra fiver each for coffee and petits fours up in the upstairs bar, which at last afforded us a view of the Cam. Coffee wasn't amazing, probably bog standard Lavazza, but came with a clutch of delightful bottereaux (beignet, like donuts, but French and therefore posh) for dipping into creme Anglaise flavoured with Armagnac and a fruit compote that Mrs Jiffler and I are still arguing over. Then up popped skinny waiter number 47 with a wooden box filled with home-made chocolates. Of course Mrs Jiffler had been waiting all afternoon for this, and quickly selected an assortment, including bite size bells of white chocolate filled with green pepper and booze. I don't know why it worked, but it did.

All in, 95 quid for two. A bit much for lunch, and too much for lunch in the 'provinces'. we were both full as we rolled alongside the river Cam on our way in to town, and both of us had eaten some exceptional food, and tried something new and worthwhile. The London pricing needs to change though, as does the piss-taking mark-up on the wine list. Also, diners don't need to see the waiting staff snapping at each other, or the maitre d' dishing out bollockings to his underlings. The kitchen at Midsummer house, under chef Daniel Clifford, is turning out some hot stuff, but the front of house staff need pushing into the River Cam.

Goodbye Kigali

Its my last night in Rwanda. The report is done and the fatigue is starting to creep up my back. Just enough left in the tank to graab a quick shower, and leg it into the bar to see my colleagues off over a selection of Chez Lando's finest bits of meat on a stick washed down with Mutzig after Mutzig.

Probably the wrong time to discover that Chez Lando does the most amazing tilapia brochettes. AFTER THREE MONTHS OF EATING DRECK. Bastards.

Fatigue finally slips its hands over my eyes and I enjoy a drunken lie in before the plane to Nairobi.

My colleague BKo and I face a dilemma: 8 hours getting shitfaced on South African plonk in the Nairobi business-class lounge, or take a taxi into town, meet a couple of mates for some Tusker and grab a bite to eat. Thankfully we take the latter option and head for the magnificently unpretentiously-pretentious Fairview Hotel ( Its almost 10 years since I was last in Nairobi, and things have changed. Tusker tastes better than I remember for a start.

At the fairview we order from a somewhat disorganised menu and I tuck into a platter of sushi bites. After three months in culinary purgatory the first taste of wasabi comes as a warm shock to my lips, the scent of lifejacket-red ginger temporarily nips my fatigue in the bud, and the first meaty morsel of octopus sashimi makes me grin from ear to ear. Tuna Nigiri melts in the mouth and pairs surprisingly well with Tusker.

Only 8 hours folded into three on Kenya Airways and I'll be back in the UK. The first thing past my lips will be a cheese savoury.


Lets have a pop at the French. Always good sport.

I've had been watching a fair amount of French domestic TV lately in my hotel, primarily because the English language channels are always on the blink. In the UK and in Dakar I don't watch TV - not for any high minded reasons, its just that there are other things I'd rather do, like cooking.

What interests me a lot about the TV are the adverts. I think they express something about the national psyche - the sense of humour, tastes and aspirations of consumers. I can't decide whether it gives me a sense of despair or smug satisifaction to report that our French brethren seem to be in the same rather fetid puddle as the brits when it comes to the kind of food that is advertised on TV.

In a typical movie ad break (something badly dubbed starring Denise Richards, one of the Wilson brothers, and I think Ben Affleck) we're subjected to pretty lengthy ad breaks. There is the usual stuff about cars, cleaning products, but the food adverts are very interesting:
  • Maltesers
  • Vache qui rit (king of processed cheese)
  • Frozen burgers
  • More processed cheese, this time the lunchbox variety with little biscuits to dip
  • Chocolate biscuits
  • Something that looks like ferrero roche
  • Some creamy cheese substance that appears to be popular with lighthouse keepers (that is the premise of the advert anyway)

Also, an advert for Carrefour (big French supermarket) pushing how well they source their freshwater fish locally, with loads of Paysanne-like Frenchmen with large craniums talking about how they tickle their trout etc.

Sound familiar? Judging by this it looks like the French are in as much shit as the Brits are when it comes to tucking in to the processed foods.

Hmm. Its boring in hotel rooms.

Cunning Plan

Yes! My cunning plan worked and jiffler is on page one of a google search for 'Rwandan Restaurant Reviews'.

Just enough time to mention the new menu at Chez Lando (ah... such is the power and influence I have on the Kigali restaurant scene). Old favourites are augmented by assorted snacks - spring rolls, omelettes etc, while the range of fishy main courses has increased, and I recommend the veal escalope purely because it is the size of a harry potter hardback. Its still all basic stuff mind, but its a step in the right direction.

Oh, and they'll do mashed potatoes if you ask nicely.