Parker’s Tavern, Cambridge: ‘Crowd-pleasing? You won’t want to leave’
Whether intellectual or not, we can all indulge in Tristan Welch’s first-class cooking.
Cambridge is a city of furrow-browed intellect, which is why it needs a restaurant like Parker’s Tavern. It is a dining room where the most fundamental of emotions are tended to. Our lunch begins with a version of poutine, the Montreal classic of chips under a magnificent armed assault by cheese and long-braised meats. It ends with a build-your-own ice cream sundae, looking like something from a children’s picture book. In between is a display of extremely assured, confident cooking designed purely to please rather than to dazzle. As a result, it is its own kind of dazzling.
It’s a decade since I last reviewed Tristan Welch’s food, at Launceston Place in Kensington. Back then he was a young man, hunkering down in London’s culinary trenches, determined to win an imagined war to prove he was as cutting edge as any Japanese multi-layered blade. He had ideas, technique and clever bits of kit. He was damn well going to use all three. It felt like he was cooking for gongs rather than his diners.
Mackerel fillets came with both foams and pickles of cucumbers. Lobster arrived with a soup of green cobnuts. A frozen bitter-lemon parfait was forced to make friends with a thyme sorbet. It was impressive and, ultimately, exhausting. And all this in a softly carpeted, downlit room in subdued shades of grey, which made you feel like you were in an expensive Swiss clinic, where crisp-linened nurses did things to you with well-lubricated tubing.
Parker’s Tavern, inside the re-invigorated University Arms Hotel, is a different matter entirely. A version first opened in 1834, but this is very much a new proposition and here no one will interfere with you. It looks like a cross between a gentleman’s club and a Parisian bistro. There are banquettes in blood-orange leather. There are wood-block floors, wood-panelled walls in gun-metal grey hung with vaguely interesting prints, acres of white tablecloth and airy views across Parker’s Piece, from which the restaurant takes its name. You will imagine coming here for a quick bite; you won’t want to leave.
It’s not just the menu, which walks a jagged line through both British chophouse classics and something rather better travelled. It’s the nerdy attention to detail. The meaty sauce with those chips has been fretted over, possibly for days. Sizeable cuts of beef went in; only fragments remain. There is an edge of piquancy, and something else, too, which turns out to be unadvertised lardons. Not mentioning pork products in your beef sauce? Blimey. That’s bold. Our waiter apologises profusely when I raise it. I tell him I was merely curious; that unexpected outbreaks of pig are never going to distress me. Others may be less sanguine. Likewise, I suspect there will be purists who will eye-roll their way through the dish complaining it’s not poutine because it doesn’t have cheese curds (fresh milk just coagulated with rennet). Frankly, I think the melting tumble of aged cheddar used here is very much more the thing.
From the more restless part of the starters list, there is a whole quail, given a seeing-to by a crimson tandoori marinade so good it would get the nod from the Pakistani grill houses down London’s Whitechapel Road. It is a bold punch of roasted spice, garlic and ginger. I eat the bird with my hands until my fingers are stained red. Underneath is a rugged dal, alongside ribbons of cucumber in a yogurt dressing to cool things down.
From nearer home comes an impeccable fish cake, far heavier on fish than cheap fillers. But what makes it – and the other two dishes we try – is the lake of sauce. Welch’s kitchen has a killer line in luscious, sparky butter emulsions; the sort that brings velvety lubrication to the most grinding of days. This one has the glorious detail of finely chopped boiled egg alongside the capers and parsley. I’m suddenly overcome by the urge to pipe a roaring rendition of Jerusalem, so I can stand and salute it as an emblem of all that is good and true.
But then comes a main course of chicken blanquette and now I want to bend the knee. It reads like an old stager but here it is shiny and new. Instead of the stew the word blanquette suggests, it’s a couple of braised legs, scattered with shavings of black truffle. There’s a pillow of mash so soft and luxurious you could put a baby down on it for a nap, and then another stupidly encouraging cream, butter sauce with just the right punch of acidity. And if this meal is starting to sound like it should come with a side order of statins, followed by a gentle chat with a dietician about life choices, it isn’t experienced like that. This is largesse, delivered daintily.
The fish of the day is skate wing. Clearly, it has been given the same care as everything else. It doesn’t so much slip from the cartilage, as obligingly curl itself around your fork. Naturally, there is an impeccable beurre blanc. Next time I come – and there will be a next time – I am gagging to try the crab, brown shrimp and smoked mackerel cocktail, the macaroni and lobster gratin in a thermidor sauce, and what is knowingly listed as “classic British beef spaghetti Bolognese” because the real thing has sod all to do with Bologna...
We finish with a Duke of Cambridge tart with a set filling flavoured with citrus and brown sugar. And then there is that ice cream sundae, built in pencil strokes from your own checklist. Two scoops or three? Raspberry ripple and double chocolate you say? Oh, and some soft serve, too. With caramelised popcorn and thick whorls of salted caramel sauce. And a couple of spoons, because by God I’ll be needing a friend to help me with this one.
If I have a niggle, it’s about the uneven pricing. The overall bill, while sizable, doesn’t feel unreasonable for what’s going on here. But those starters are generally a chunky £12 a pop; then again most of the mains are only a couple of quid more. Just come here knowing you’ll get what you paid for. Parker’s Tavern feels like the restaurant of a chef who has learned to relax; to channel all that skill, technique and good taste towards pleasing the crowds rather than impressing his peers. I am delighted to be part of the adoring crowd.
Review by Jay Raynor