'Oh my days. I licked the bowl clean. Then I swear I saw another table get even more truffle on the risotto. What was going on?''
There have been equally miraculous goings-on in Cambridge, as anyone familiar with the old University Arms Hotel will know. Its demotion from Victorian pleasure palace was completed in the Sixties when its frontage was turned into a carbuncle on stilts, but now it has emerged from an £80 million refit looking more imposing than ever. The Queen's favourite architect, John Simpson, has restored its classical proportions, entirely rebuilding the front half of the hotel and installing a pillared drive-through portico at its entrance.
Turn right in the imposing stone-floored lobby and you enter Parker's Tavern, where local boy Tristan Welch has created his take on a British brasserie. I've known Tristan since way back, when he was chasing Michelin stars under Marcus Wareing at Petrus and then for D&D London at Launceston Place in Kensington. He's a hugely talented chef, well versed in the classics, but I always got the impression there was an ineverence and boylike enthusiasm bursting to escape those formal surroundings. He just needed somewhere he could give rein to his passions. Hopefully he's found it in Parker's Tavern.
The decor is by Martin Brudnizki, the restaurant designer du jour, and you can trace its DNA back to most of the big openings of the past half-dozen years: parquet floors, panelled walls, marbelised wallpaper, chandeliers and velvet sofas in the large bar; and then, in the separate dining room, maybe 100 covers, red leather benches, dark wood, no tablecloths, light streaming in through half-leaded windows featuring lhe shields of the Cambridge colleges. It's like Soho House or the Ivy has gone up to read law at a particularly well-endowed college.
As is the way with brasseries, the menu is contained on a single page: starters, afternoon tea, mains, sandwiches, sides and daily specials from the Parker's lunch trolley, taking in everything from West Indian roti or Huntingdon Fidget pie to Sunday's roast beef. Prices are good, too, with starters from £7 and mains around £15. Only a sirloin steak breaches the £20 mark.
There was burrata, produced in-house for a fresh creaminess that it's near impossible to find outside Italy, with heirloom tomatoes and a nicely acidulated dressing made from its juices; a chopped vegetable and herb salad full of peas, broad beans and asparagus, brought together with shallots and mint; and a vevy decent vegan dish of salt-baked beetroot, presented like a loose burger and topped with cashew cream and yellow pepper puree done out to look like a fried egg. A dusting of grated horseradish and some peppery watercress was all the foil the root's earthy sweetness needed.
For mains, the fillet of sole with shrimps, beurre noisette, samphire and con fit potatoes stood out, a classic done well, and there was an "East Anglian" pulse masala of lentils and split peas, with spiced greens and grilled tomatoes for colour.
Now, I'll confess Tristan had clocked me before we even sat down, so if you're convinced that chefs make a special effort for critics - holding back a secret larder of the good stuff to be broken out in an emergency - you can cry foul now. It doesn't matter to conspiracy theorists that such thinking is contrary to a chef's instinct for survival, as if they are happy to dish out slop day to day and only lick their tasting spoon clean and dip it in the soup when there is a critic in town. Kitchens don't and can't work like that. Ninety per cent of the cooking has been done in advance, so if something doesn't taste right at the pass, there precious little chef can do nothing about it. In fact, about all they can do to show their love is give a bigger spoon of caviar or an extra grating of truffle. It's important to clear that up. It's about their integrity and ours.
So I ordered the truffle risotto.
Oh my days. It was like a forest floor in autumn, thick with a carpet of shaved Somerset fungus. Beneath it was a rice rich with bosky depth, served all'onda - flowing in waves - as it should be, and each grain revealing just the right balance of creaminess and bite.
Good man, I thought as I licked the bowl clean. But then I saw a portion go to another table, and it had the same amount of truffle, and then another, I swear, with even more. What was going on?
"I think if you serve truffle, you serve truffle. If you serve caviar, you serve caviar," said Tristan when I spoke to him afterwards. "Everyone gets the same."
The secret to the texture of the rice, he said, was to part cook it and then freeze it, a trick he discovered when a chef put a batch in the freezer instead of the fridge by mistake. "It bugs the hell out of my two Italian guys in kitchen, cooking it that way," he said. "I only put it on to annoy them." Same too with his signature spaghetti bolognaise, with slow-cooked beef and bacon. "Italians would never serve a ragu with spaghetti, but why not?"
There were only a couple of dishes that didn't hit the mark. A tempura of baby courgettes with honeycomb from local hives had left most of their batter in the fryer, so were little more than warmed vegetable sticks that could have done with the extra crunch, and Denham Castle lamb with saffron and cumin wore Tristan's Michelin heritage too heavily. A slow braise, presumably of shoulder, had been pressed into a cheffy cylinder and then flashed with colour in the pan, and the cumin and saffron were totally lost beneath an over-reduced salty sauce.
And I do wish restaurants wouldn't do that initating thing of hiding your wine in a shared ice bucket out of reach, which here janed with the generally relaxed hubbub. "Don't worry," said our waiter, "we'll mark the label so we know it's yours." Like we are in the shared kitchen of a student hall of residence or something.
To finish, an excellent rice pudding souffle, with raspberry ripple ice cream - the kind of magical adult nursery food Mary Poppins might have conjured up on cook's night off - and, of course, a Cambridge burnt cream, first served at Trinity College in the 1600s and extolled by AA Milne when he was an undergraduate:
"For pudding, Cambridge burnt cream, of course/ Alas! no restaurant in London/ Can make us feel that thrill again ... / ... Is it the sauce which puts the brand of Cam on/ Each maddening dish? The egg? The yellow glaze?"
I think we can all agree it was his "tiddely-pom, tiddely-pom" work of later years that ensured his longevity.
Review by Tony Turnbull