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Four grapes and a gutful of tasteless decoration

Published 17 August 2003
News Review
527th article

Winner with Guiet, left, and Clifford at Midsummer House (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I can't believe Midsummer House in Cambridge has a Michelin star. I normally admire the Michelin Guide. Now I'm sceptical. The restaurant is supposedly important, but it's

When I was a student at Cambridge......................... I had....There was my...Arts Theatre...Downing i'll deal first with two excellent aspects of midsummer house. the room, like a greenhouse extension, is extremely pleasant. it faces midsummer common. this didn't help on the night i went. there was a funfair with louts throwing bottles. tables were well spaced so it lacks noise pollution. thus Geraldine could easily hear me complaining about the food. we started with very.....

"Not bad for a first night," said Eric rather glumly. Sorry, Eric, things have gone downhill since then.

We started with very ordinary bread (brought rather late) and ghastly Hildon water. Then we got a couple of freebies: a green tea and lime frothy thing and "a cucumber julie topped with smoked salmon and a cappuccino dubarry", I dictated on the tape. These were unexceptional but pleasant.

I was recommended "ravioli with quails, Savoy cabbage puree, roasted grapes". Eric added: "Just to give a little power to the dish we put in some balsamic vinegar." Pretentious twaddle. There were four grapes carefully placed at the edges of the plate, then a green mush, then two bits of quail and in the middle the quail ravioli with a mushroom on top.

"The plate decoration is really effortful," I dictated. The pasta ravioli cover was tough. It was appalling pasta. I even found the quail interior heavy. I left some.

Then I had another recommended item: "troncon of turbot with cep risotto, mushroom biscuit cep foam". The risotto formed a square. It was a bit whole-grainy, too healthy for its own good. I thought the fish tasteless and solid. Again, I didn't finish it.

Gerladine said: "I'm trying to think of all the restaurants we've done together, what would be the best?" She decided on the River Cafe with a joint second of Puny (Portofino) and the Hostellerie Jerome (La Turbie) and then the Ivy and Le Caprice. I'm glad we settled that.

For dessert I requested rhubarb and custard from the set menu. "It's like just a starter portion," said Eric. "I want more," I said. "I'll pay for two." I got three tiny glasses of rhubarb and custard. No substance. The rhubarb was just mush. I see what Eric meant. Ridiculous.

He presented the guest book. I wrote: "I enjoyed myself." This is true. Regardless of the food I did enjoy myself. But I'm certainly not going back.

In the 1950s they had "meat and two veg". Or maybe fish and two veg. You got a clearly identifiable piece of meat or fish with two green vegetables and some potatoes. They were not decorated, fussed about, sculpted or otherwise messed around. They looked like food and they tasted like food. They were not over-chemicalised, over-deep-frozen, or otherwise tired. They were usually delicious. Yet people tell me cooking has improved!

How can you improve on marvellously fresh ingredients, simply prepared and plainly presented? Certainly not by the current fad-cooking of attempting things that are not even worth trying and taste like very little. If you're not Gordon Ramsay, forget the over-ambitious nonsense; go for something simple. If you are Gordon Ramsay, then good luck to you.

  • PS: in my November 1998 homily on Midsummer House I quoted my then girlfriend. Vanessa Perry, saying, "I deliberately didn't eat bread because I expected my sea bass to have a selection of vegetables including a carbohydrate, which would have been potato or rice, to make a balanced meal." She got a few tiny squares of vegetable as plate decoration. None of which was carbohydrate. "If there's not a full vegetable selection you should be told," said Vanessa firmly. The girl was right. Nobody listened.

    Winner's letters

    Last week Sarah Pask described her experience at the St Mawes hotel, Cornwall, as "pathetic". Yet she paid £110 plus a tip for B&B. Why did she leave a tip if the service was that bad? In any event, I feel strongly that tipping is an outdated feudal practice which lets restaurateurs off the hook when it comes to paying decent wages.
    John Earle, Devon

    At London's Mirabelle I ordered house wine and was billed for something more expensive. When challenged, the waiter said that's what we'd drunk. The sommelier said they'd run out of house wine so he gave me another one. He offered a free ashtray. The manager arrived with a "what can we do about it now?" theme. "Charge me for the house white," I said. This they eventually and grudgingly did. Shameful behaviour for a restaurant of such pretension.
    Dennis Smith, Surrey

    A year ago my family, with granddaughter aged two, visited the Thai-Lyn restaurant in Lynton. The owner greeted us like royalty and persuaded us to vote for his place as North Devon Restaurant of the Year. Last week we returned. The owner said he didn't take small children. My daughter told him we'd all dined there 12 months earlier but he refused to compromise. He was charming when he needed our help. Now, no more Mr Nice Guy!
    David Nash, Northampton

    Strolling through Ulan Bator, I discovered Winner's Cafe. Is this little restaurant the base of your expertise on international cuisine? I can't wait for your informative comments on the Mongolian barbecue!
    Bryn Howell, Leicestershire

    I asked my waiter at La Brasserie in Brompton Road if service was on the bill. His reply was worthy of Manuel: "Service is included, tip is not." I left nothing and he was not a happy bunny.
    Richard Broke, London

    Thank you for your wonderful column, which brightens skies of the midwestern US. But why do people keep writing indignant letters to you? Don't they get the hilarious tone of your writing? I thought it was supposed to be the Americans who had no sense of irony.
    Ron Taylor, Indiana

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk