Sunday 19 May 2019

Restaurant review: Vanderlyle

There is a lot going on in the Mill Road area of Cambridge right now. So much so that we were distracted by all the places to eat to notice we'd walked right past Vanderlyle, where we were actually meant to be going. We quickly doubled back and hoped no one noticed we had walked by two minutes earlier.

I'll be upfront about this post: this isn't going to be a full review. There is so much information that I would have noted somewhere if I was going to write this up properly, which means I can't tell you which farm the vegetables came from or the variety of asparagus we ate, or the names of everyone we talked to last night (they were all very lovely, by the way.) What I wanted to do was write down everything that I thought made this place so incredibly special, and a tweet or an Instagram post just wouldn't suffice.

I booked a table at the pass, which would be called the "chef's table" and cost a lot more at London restaurants (it didn't) and I thought might involve a tight squish next to two strangers and awkward small talk until the wine kicked in (it didn't.) What I hoped for was the chance to see how a kitchen runs during service, how food is prepared by people who really know and love what they're doing, and to ask all sorts of banal questions. I got this and so much more. I'm not exaggerating, we asked things like "Where are your extractor fans?" This is the stuff I need to know. I also looked forward to catching up with Alex Rushmer, owner and one of our chefs for the evening. Chefs are normally hidden away in a kitchen and my questions go unanswered or forgotten by the time someone comes back to the table. To be served by our chefs and to be able to talk about the food and many other things with them was, very simply put, a real treat.

Alex Rushmer plating up at the pass
It's a set menu that changes monthly, and if you're like me (I will eat anything, anywhere), this is perfect. It takes away the agony of deciding between ten things that look amazing on the menu, then watching ruefully as something that looks nicer passes by to another table. This is the second menu since Vanderlyle opened last month and both times, the menu has been entirely vegetarian. This wasn't necessarily intentional, Alex told me. It was down to wanting to use local, sustainable ingredients and both months, this happened to be vegetables. Alex said that no one has complained about this or commented negatively about it. It made complete sense to me. How often do you get served a fantastic piece of meat, carefully prepared with a bit of veg thrown on the side as an afterthought? There is nowhere to hide when vegetables are the only ingredients. You can forgive a limp piece of broccoli if the steak is amazing. When it's the main focus of your dish, it has to be the best.

I had the alcoholic pairing (no surprise to anyone there) and Paul/my driver had the non-alcoholic pairing.  The care that went into the non-alcoholic drinks was fantastic. All non-alcoholic drinks for the pairing are made in house, often using ingredients from dishes on the menu, such as the pea pods from the soup. Really bloody clever and economical.

The first three dishes were slices of crunchy bread with a smoked butterbean puree, a warm cauliflower crumpet, and lettuce and pea soup that reminded me of the smell of standing in my veg patch when I'm thinning my tomato plants. There was also homemade rye sourdough bread with yeast butter that I got too excited about to photograph before inhaling.

Then came the asparagus which I could eat again and again. It was sweet, not a trace of fibrous woodiness, and made me realise that I could never, ever eat supermarket asparagus again without feeling deeply sad.  It was cooked on a grill that reminded me of a teppanyaki. "You should do an onion volcano and juggle knives!" I helpfully suggested. The soft boiled egg was perfect (5 minutes, 20 seconds - 10 seconds longer than David Chang's method, Alex pointed out),  I grabbed bread from earlier to wipe up every last bit of the hay mayonnaise, and the polenta made with chickpea flour was crispy and light. 

I can never eat asparagus from Tesco again and this is probably not a bad thing
The wild garlic and parsley risotto was rich and filling, thanks to the generous amount of butter and cheese I watched go into it. Parmesan is added to the risotto and pecorino is grated on top at the pass. An intensely flavoured mushroom reduction is quinelled (did I just make up a verb?) and topped with raw radishes. The fresh, crunchy radishes had none of the harsh pepperiness that you normally find and it cut through the rich risotto. 

A steak-like slice of roasted aubergine was coated in miso and furikake, my go to seasoning for pretty much everything. (I get mine from Ocado, but you can probably find it somewhere on Mill Road.) The most unexpectedly wonderful element of this dish was the roasted onion puree, which was slow roasted under parchment paper for several hours then pureed. How something this simple, albeit time intensive, could taste so complex is some sort of voodoo. The buttery new potatoes were so delicious, we genuinely contemplated drinking the butter out of the bowl when we finished the potatoes. But we are classy and totally didn't do that.

A strawberry and verbena semifreddo with beetroot that didn't taste of beetroot (a plus for us) was exactly what we needed after the risotto and buttery potatoes. The semifreddo was, and I hate to be repetitive, astoundingly simple and delicious. Again, I would happily eat a very large bowl of the semifreddo alone.

But then came the cake. This gorgeously orange-filled cake. I watched as they came out of the oven and I could have eaten five more. 

Finally, sadly, the meal came to an end with a glass of Quady Starboard that was like a tawny port and cookies fresh from the oven and chocolate truffles.

I haven't gone into all the alcoholic pairings because frankly, I know sod all about wine, beer, and fortified wine. I know what I like, and I can say that everything went beautifully with the food. I mentioned that I'm not a beer drinker and Alex was happy to offer me wine instead, but the beer really did go so well with the risotto that it would have been a shame to replace it with something else. The non-alcoholic drinks were also so well done, thoughtfully put together, and not at all what I expected. Most places would give you something sweet and overpowering (elderflower cordial, I'm looking at you), but these drinks were much more complex and interesting. I wish I could be more eloquent about it all, but all I know is that I loved it from start to finish.

Also worth noting is how clean the kitchen was the entire service. I can't even do scrambled eggs without my kitchen looking like something out of "Hoarders" by the end of it. Clean, and quiet. No shouting, no "OUI CHEF!" no "SERVICE!", just calm conversation and laughter.

From a business perspective, this restaurant is ingenious. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that it's all about work/life balance. It's open Tuesdays to Saturdays, tables are prebooked and prepaid, evening service only. No possibility of no shows or a sudden influx of walk-ins, and sociable hours for staff. They know exactly how many covers are coming in, which dishes they're making, and as such, no food is wasted. This was a big problem in other restaurants, Alex said. The amount of food wastage is horrendous. 

Our reservation was for 6:15 and I told our babysitter that we'd probably be back by 8:00. We spent a very, very happy three hours watching the inner workings of a professional kitchen and having a brilliant chat with everyone. Time flew, Alex said we could stay as long as we liked, and I think had we both been on the alcoholic menu, we probably would have stayed longer just to watch the Vanderlyle world go by and ask more questions. 

Oh and to answer the question about the extractor fans, they're actually next to the induction hobs. They suck the steam down, and it's the cleverest thing I've ever seen. 

Some practicalities:

  • The stools at the pass are incredibly comfortable, even for a shorty like me (I'm 5'4".) They are upholstered and slightly cushioned, and were absolutely fine for our three hour stay.
  • We parked at Queen Anne's Terrace car park, which is about a five minute walk from Vanderlyle. We got there at 6:00pm and left at 9:30pm, total cost was £4. Affordable parking is like gold dust in Cambridge. You can certainly take your chances with the side streets off Mill Road, but I can't handle that kind of uncertainty.
  • The restaurant will contact you in advance to ask if you have any food intolerances or allergies.
  • The lighting is not ideal for food photography, if that sort of thing matters to you. I had the advantage of sitting right next to the lights at the pass, so I stuck my plates underneath to take photos. But really, who cares? Put your phone away and just enjoy it. 
Do I need to put a disclaimer here? Oh, what the hell. This is not a sponsored post, nobody paid me to write this, and we paid for our meal in full. Although I've known Alex for a few years and have enjoyed his food and conversation before, this is an unbiased review of our experience at Vanderlyle.