When friends and family come to visit, I tend to see Cambridge through the eyes of a tourist. My cousin Marc from Montreal stopped by Cambridge for a quick visit after his business trip to Wales. He was only here for one afternoon and evening so I had to carefully consider where to show him around. Cambridge has so much to offer, more than just the colleges but I did want him to experience the city’s stunning architecture in the few short hours he was here.
In terms of dining options I chose Parker’s Tavern, the restaurant at the extensively refurbished University Arms hotel. Its décor has the feel of a University college. The dishes, drinks and even the cups are linked to Cambridge’s history, without being too gimmicky. And what’s more, Parker’s Tavern – which operates independently from the hotel – is headed by award-winning chef Tristan Welch, who grew up near Cambridge and has returned to live here with his family. It’s also nice to know that the focus is on producers from Cambridge and East Anglia.
I have been to Parker’s Tavern many times over the past 8 months (breakfast, dinner and Sunday Lunch) so I was confident that we would have a great experience. I wasn’t looking for fine dining – just good, unpretentious, modern British cooking (with a little twist) in a relaxed and informal setting. We all felt at ease having a good catch up over dinner but still experienced a touch of luxury.
We were the first to arrive for dinner so the room was empty (I wouldn’t have taken photos otherwise) but the place filled up shortly after we arrived. The stained-glass windows overlooking Parker’s Piece are stunning!
It was lovely to see sommelier Maxwell Allwood (from Alimentum fame) now at Parker’s Tavern. He helped us choose a bottle (a vinho verde from Portugal) from the carefully selected and researched wine list. Our waiter was also helpful in recommending dishes, particularly the truffle risotto.
Marc had the great idea of ordering 3 starters to share and our waiter facilitated this by serving the dishes at the centre of the table. We just had to try the famous Winter Truffle Risotto (which also comes in main course size) and it delivered on all the hype. It was spot on, with the earthiness of truffle shavings and creaminess of Berkswell cheese.
The West Coast Langoustines were succulent and easy to remove from the shell but we all agreed that even though they were high quality, they were not as plump as expected and something was missing from the flavours. Described on the menu as “charcoal roasted with fresh herb dressing”, perhaps the langoustines needed more caramelisation to enhance their inherent sweetness and a touch more seasoning (although they did have those lovely sea flavours). We still enjoyed them and they certainly did not warrant being returned to the kitchen. I mentioned it to one of the waiters at the end of the evening when he asked if we had any feedback.
If you read Jay Rayner’s review of Parker’s Tavern in The Guardian, you may be wondering if we Montrealers ordered the Parker’s Poutine. Of course we did! Did we know full well the dish isn’t actually poutine? Of course we did! Did we care? No, we didn’t… because it was very tasty with its braised beef, lardons and melted aged cheddar. So we didn’t “eye-roll our way through the dish complaining it’s not poutine because it doesn’t have cheese curds”. It’s since been taken off the menu, hopefully because of the change of seasons (it’s a nice, comforting winter dish). If it does make a reappearance later this year, then perhaps a different name would appease the poutine purists, even though the name “Parker’s Poutine” is catchy.
Our main courses were perfect examples of their fuss-free, beautiful dishes. I finally had the opportunity to try the Nut Brown Buttered Sole everyone has been raving about and it did not disappoint. The scattering of Norfolk brown shrimps was a bonus! The dish came with samphire and some potatoes, which I didn’t think were substantial enough as accompaniments. In hindsight we should have ordered 1 or 2 additional side dishes to share. I would have loved to dip some chips in that magnificent beurre noisette.
Marc’s main course was a juicy, pink roasted lamb rump, served with garlic and rosemary fondant potatoes. We were too busy catching up to photograph the dish but you can catch a glimpse of it at the top left in the previous pic.
Paulo ordered the Cut And Come Again Pie, made with Blythburg pork, truffle mash and caramelised onions. The pie was so spectacular, I received tons of comments about it when I posted the photo on my social media. Paulo said it was delightful in every sense. I had serious pie envy and am definitely having it next time!
For dessert, I ordered the same one I have every single time because I love it so much! There is just something about that airy, comforting Rice Pudding Soufflé that I can’t resist. I never manage to have the accompanying raspberry ripple ice cream though. Perhaps it’s because I fear the coldness will interfere with that warm fuzzy feeling I get from the soufflé.
Marc ordered from the build-your-own list of sundaes (a card to tick off your choice of ice cream or sorbet flavours, toppings and sauces). He kept it light and simple by ordering only sorbets, so uncharacteristic of our family foodie background… making me question if we are indeed related (we are, our fathers are brothers). Ha ha.
Paulo went for the decadent Cambridge Burnt Cream, a must on the dessert menu as it reflects the longstanding debate of who invented it first. The French with crème brûlée or the English at Cambridge’s Trinity College? Parker’s Tavern have gone one step beyond and serve it with a wow factor – a shard of caramelised sugar on top.
We finished our meal with coffee (for the dudes) and tea (for me) – although my tea was forgotten and I had to remind our waiter at the very end. It was worth the wait as I do love their own tea blend – P’T Tips. Get it? No monkeys here though. Their cleverly designed cups also make me smile with all the references to Cambridge… Isaac Newton, The Boat Race (with Cambridge rowing and Oxford sinking – he he) and even Tristan Welch himself.
If you are going to Parker’s Tavern make sure you pop into the University Arms’ sumptuous bar for cocktails. The Library is also a beautiful place to unwind. The loos are worth a mention, playing a recording of Cambridge alumnus Alan Bennett reading from The Wind In The Willows.
Parker’s Tavern was the ideal place to introduce my cousin to Cambridge. With so many references to our town, history and events, I think Marc came away with a bit more knowledge than he had before.
Dinner at Parker’s Tavern is based on my experience at our own cost. Well, my cousin treated us (thanks, Marc!) but all views are my own. I did not receive compensation for my review.
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