Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Riverside Restaurant, University Centre, Cambridge, UK

The University Centre in Cambridge is a slightly odd combo of canteen, social club, and sports facility for University staff, alumni and graduate students. It may also embody the epitome of 'town and gown' as if you're not part of the University you would probably never even know that this 1960's monolith is at the bottom of Mill Lane. But due to my family's tenuous connections, the University Centre dinning hall was the first place I experienced the wonders of proper chips (we were an oven chip household) and profiteroles with chocolate sauce. Halcyon days indeed. Anyway, all this means that I have a real soft spot for the Centre, and have been meaning to try their more formal restaurant (which is open to the general public) for absolutely ages. So as the Male Companion Person had a birthday recently I decided to book a table.

Things started quite well, as we were shown to a table by the window with nice views over the river. But to be fair there wasn't much competition for this prime spot, as there was only one other table occupied of the twenty or so available. I initially remained confident that some other diners would appear, but sadly they didn't, so by halfway though our meal we were the only two people there. Ummm, *awkward*. Once we'd got used to the situation and stopped whispering, it wasn't actually too bad and we got on with eating rather than looking around hopefully for other customers.

The Riverside Restaurant does a fixed price menu for either two or three courses, with a brief choice of fish, meat and vegetarian options in a vaguely modern British/European style. Once we'd ordered, they brought out a pre-starter of a smoked haddock risotto arancini-style ball. This was a very promising start to dinner, as the rice was soft and well seasoned and the fish not too strong.

My starter of grey mullet with crab, watercress, samphire with ratta potatoes (which I initially thought were Jerusalem artichokes) was also great- lots of fresh flavours with the fish perfectly cooked with a crispy skin.

The MCP went for a pork and scallop combo, which was also declared to be excellent in terms of both flavour and texture.

Main courses were more fish for me (sea bass with fennel, grapefruit and brown shrimp) and turbot with peas and ham hock for the MCP. The fish was again excellently cooked, and I liked the contrast with the bits of citrus. I wasn't too sure about the very dark hue of the shrimps, but even with this slightly chewy garnish, it was a very pleasant plate of food.  And the MCP seemed perfectly satisfied, if not overcome with excitement, with his turbot too. The one odd note with the main course was the arrival of a small dish of boiled vegetables with some little roasted potatoes, which looked liked it could have come from the canteen upstairs. The carrots and broccoli were not dressed or seasoned, and it was a bit surprising to see them appear with plates of food that were otherwise presented in quite a modern style. I guess some people might want some extra vegetables, and I liked the the fact that there was no supplement for them. But it would seem sensible to serve nicely prepared veg or none at all, rather than a somewhat insipid compromise.

Anyway, onto desserts. This is where things became seriously disappointing for me. After a brief flashback to the early 90's caused by the rosette of cream and half strawberry garnish, I tried something that may have been impersonating a piece of chocolate cheesecake. It was hard to tell, as everything above the sugary base tasted of nothing and had the texture of blancmange. The little cup contained a cardamom (and possibly white chocolate) mousse type thing. I love cardamom, but this was ridiculously strongly flavoured and also far too sweet for me. The lemon syllabub style pudding, topped with a small meringue, was probably the nicest thing on the plate but was still ridiculously sweet. The MCP had a honey panacotta, which he thought was perfectly acceptable. I was irritated by the garnishes and randomly executed chocolate graffiti though.

This was a bit of a sad end to things (at least for me), as up until the puddings the food had been pretty good. But by this point we were getting aware of being the only table again, and so left pretty promptly. I think overall the Riverside Restaurant does have many things going in its favour- I like it's hidden location and the views over the river make it a good spot for people watching (before sunset); it wins on the value for money front with a set price of just under £30 for three courses; and they were good on some details like seating us so that we both had a view out of the window. I'm sure they would have liked some more customers too, so I'm not going to criticise them on that front. But perhaps turning up the background tinkly music a little would have lifted the deadened atmosphere a bit (and drowned out the sound of the catering manager putting in the turnip order). I did like most of the savoury food too, with dishes both well cooked and flavoured. So I probably would be happy to go back to the Riverside at some point (once they've changed their menu), but perhaps not on a weekday. And I would skip dessert.

University Centre
Granta Place
Mill Lane
Cambridge CB2 1RU


Unknown said...

Skip dessert! Never ;)
I went about 4-5 years ago for a work Christmas dinner, it was surprisingly good but indeed a bit of a random place in terms of it being canteen/restaurant.
The puddings were good but I think they just steamed some bought in Christmas pud.

TheFastestIndian said...

A few people have mentioned that they've been for work/corporate events, so perhaps that explains why it was so quiet on a regular night! I did ask the FoH person and he said a lot of their customers are from the University so it's always a bit quiet over summer. You would not have been keen on these desserts! Perhaps their pastry chef was on holiday too?!