April 19, 2012 1 Comment
There’s a true story behind Fitzbillies which I’m convinced will one day be made into a film: traditional bakers have been at the same site serving their famously sticky Chelsea Buns to the good people and alumni of Cambridge and the many colleges of the University for over 90 years. However, as the recession began to bite harder and deeper, Fitzbillies struggled and as is the case with many independent retailers, the bailiffs were called in and customers were ushered out of the shop and behind them, the door to Fitzbillies was locked for what would seem to be the last time ever. Step forward Tim Hayward who, along with his wife Alison (who was raised in Cambridge) saw a tweet from (Cambridge University alumni) Stephen Fry lamenting the closure of Fitzbillies. That set in motion a series of events which not only saw Tim and Alison relocating from London to Cambridge (with their daughter) but also trying to restore Fitzbillies back to its glory days, not only in the decor and design of the premises, but through some fantastically serendipitous turn of events, resulted in them being able to retain the services of the Head Baker who had the original recipe to the famous Chelsea Buns in her head. But that wasn’t all, they also managed to secure the services of Rosie Sykes as Head Chef and Jack Praag as Pastry Chef, so given the calibre of the chefs and that Fitzbillies were opening for dinner at weekends, a long overdue visit to Q meant that we could sample their wares for ourselves.
Peering through the window display of Fitzbillies, you see the most elaborate wedding cakes and all sorts, which is completely in character for Fitzbillies day job – As a baker and purveyor of Chelsea Buns, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that inside is not only a restaurant, but one of the finest restaurants out there currently trading. Greeted very warmly by the man, Tim Hayward himself, he wasn’t just Da Bossman with all the duties associated with it, but also on hand to be cloakroom attendant too. I’ve had a few interactions with him via Twitter and have always enjoyed reading his food articles and listening to whatever food broadcasts he does. He’s always struck me as a man not only genuinely interested in food, but his enthusiasm for it comes across in whatever he’s written or broadcast, so I wanted to see if enthusiasm and knowledge came across in Fitzbillies.
We already had a sneak peek at the menu as it was released on Twitter the day before (the menu changes weekly), but starting off with a flute of Rhubarb Fizz, we perused the menu a bit further to make our choices. The menu itself has been described by Marina O’Loughlin in her review of Fitzbillies as being “almost comically, John Bullish-ly trad Brit: even ingredients such as cavolo nero are translated as ‘black cabbage’; tortilla or frittata becomes ‘baked omelette’; quiche is ‘egg and bacon pie’” but one thing that struck me was how simple the menu read – There are no elaborate descriptions of the dish, nor is there any reference to how seasonal or local the food is (other than the chicken in the mains). Tim later told us that this was deliberate ploy as when you go to any restaurant in rural France, there is no reference to the locality of the produce used because it’s a given that restaurants will use whatever’s available locally, thus they don’t need to parade it so prominently on their menus. When you think about it, that’s the way it should be that way in this Country too, so good on Fitzbillies for adopting such an attitude.
Starters-wise, we decided to go for dishes we all fancied so it ended up being a dish each which was rotated after you’d eaten a third, and the charcuterie plate extra. It actually ended up being us not choosing whatever dishes we didn’t want so for my part the only thing that didn’t take my fancy was the Curried smoked haddock soup. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been nice, but I just have a bit of a problem fish soups in general so avoid them if I can. Oh, need to mention the bread and the Rhubarb Fizz too – Both absolutely delicious. The Rhubarb fizz was the right balance of Prosecco to Rhubarb so was neither too sweet or teeth-numbingly sour, with enough of the Rhubarb taste coming through. And the bread? Both utterly delicious. The buttermilk bread was ridiculously buttery, I mean the smell of the butter hits you before you tasted it, yet the buttermilk meant the bread itself was exceptionally light. As for the rye, one can only think there’s some sort of crack in it because we honestly could not stop eating it..
Q started with the Fitzbillies cured salmon, potato and salt mullet cake, creme fraiche and capers which was pleasant to eat in that there was a pleasing crunch to the potato cake and the home-cured salmon as good as you’ll ever get.
YKL had the rice fritters with sorrel mayonnaise (arancini with sorrel mayonnaise, if you will). Served with a heap of dressed watercress, they were pretty ordinary if I’m honest and nothing that really set the world on fire.
Tim Hayward is known for his charcuterie (and has written a few articles about it), so it was with great intrigue that we got the Fitzbillies charcuterie plate with duck liver toast and pickled pears. The charcuterie (like the cured salmon) was as good as you’ll ever get – The right thickness and not overly salty or dry, but the absolute highlight of the plate was the duck liver on toast offset with the sensational pickled pears, which were sweet and tart at the same time and yielding in texture when you bit into it, an absolute joy to lift and accompany the charcuterie.
But the best of all the starters we had was my choice: snails, bacon and wild garlic on toast. Of the 4 parts of the dish listed – What’s not to like? And HOW we all liked this dish; from the crisp bacon lardons to the kick given from the wild garlic, but the snails were spectacular – Not at all rubbery as they can be when you order snails in a restaurant. If more places served snails like they do here, I’ve no doubt more people would eat them. If I was going to be ultra-picky, perhaps the toast could have been a bit more toasted, but the thick wodge of bread which mopped up all the juices was delicious.
Mains-wise, Q opted for the Denham Estate chicken poached in Riesling with mushrooms, shallots and pink fir potatoes which I mistakenly thought would be like Nigella’s Coq au Riesling which I make from time to time. There was no cream in this sauce for a start but Q was especially impressed with it. The bit of chicken I tried was incredibly moist and tender – To the point where you barely needed a knife to cut through the breast. The dish may have looked really simple on the plate, but it packed a boatload of flavour and the cooking was faultless.
I opted for the Hake baked in paper with chicory and anchovy, crushed violet potatoes which goes against my own rules of never ordering fish when eating out because more often than not, I’m disappointed by the results. Well, I certainly was not disappointed by this dish – The fish was perfectly cooked and with it very moist (so often it’s overcooked until it’s dry) and the anchovy gave the whole dish a umami hit to contrast against the sweet chicory which was almost braised-like in the juices. It may not have looked pretty, but it tasted sensationally good.
When YKL’s choice of Beef and Oyster pie, hamburg parsley mash came out, I must admit that the flat pastry top had me wondering why they were still serving the dish when I expected (please forgive me for saying this) something like you’d get in a Wetherspoons pub where the pie filling is in the pie dish but topped with a crowning glory of puff pastry, but what we got here was a flat bit of what looked like it wanted to be puff pastry and what’s more, did it look uncooked in the centre?! Lifting, well sliding the pastry aside, the waft of beefy goodness that came within the pie dish had us all salivating and YKL had a look on her face as if to say “Oh YEAH! I’m going to enjoy this..” And how right she was, the meat was again, extremely tender and there weren’t any gristly bits, the hamburg parsley mash had a sweet, almost-celeriac taste and that pie crust? Yunno, the one I thought so disappointing and wondered why it was served? Well, turns out there was suet in that crust which only added to the rich, beefiness of the dish. Using a piece of the pie crust almost like a tortilla chip, it was a perfect bite of the whole dish to drop a blob of the hamburg parsley mash on the pie crust, then top with some of the filling. It was just sensational and rendered us all speechless. Well, apart from saying “OMG! *THAT* pie!”.
So the starters were mainly OK – A couple of standout dishes but mains were on another level completely; every single dish we had was fantastic – That pie was sensational, but I think it’s fair to say that they’re not particularly light dishes. I was already full after the main course and looking at the puddings, there wasn’t really anything that grabbed my attention, but we thought that we’d ask what the flavours of ice cream were on offer. I left YKL and Q to ask whilst I headed to the loo, thinking that I’d come back to something like strawberry, vanilla and perhaps something like chocolate chip. What flavours were offered? Chocolate and salted caramel (to which I froze), lemon and juniper (to which my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets) and I believe there was a third choice but I kind of stopped listening after hearing the second choice. It took us a while but we got to decide what to have:
We ordered the lemon posset and rhubarb and whilst YKL wasn’t particularly enamoured with it, I quite liked it – The rhubarb again wasn’t overly tart or sweet and was a nice contrast to the creamy, lemon posset. The biscuit served on the side with it was particularly delicious.
Q was always going to have the chocolate and almond tart with creme fraiche, and I believe that it was good, given the guttural sounds that she was making as she ate it. I can’t actually say what the pudding was like given I didn’t taste it myself, but I believe her empty plate afterwards spoke volumes.
The look on the waiter’s face when we ordered 2 flavours of ice cream too was an absolute picture – It was one of sheer disbelief and I had to say to him: “Don’t look like that!” to which he replied: “I may appear to be shaking my head, but in my head I’m nodding.” Actually, I should point out that all the staff were absolutely brilliant – Informative, friendly, knowledgeable. All dressed in chef’s whites, they looked like they could be either front or back of house with ease. Our enjoyment that evening was in no small part due to the friendliness of the staff. So then, back to the ice creams: The Chocolate and salted caramel was nice; very chocolatey but not enough salt caramel for my tastes. As for the lemon and juniper; that was dee-li-cious. I mean, a nice sharp zing from the lemon with a herbal hit of the juniper. It not have been gin, but it was still very welcome.
So that was our utterly brilliant meal at Fitzbillies. We didn’t really know what to expect when we went in – We knew that the potential was there for it to be great but any fears we had after the starters were completely gone by the time we started eating our mains. The Haywards have not only revived a much-loved Cambridge institution but transformed it into something a whole lot more with the introduction of dinner service at weekends. And me wondering if Tim’s enthusiasm would come across into the restaurant? The answer is a resounding YES – Especially when he’s surrounded by people who are equally as geeky about food as he is, so they can’t bullshit their way through things. It’s not light food – Most people would stop after 2 courses, but my family and I aren’t most people so the fact that we all had 3 (and a bit) courses each with the extra starter and pudding, probably not only astonished the staff there, but I like to think that deep down, they’re thinking “respect” – Even if our waiter shook his head when we ordered 4 puddings! That said, I was pretty much broken by the end of the night and it took a shot of Kummel, which Tim offered to us to eventually revive me (which made waddling back the car a bit more bearable). But we ordered so much food (not just because we’re all greedy), but also because the food there was genuinely so very brilliant. It’s been 4 years since I was last in Cambridge previous to this visit and I no longer have any commitments to tie me down to Brum in the evenings so I can actually go away for weekends without it turning into some logistical nightmare. And well, as long as Fitzbillies are offering a dinner service and I can get a table, it won’t be 4 more years before I visit Cambridge again just so I can eat at Fitzbillies again.
You can view the full set of photos on my Flickr page