Sunday, 10 February 2013

Review: The Cambridge Brew House

Back in July I wrote about the changing faces of the Bun Shop on King Street and, six months later, am pleased to be writing about another new face on the Cambridge pub scene, The Cambridge Brew House, which has filled the old Bun Shop site with an eclectic and exciting mix of concepts focusing on local, real ales, innovative dining, and appealing to a much wider audience than your typical ale house. A few weeks ago I met with Rupert and Lucas who are working on realising their rather ambitious dreams for the Brew House and managing the opening of the pub and microbrewery (yes, there's an in-house brewery, soon to be brewing its own beer on site). They painted such an enticing picture of their plans for the place that I couldn't wait to get in on the opening night, last Wednesday, and again at the weekend to check out the newest addition to Cambridge's food and drink scene.

I squeezed in a flying visit as soon as the pub opened on Wednesday last week and first impressions were good. The ground floor has been opened up and transformed into one large room, discretely divided into distinct areas for drinking and dining, with a rather attractive bar as focal point between the microbrewery at one end and the open kitchen at the other. There's quite a lot to look at: in the bar vintage crates hold bottles and handwritten driftwood signs catch the eye; in the dining area huge retro lampshades dominate a row of booths by the window and elsewhere chunky framed mirrors and mounted stag-head style animal skulls glint in the candlelight. The overall impact is impressive; from the laid-back, low lighting to the stripping back and reclaiming that has gone into every available surface. It should be too much but it somehow works, particularly in the cosy bar area which is home to some very comfortable distressed leather armchairs, upturned wooden boxes as tables, and a relaxing atmosphere. Upstairs two further areas offer more of the same effortless style: one for private hire, meetings and events, and the other set to be the city's only middle class sports bar.

The pub's focus is firmly on brewing its own beer and sourcing as locally as possible, a concept which is hugely popular in the city at the moment. I haven't worked my way through the list of ales on offer yet but I've given the food menu a good going over. The pub is serving food all day from noon until 9.30pm (9pm on Sundays) and, as such, the menu includes sandwiches, high-end pub grub, sharing boards and a good selection of British tapas-style dishes. For the most part, the food on offer is reassuringly simple with some great selling points for foodies, such as the in-house smoking and curing going on behind the scenes and a daily changing specials board to keep an eye on. The pub has pitched informal dining just right: comfortable chairs, friendly staff, and an upbeat playlist ranging from Abba, to late 80s classics, some favourite indie anthems and a few chart hits for the cool kids.  


I've eaten at the Brew House twice since it opened and have been impressed by the food on both occasions, especially the British tapas. The scotch egg with slow roast tomato chutney is a lively dish of thin, crisp coating and soft, herby pork filling reminiscent of sausage meat stuffing with a perfect wobbling egg yolk. No chutney required. The braised pig cheeks are tender, rich and the right side of salty; so delicately presented, trimmed, braised and served in their own jus in a mini saucepan, that you forget the humble cut is so often discarded. The grilled goat's cheese and red onion chutney on toast is a substantial snack and, from the specials board, a plate of sliced smoked Cumberland sausage is a delicious reminder of childhood picnics.   

Ranging from a reasonable £4 - £5, the tapas is done so well and, with the addition of the sharing boards, gives the Brew House's food menu an identity based on good, unmistakeably British food. No fusion, no fuss. On my second visit to the pub to eat I discovered the Smoked & Cured board after hearing the pub's chef speaking about his sharing platters with a difference on Cambridge 105's food and drink radio show Flavour. The substantial boards feature a selection of the tapas-style dishes, smoked and cured meat, fish and cheese from the day's specials, and accompaniments like hand-cut chips, crusty bread and homemade chutneys. I had the small Smoked & Cured board as a starter (at £9), which was piled high with smoked chicken, sausage, cheddar, and mackerel. More than enough for two to share and with nothing but a couple of gherkins and an optional helping of chutney to detract from the incredible flavours, the quality of each item easily outshone the main courses on offer. 

The menu of main courses features a trusty selection of British classics and some pretty huge portions, but I'd happily take a few tapas dishes and a sharing board over most of the main dishes, with the exception of an impressive steak burger (a huge feast of a board in its own right for just a tenner) and a spot-on medium rump steak topped with roasted tomatoes on the vine. The very tasty looking ale-battered fish and chips is also one to try featuring a weakness of mine, homemade tartare sauce.

Whilst I love the idea of some of the other dishes on the main menu, such as the slow-cooked pork belly or the twice-cooked sticky beef, the sheer size is a little overwhelming and they come across as too try-hard in comparison to the successful simplicity of the rest of the menu. The pork belly dish is a huge hunk of heavenly melting meat, topped with a sticky and crisp layer of crackling, but the thick mass of pork fat that comes with it is too filling. The sticky beef is swimming in a homemade BBQ sauce that is deliciously smokey without the vinegary tang of commercial sauces but the generous piece of beef shin isn't too easy to shred; perhaps needing to be more tender or simply due to the retro school-dinner-style cutlery being almost blunt (although nice to look at). Teething problems aside, a lot of thought has clearly gone into the Brew House's menu and it is a really welcome addition to eating out in Cambridge. I'm looking forward to seeing more local and seasonal dishes as the menu evolves. 

The Cambridge Brew House will hold an official launch at the beginning of March and host the Eat Cambridge festival's closing event on Sunday 17 March. Keep an eye on the Blog for more details.

Enjoy! :-) 

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