Saturday, 6 September 2014

Review: The Hole in the Wall, Little Wilbraham

This review has been a long time coming and a difficult one to write objectively, given that three glorious visits to The Hole in the Wall in Little Wilbraham have merged into one long catalogue of dishes that I daydream about on a regular basis. Since the restaurant and free house's bespoke Taste of Cambridge menu caught my interest whilst writing about it for the Eat Cambridge festival earlier this year, I've experienced two tasting menus and the infamous Sunday roast at The Hole in the Wall, and, yes, I'm now hooked.  

Found in a quiet, idyllic almost, village a few miles from Cambridge, the 16th century pub housing The Hole in the Wall makes for a pretty picture and fits in with its surroundings perfectly. Owners and chefs Alex Rushmer and Ben Maude have kept it simple: white washed walls and traditional, minimal, signage outside; cosy, old school pub decor and mismatched wooden tables within. Drinks and (I think) snacks can be taken in the bar area beside a huge old fireplace and an equally huge, and impressive, array of carefully, discerningly selected drinks. Two dining areas spread out around the kitchen to the rear of the rambling old pub, reserved for those feasting on the seasonally changing lunch and dinner menus. By now, the well-established kitchen at The Hole in the Wall needs no introduction - indeed, the food has been subject to multiple glowing reviews, locally and nationally - but the consistent high standards and the amazingly good value menus that come with it are definitely worth noting. 

The freshly baked breads are a delightful highlight, in particular the deep, sweet, smokiness of the black treacle bread, a steadfast favourite whether slathered with sea salted butter or paired with cheese. The ten-course tasting menu is stunningly good value at £45 a head, with an optional matching wine flight at £35 per person, and always reads like a celebration of the best seasonal produce. Succinct combinations of ingredients make sense, but also surprise, and plates arrive at every course looking beautiful. The food is unfailingly creative but generous and full of familiar, reassuring flavours. It works.      

The highlights - those dishes I daydream about on a regular basis - were the dishes that made our table gasp in delight. The sight of a pale and intriguing fenland soup of local celery, watercress with achingly cute gin-compressed, citrus-spiked, cream cheese cucumber sandwiches on the side. The glee at finding comforting, earthy flavours of local asparagus and smoked eel paired with an anchovy beignet. The memorable first taste of a soft, melting, silky slab of braised beef cheek and shin with a wickedly decadent bone marrow mash. The pretty flower-flecked folds of gin-cured salmon against perfect swooshes of curds and sprinklings of soda bread powder, dehydrated with seaweed (fancy stuff, but, oh my, how amazing it tasted). 

And, there's more. Clever interpretations of simple, top quality ingredients showcase every element equally - nothing is overshadowed. We've eaten pigs' head with rhubarb at The Hole in the Wall and it never looked prettier: boiled and crafted into a terrine, then deep fried, served alongside deep pickled rhubarb and puree, topped off with spot-on strips of crispy bacon. Cauliflower - which never gets eaten at home - is transformed here into a take on cauliflower cheese: offered up deep fried, ever so finely grated, pureed, and pickled, and stands up to an exquisite curried granola, the flavours of which have us torn between our love of fine dining and memories of Nice 'n' Spicy pot noodles (in a good way). Freshly caught Norfolk lobster is hidden away in a mini galette, but there's no hiding the intensely pleasing flavours coming from the parcel of lobster, mascarpone, dill, further intensified by a zingy carrot and ginger puree. There's a hugely admirable respect for meat going on, too: top quality pork is sourced from Blythburgh in Suffolk, Riverside beef is treated well and cooked to perfection, a terrine of lamb rump, shoulder, and belly is full of flavour. 

Desserts are equally good, with the pièce de résistance being the long-awaited finale of freshly cooked fluffy, airy, heavily sugared doughnuts with salted caramel sauce: a real crowd pleaser, but I'd love to see an even more salty caramel here to satisfy my taste for super-savoury alongside sweet. There's been much buzz surrounding the infamous doughnuts and there would, I'm sure, be uproar if they ever disappeared from the menu. Other dessert plates tick a lot of boxes, too: beautifully presented, carefully married ingredients go into every palate cleanser and sweet dish. Grenadine macerated strawberries have never been more at home with a superb cucumber sorbet. A lemon and earl grey posset with candied fennel and a delightful warm honey madeleine is pure poetry (literally, the dessert being inspired by Rupert Brooke's The Old Vicarage). I can't even get started on the epic cheese selection but, you know, it's awesome - and worth indulging in if only for the sommelier's spot-on wine matches and suggestions. The wine list itself echoes the high quality, great value of the food menu (if it can be called a list; I don't recall ever seeing one, putting my trust in the incredibly knowledgeable French sommelier, Joel, instead) and stretches from excellent fizz, to accessible wines for quaffing or food-matching, to dessert wines and delectable one-offs that appear now and again to perfectly match some particular creation from the kitchen. 

Our verdict: an unequivocal, unapologetic thumbs up for the consistently stunning food and drink being served at The Hole in the Wall. The great value, amazing flavours and always interesting dishes, and unwavering attention being paid to the seasons, ingredients, and the whole dining experience makes this place very special indeed. Everyone MUST go.

The Hole in the Wall 
Primrose Farm Road
Little Wilbraham
CB21 5JY

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