Former Midsummer House head chef Mark Poynton has been making a name for himself at Alimentum, where his light, fresh menu uses classic influences in a non-classic way. Katherine Alano reports
It wasn't that long ago that seekers of a fine-dining experience in Cambridge would have headed straight to the two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House, and, of course, many still will. But they do have a very credible alternative in the form of Alimentum. Behind the stove is former Midsummer House head chef Mark Poynton, who's been making a name for himself and the restaurant since taking over the kitchen in 2009, and most recently as chef-patron.
Having spent seven years under Midsummer House chef-owner Daniel Clifford's guidance, it comes as no surprise that Poynton's food at Alimentum has been awarded a number of accolades, including four AA rosettes and a Michelin star, which he received in October.
Most recently, Poynton has been showcasing his food in â¨London with his three-week pop-up at the Winter Garden restaurant at the Landmark hotel.
Just a mile from the city centre, the 62-seat restaurant recently had a refit. Poynton describes the interior as a New York-style upmarket bar rather than a traditional restaurant, with its red and black dining room and bold feature walls.
"We deliberately went very simple and minimal with the decor so that the focus is on the food and the service, instead of the surroundings," he explains.
Alimentum offers four menus, all influenced by seasonality: the fixed price menu (£16.50 for two courses, £22.50 for three), the Á la carte (£45 for three courses, £32.50 for two), the eight-course tasting menu (£65) and a surprise menu (£95).
Poynton describes his style as "quite light, using classic influences in a non-classic way to bring freshness to the food" and his approach starts with a greater focus on the vegetable than on the protein element of each dish. He says: "Vegetables are ever changing. No two carrots are the same unless you buy genetically modified. If you can find the perfect carrot, with the right amount of sweetness and earthiness you have a base. So we create a dish with that as the base and think about what would go well with the carrot." A dish that illustrates this is the carrot salad with goat's curd ice-cream, which features on all menus.
One of Poynton's favourite dishes on the current menu is smoked eel salad, with apple, horseradish and truffle. Having tasted some eel cooked over oak and apple wood, Poynton takes those flavours and adds the textures of apple: apple caramel, apple purée, pickled apple and raw apple. Served with truffle cream, he adds turnip and horseradish granita. "
A popular dish with diners is roasted halibut served with butternut squash purée, pickle and roast and pumpkin seed paste, pumpkin seeds, trompette mushroom and roasted halibut sauce.
Parsnip popcorn served with parsnip velouté was influenced â¨by a dish Paul Foster created at Tuddenham Mill. "He did a parsnip caramel and I thought it was really tasty," says Poynton. In his version, parsnip is added to a butterscotch sauce, cooked and puréed, and added to the popcorn.
In a nod to some of the old favourites, Poynton takes a classic and reworks it, such as the Black Forest gateau. A chocolate sponge is soaked in Kirsch syrup and served with a pliable chocolate ganache, black cherry sorbet and freeze-dried sorbet.
Also on the menu is baked yogurt, blackberry, tarragon and pistachio. "A lot of people don't have a sweet tooth, so we always try to have one dessert that has a savoury element," says Poynton.
The wine list at Alimentum is extensive. Poynton and his team spend a lot of time meeting with suppliers, doing tastings, and going to vineyards.
"We don't buy wine because of the name or supplier; it's about what works well with the food," he says. "It's all about tasting. When we took on the restaurant we tried over 1,000 wines for a 100-bin list."
With his innovative menu and focus on great service, Poynton is certainly making waves in the culinary world, both in and out of â¨Cambridge.
Sample dishes from the menu
Scallop, chicken wing, pumpkin, chestnut and bacon
Haddock smoked, potato, mustard and egg
Main courses Venison saddle, sprout leaves, potato, celeriac and Earl Grey
Beef sirloin, oxtail and bone marrow, fricassée of English snail and mushroom
Desserts Passion fruit curd, coffee and saffron
Perl las, Waldorf textures
Alimentum 152-154 Hills Roadâ¨Cambridge CB2 8PB