It's our first visit to Alimentum in Cambridge but, as Emma White discovers, the critics have beaten us to it
First-time restaurateur John Hudgell opened Alimentum restaurant and bar in Cambridge in late July to rave reviews. In her piece on the restaurant for the Independent, Tracey MacLeod says: "If you live anywhere near the place, please go there as soon as possible."
Located in one of the world's most ancient university towns, it is no accident that Hudgell has named the restaurant after the Latin word for food. Alimentum serves modern French food with some Spanish and Italian influences using ethically sourced ingredients. Hudgell says: "I wanted to create a restaurant that met with my own expectations, and those of my friends and family, by simply combining great food and great service in a vibrant and stylish environment."
Hudgell's experience of the hospitality industry started as a child, when his parents ran a pub-restaurant where he waited on the tables and helped to prepare the desserts. In 1988 he started a small sandwich delivery business with his uncle, and in 1995 he set up the company Duffy Moons with a sandwich bar in Saffron Walden, Essex.
The business was a success, producing 10,000 sandwiches a day from a nearby retail unit, but Hudgell eventually tired of working in such a competitively priced market.
Another problem was his concern for ethically produced ingredients - in particular, he opposed buying intensively farmed chicken. "If we offered free-range chicken alongside the regular chicken, it didn't sell," he says. "I couldn't sell the products I wanted to sell, and this was my absolute frustration. I eventually stopped eating chicken altogether, due to the cruelty."
In 2005 Hudgell and his partner sold the business and he turned his attention towards setting up a restaurant. "I chose Cambridge because I have lived here all my life and think it is a wonderful city, but it lacks good-quality restaurants," he says.
MacLeod criticises the restaurant's location for being too far out of the city centre, but Hudgell defends his choice. "We are located at the heart of a regeneration area with the most affluent postcode in Cambridge. It's a fantastically growing area, with plans for extensive new luxury housing and the relocation of businesses."
The spacious premises were designed by Linda Turner, who previously worked for renowned design company David Collins. The glass-fronted contemporary restaurant is divided into three sections: the bar, main dining room, and private dining area, complete with a secret door to the kitchen beyond. A red and black colour scheme featuring striking red chairs and banquettes set against dark wood tables creates a rich environment that is far removed from the traditional white-tablecloth minimalist scene.
In the art deco-themed bar a distinctive 1960s red Murano glass light shade hangs centre stage. Hudgell obtained it from Alfie's antique market in St John's Wood, London. It was one of two - shoe designer Jimmy Choo bought the other. The bar is made from onyx marble from Iran, and a whole Iberico ham sits on the far right of the bar for added interest.
In the main dining area, tables are set in front of padded black leather booths. "I think eating in a restaurant is a very sensual experience, and I wanted the design to reflect that," says Hudgell. "During the lunch period we play light jazz, and in the evenings we play dance-floor jazz." The music is also relayed to the stylish customer toilets for continuity. "I think music is critical for contributing to the ambience of a restaurant," says Hudgell.
Protecting the environment was a prime concern for Hudgell when creating Alimentum, and this is reflected in the design. All wood in the interior comes from sustainable forests energy-saving LED lighting is used throughout the ceiling and floors are fully insulated and even the cocktail straws are biodegradable.
The kitchen features a grease-collecting unit to turn grease into biodiesel, a drain heat-recovery dishwasher, plus a hydrocarbon refrigerator. All waste throughout the restaurant is recycled. "It would be selfish of me to set up a restaurant and not take energy saving into account," says Hudgell. Citing Arthur Potts Dawson as an inspiration, he says: "I have complete respect for what he has achieved at Acorn House and what he is now achieving at the Water House."
Unsurprisingly, animal welfare is another priority for Hudgell, and he personally visits suppliers to find out how animals are reared, what they are fed and how far they have to travel to slaughter. Even the bones and trotters used in stocks must come from free-range systems. Fish must be from sustainable stocks and either line-caught or from day boats. Where possible, all ingredients are locally sourced, seasonal and sustainable. "We are the first restaurant in the UK to use ethically produced foie gras," he says. "The foie gras is a seasonal product that comes from a farm in Fuerto de Canos in Spain where the geese over-feed themselves in preparation for the winter." Alimentum is also one of the first UK restaurants to purchase a Crustastun unit, which kills crustaceans humanely.
Hudgell describes the food at Alimentum as "technically prepared, but unpretentious and simply presented". MacLeod was highly complimentary: "The weekly-changing modern French menu has heartening echoes of Soho's Arbutus seasonal, unpretentious, ethically sourced, and you want to try everything on it." She describes a ravioli starter filled with finely minced chicken as "sensationally good" and found "nothing gimmicky or attention-seeking about the food".
Wines, selected by Hudgell, are also available in 250ml carafes and a classic cocktail menu has proved to be a hit, with customers ordering them to have with dessert. A three-course fixed-price menu is available for lunch at £15.50 and between 6pm and 7pm every evening at £17.50.
Hudgell says the team at Alimentum, comprising nine kitchen and seven front-of-house staff, has a "strong, Michelin-quality background". Even so, there are the usual teething problems, and he is on the lookout for a head chef after Anton Escalera left to spend more time with his family. In the meantime his number two, Andrew Sinclair - formerly sous chef at Midsummer House - is heading up the brigade, while Hudgell himself is acting as restaurant manager.
"The response to Alimentum has been tremendous so far," he says. "We've had great feedback on our website, and we're being put forward by the Independent as one of the top 10 restaurants of 2007." However, he adds that the restaurant is still short of the target 500 covers a week. "One of our biggest problems has been to convey our accessibility to customers," he says. "I don't want people to come here just because it is their birthday. I want them to come here on a Tuesday night because they can't be bothered to cook."
As well as sending out 10,000 brochures promoting Alimentum to local homes and businesses, he is offering discounts to all NHS staff working at the local hospital and is taking an active role in the Cambridge Network Group. Finally, Hudgell is keen to welcome more critics from the national press to sample the restaurant for themselves. "Alimentum fills a void by bringing London style to Cambridge, and I want to share that with everyone," he says.
- 152-154 Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 8PB Tel: 01223 413000 www.restaurantalimentum.co.uk
- Owner: John Hudgell
- Employees: 18
- Total investment: £700,000
- Capacity: 62 in dining room, 26 in cocktail bar
- Target covers: 500 per week
- Interior designer: Linda Turner