A swift turnaround to a delivery model hasn't stopped this Cambridge restaurant and its plant-based comfort food from picking up a legion of new fans, says Tessa Allingham
On 21 March 2019, Alex Rushmer wrote in the local press about his "trepidation and excitement" at the opening of Vanderlyle, his new restaurant in Cambridge. There's no need to explain why, exactly 12 months later on 21 March 2020, Vanderlyle was shuttered.
On the last service – 14 March – Rushmer, business partner Lawrence Butler and the small team served the five-course £55 set menu to a full house (22, plus four at the pass) over a leisurely two-and-a-half hours, proud to have established Vanderlyle as one of Cambridge's hottest tickets in under a year. "But after that Monday [16 March] announcement, we couldn't open again," says Rushmer. "Cancelling bookings was heart-breaking."
Vanderlyle To Go was born with brutal speed. "I'd like to say we planned, did a forecast, but we didn't," says Rushmer. "We rattled off an opening menu in 20 minutes. We went from beautiful handmade ceramics to foil containers; we just did what felt right." On opening night – 21 March – 88 meals were collected, priced at £15 per head, and the team began seven non-stop, bewildering days. "We went from 104 covers a week and average spend of £75 to 630 a week and £15 per head," says Butler. "We had effectively launched two businesses in a week. Exhausting."
Ten weeks on, it's more settled. Delivery has been stretched to five miles and fortnightly changing menus reflect Rushmer's plant-based style and commitment to using what's picked or made by people working on a small, local scale. "I don't want to stray from what Vanderlyle is. We're considering maybe being more ambitious, shifting from ‘ready meal' to ‘cook at home', but our to-go offer is essentially slightly refined family-style food."
Meals are now £20 per person and include freshly made bread, starter, main plus side, dessert and petits fours, and delivery by the team if requested. Eighty covers a day (roughly 60 collected, 20 delivered) over four days create sufficient margin for Rushmer, Butler, pastry chef Camila Marcias and manager Sam Adams to be paid. Wine is available from £15, and around 250 farmhouse cheeseboards have sold at cost (£15). Pre-payment is via Tock, the platform used at the restaurant.
Vegetarian lasagne and cottage pie made with celeriac, onions and mushrooms have been popular. Ditto a ‘fauxsh pie' that sees fish replaced with smoked slow-roasted celeriac, confit king oyster mushrooms and oyster mushrooms marinated in kombu dashi (pictured above). The conventional components – dill, lemon, capers, mashed potato – remain. "We were playing with the texture of the mushrooms, which is quite shellfish-like. It's gone down well and it's fun."
Bouncy sweet-savoury cornbread opens a Mexican-inspired late-May menu. Hodmedod's pulses – "a really interesting East Anglian company, incredible range" – feature in a substantial salad of black-eyed peas, bulgar wheat and charred broccoli with pops of pomegranate, while the main course comprises vegetarian chilli made with carlin peas and fermented fava beans.
"Carlin peas have a very high protein content and create a rich stock with meaty depth of flavour," says Rushmer. "They're incredible in a ragù and we use them for hummus." Soaked peas are cooked in a pressure cooker with aromats and spices; confit mushrooms are combined with a soffritto and a reduction of tomatoes with green, smoked and whole habanero chillies. "We add a little chocolate for richness. It's quite a process." A blackened tomato and jalapeño salsa adds smoky, poky welly that's tempered by a sour cream and chive dip. Crisp-topped macaroni cheese, made with punchy aged Cheddar, is comfort on the side. For dessert, fresh citrus is a foil for the sweet-sharp cream and airy meringue of a pavlova (each generously serving two).
Rushmer turned from self-taught cook to professional chef after reaching the finals of MasterChef 2010. He opened the Hole in the Wall, Little Wilbraham, in 2011, closing the pub-restaurant in July 2017 to travel, write and conceive Vanderlyle. "I'm not classically trained. I use very little butter, no meat, no heavy carbs. I get concentrated flavour through reductions rather than extra fat."
By the third week of May, 2,000 Vanderlyle To Go meals had been made, with slots for delivery or collection selling out in just 30 minutes. For now, Vanderlyle To Go will continue while the restaurant remains shuttered.
"We can't open with social distancing," says Rushmer. "I don't want to turn from a 26- to a 14-cover restaurant just to be open on 4 July. It has to make financial sense. But we've proved we can move quickly, so when the time is right, we'll no doubt pivot again."
Vanderlyle To Go, 38 Mill Road, Cambridge CB1 2AD
www.vanderlyle-restaurant.com and www.exploretock.com/vanderlyle
From the menu
- Smoked yellow pea hummus
- Roast pumpkin, lentil and Hispi cabbage salad
- Celeriac, mushroom and onion pie
- Cotswold Gold rapeseed oil mashed potato
- Spiced pear and chocolate pot
All menus are £20pp and include petits fours.
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