Dear Oxbridge College, which shall, for its own good, remain unnamed:
You might ask what exactly I had expected from a Cambridge college dinner; but it was certainly not what I received. Three courses for seven pounds – reasonably; in fact the same price as the banana-flavored chardonnay I ended up with, due to stuttering in a crush of students and being too incensed by their groping rudeness to venture back in for an exchange.
I could start with the wine, in fact. Innocuous labeling concealed the usual new-world monocépage crap – not that these plebs even know there’s anything out there except the single-grape monocépage, or have heard of more than three of the cheapest grapes. But I digress. The piss-coloured dribble of chardonnay promised at least dulling inebriation, but even in my anger at the sight of the first course I couldn’t swallow more than a mouthful or two. The dominant aroma was that of banana, exactly what a sarcastic sommelier might have ordered to accompany the orange blob which turned out to be the first course.
We were promised, on a printed menu with “entertaining” historical quips on the back, ‘celery & three-cheese terrine’. Little did I know this would translate as ‘blob of cheese with some little greenish bits’ – ah, what one can get away with under the cover of beguiling French words! (Do they really hope to hoodwink the cleverest of Cantabridgians with such a transparent trick?) It was a three-centimetre square of orange paste, sprinkled with paprika. Had nobody told the chefs that nouvelle-cuisine portioning and old-school decorative sprinklings couldn’t hide the fact that this spread couldn’t be sold for 25p in a plastic tub? Someone had drooled tomato chutney on the plate, just adding insult to the injury that was the miniature chopped littering of lettuce. I tried another mouthful of banana-wine; still vile and undrinkable. The service is slow, too, plates coming in dribs and drabs.
I wait for a good few minutes just staring at the pale mess steaming on my neighbour’s plate. I had been promised ‘confit of duck in an orange and sage jus’. Here we had confit that achieved the remarkable feat of being both overdone and underdone: the meat bland and soft; the fat still gelatinous, uncrisped. It wasn’t even salty, which was an achievement. Overly salty meat (a common confit gaffe) would at least have made up for the tastelessness of the ‘mustard mash’ – yes, a few grains were scattered like small rotund skiers lost in a terrible potatoey avalanche, but they were hardly enough to liven up the overdiluted starchy goo. Oh, and the “orange and sage jus”? A few chopped-up bits of sweet clementine, overcooked and bland; quite possibly canned. I’d have half a mind to send the chefs a vat-full of proper oven-braised duck in Cointreau glaze to teach them what ‘canard à l’orange’ should be about, if I thought they deserved such a treat. And a case of wine-flavoured wine, whilst I’m at it.
Anyway, moving on from that debâcle, we waited another ten minutes for dessert to descend down the factory line of the long table. (Oh, the green beans were decent though.) To be honest, I was still bloody hungry, so I was rather disappointed when it turned out they can’t do pudding either. Ah, the promise of ‘apple streusel tart with creme fraîche’ – something moist and crumbly and subtly cinnamon-spiced… But no, they can’t speak French, and they definitely know even less of German cuisine: ‘streusel tart’ they apparently believed was an approximation of ‘muesli mince pie’, which is what arrived in front of me. I can’t think of any further lampooning: the thing was too small, tasteless and utterly pathetic to deserve any more of my time or thought. It was crunched up in a few dry mouthfuls as I can’t stand creme fraîche. The only saving grace? One physalis. I guess there’s not much you can do to ruin fresh fruit– but I wouldn’t have put it past them.