The Cambridge Chop House

Now I know what you’re all dying to ask: what are beef chops, these being the prime specialty of The Cambridge Chop House.  The Cambridge Chop House, I hear you ask?  Ah, part of a five-restaurant chain of fine British (though one is technically an American smoke pit) restaurants and pubs in and around Cambridgeshire.  It ticks the right boxes even in a brief description of their modus operandi:

We are a passionate local business devoted to providing British food in a light hearted convivial environment.  The menu is inspired by a variety of traditional classics, interesting cuts of meat and chops; all is complemented with a focused wine list and real ales straight from the cask.  It is all keenly prepared, presented & served by a knowledgeable team.

But I digress – that can come later.  Beef chops are no different to lamb or pork chops in that they include a healthy chunk of loin steak on the bone, typically rib and maybe a chunk of spine.  Being products of the cow, they are also bigger than those extracted from pigs or sheep, of which more anon.

All the above were the prime staple in times past of the Chophouses of London and elsewhere, temples to the pursuit of the edible enjoyment to be gained from large chunks of meat.  Look around and you’ll see they are enjoying a welcome renaissance, both chop houses with a fine tradition (like Sam’s in Manchester, dating back to 1872, and the Quality Chop House, established 1969), but also newer versions to take advantage of the flipside of the vegetarian and health food revolutions (see Butler’s Wharf and Paternoster Chop Houses, and the Hix, which contrives to combine Oyster and Chop Houses in one.)

Perhaps some stray from the original concept, but there is no doubt that the Cambs Cuisine chain declare a clear intent to stick to their very British guns by serving dazzlingly good quality hunks of meat.  The presence of three chops of different persuasions on the menu, plus sympathetically traditional side dishes, certainly gives confidence.

I should add that this meal was in aid of my birthday and chosen after some research of the dining establishments of Cambridge for its proximity to the Corn Exchange, where my friend and I were going for an evening of music performed by the excellent Bellowhead.  It didn’t have to be a chop house at all, but a place that provided quality food in a – what was the phrase? – convivial environment.  Judging by available reviews the CCH looked to fit the bill, but it was the beef chops that tipped the balance, ironic given that I had already had a pretty decent rib eye steak at 47 The Street in the same week, but then top class beef is always a winner, unless you happen to be vegetarian:  I am not – I love beef too much.

We were shown down into a basement that may have one time been an extensive wine cellar, and to a table in a snug niche handily placed on a damp evening by the coat rack.  In the course of the evening we were served by two or three young and efficient members of staff, though the fact that I can’t really remember them too clearly probably demonstrates how they succeeded in the black art of being unobtrusive, though after a few drinks we were probably more a well-oiled machine than they were.  They did however take our order correctly and provided ample bonhomie to make for a pleasant stay.

Worth saying that the wine list includes a number of odd but magnificent bottles as a result of relationships build with the estates in question.  One such is Domaine des Trinités, “vins du terroir” from the Languedoc region of the Massif Centrale.  The wine selected, Les Morels, is described thus:

  • Les Morels (2009), Domaine des Trinités, AOC Faugères.  85% old vine Mourvèdre that is perfectly resolved & pitch perfect right now ‘The Coulsh’ thinks 2009 to be his best vintage yet.

And who could argue with him?  A blend of Carignan, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes, it proves to have a ripe berry nose with a deep dark hint of spice in the aftertaste.  It worked well with robust meat and was thoroughly enjoyed by both.

Against that backdrop, we selected beetroot-cured salmon, delicate and slightly but not entirely like the beetroot-cured gravad lax I made at some point in the past year.  Perhaps mine was stronger and darker, but the two slender slices of cured salmon, accompanied by horseradish and lemon cream and some dark and nutty bread, proved a crisp but not over-filling starter.  In fact, I could enjoyed a third slice.

So to the mains:  my friend had a good old-fashioned double Barnsley chop while I had, wait for it, beef chop.  The latter came simply, and simple so often works better than over-elaborated.  It was joined on the plate by some very chunky chips, a dollop of carrot and swede mash, and my choice from the sauces – a Shropshire Blue butter that was also more delicate than you might have expected, certainly lighter than the equivalent blue cheese salad dressing from a bottle, but better for being home-made.

I’d asked for it to be cooked rare, though the waitress tried to persuade me to temper my aspirations so far as medium-rare on the grounds that a thick chunk of beef on the bone might become chewy if too rare.  She could not have been more wrong: it was full of taste  and tender as butter, helped by a rich seam of fat to moisten and flavour the succulent meat.

The same appeared to be true of my friend’s lamb too, albeit that was very rare at the bone.  She certainly didn’t leave any and joined me in the ritual gnawing of the bones, de rigueur in old-style chop houses even if polite society may decide the practice to be vulgar.  The best flavour is always to be had at the bone so if you’re ever in any doubt I’d say go for it – pick up and enjoy, though don’t throw the spent bones over your shoulder.  After all, we are not Henry VIII.

For desserts, after the obligatory rest, my friend went for a splendid elderflower & winter fruit Jelly served with champagne sorbet.  I admit defeat – I went for the local variant on crème brûlée, which makes for the second such pudding I’ve eaten in the past week.  This one was not quite as pitch perfect in texture, though it was certainly competent and contained the real deal vanilla seeds at the bottom, always a good sign.

I finished the dinner £103 lighter but feeling the cost to be a fair reflection of the quality of food and, more particularly, the fitting ambience.  We went away happy and enjoyed the gig.  Memories are made of this, and restaurants are without question in the memories business, particularly if your memories inspire you to make a return visit.  Maybe there are thousands more eating houses I’d like to try in that fair city (and the Eagle Pub next door would be a pretty good place to start), but there is no doubt that if I wanted a reassuringly British dinner with exemplary meat I certainly couldn’t do better than the CCH, nor probably the other restaurants in the same chain.

Vive le chop house and let’s celebrate the excellence of meat!

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