When your friend parts ways – for impeccable reasons and with mutual graciousness – with their incredibly lovely significant other, you know the day will come when they’ll have a new partner that you’ll have to meet, begrudgingly.
That day has come to Pimlico. Cambridge Street Café is firmly in the role of usurper tonight: what chance does the newly-opened restaurant at the Artist Residence hotel stand at winning anybody’s affections when it’s being pitted against the lost charms of 64 Degrees?
64 Degrees was fantastic; their Sunday roasts a beautiful hymn to beef. Now their London arm has been replaced on the same site by Cambridge Street Café, described mysteriously by Google Maps as ‘rustic-chic’.
Arriving at the striped-awning entrance, there’s more chic than rustic in immediate evidence. The light fittings are burnished copper, the banquettes are vintage linen, the artworks are Harland Miller limited editions. The clientele – and on a Tuesday at 7 o’clock, the main dining room’s completely packed – are chic in a similar vein.
My mother arrives roughly one minute ahead of me, yet by the time I reach her she’s been whisked to our table, brought menus, discussed wines.
‘Everybody beams at each other here, don’t they?’ she announces. She’s been comprehensively charmed by an array of waiters, sommeliers and chefs, each one apparently friendlier, lovelier, more knowledgeable than the last.
Of course she has; and I can’t keep up this hopeless charade. No matter how wistful you might feel for the good-times of this place’s previous incarnation, it’s very hard not to be won over by the present one.
Counter seating runs along one face of the open kitchen, and a neon sign overhangs it saying, ‘This is where the magic happens’. Cocky, but indisputable.
Seated at the counter – in the company of a thoroughly bespoked and impressively dirty Martini – we get to watch that magic happening from the front row. Not least of the wizardry being Head chef Radek Nitkowski’s smoking hot way with hot-smoked salmon. Flamboyant neon pronouncements aside, this is a calm, fiercely efficient kitchen, more tranquil than theatrical. It turns out when our starters are delivered up to us that the theatricality’s being saved for the food. My beetroot salad arrives in a flourish of blood-red, curd-white and cucumber-green, the hot-smoked salmon in a mass of endives and citrus.
In fact, if there’s a disadvantage to our seats it’s the welter of choice it adds to your evening. Dishes which were easier to resist on the menu – lamb tagliatelle with olives and pecorino, Jaffa chocolate torte – shoot straight back into the running when you see them plated up in front of you and then receding into the distance in the hands of a waitress. I’m swayed by the sight of both, a last-minute swerve that pays off hugely, with a bolognese made up of tiny, tender lamb-mince crumbs and crispy pancetta-esque shards.
My mother’s sea bass is served on a sea of fregola; a Sardinian semolina dough rolled into small balls, like inflated, chewier couscous. Both the sea bass and fregola are generous enough that they prompt protests of ‘can’t possibly finish all of this’, which as it turns out is not only entirely untrue but also so far off mark that we also manage to share a chocolate cake, layered with orange marmalade and topped with dark chocolate sorbet.
We finish that too. Although it comes at the expense of really feeling energetic enough to take advantage of the table-tennis in the downstairs loungeroom. We settle for a prosecco, a coffee, and a little more time watching the good people of 52, Cambridge Street making magic happen.
Cambridge Street Café, 52, Cambridge Street, London, SW1V 4QQ. 020 3262 0501. Website.