Cambridge House

(Grand Rapids, MI) Although we've been to Cambridge House many times in past, their recent makeover—including the new hire of chef Aaron Burrows—compelled us to give them a proper review. Of course, a recent Living Social deal helped spur the decision too. So, braving the still blizzard-slick streets of Grand Rapids, we skidded across the river to enjoy a Friday night dinner...



He Fed:
I am in luck! There's a parking spot right outside the entrance to Cambridge House. I feel like George Costanza as I jockey the Prius into the snowbank-ensconced slot, while impatient motorists wait behind. After much back-and-forth, Juliet is able to get out of her door and we go in.

A wall of noise greets us. Although I had hoped the revamped format of the restaurant might lead to a quieter, more elegant experience, this is still clearly a bar. Patrons laugh and talk loudly, blowing off steam on a Friday night. Unfortunately, we're not really in the mood for revelry tonight. A hostess appears out of nowhere, yelling, "DO YOU HAVE RESERVATIONS!?!" We give her our name and she leads us immediately to the dining area, which is really just a long bench along the wall. The tiny tables are closely spaced and flanked by stout high-backed chairs. I squeeze into the tight space between tables, smiling politely at our neighboring diners (only an elbow away). The noise seems to escalate. Claustrophobia grins all around me.

It takes more than a few moments for our server to appear with water. He asks what we'd like to drink (at least I think that's what he says, as I strain forward, trying to read his lips). I start with a North Peak Vicious Wheat IPA. We also opt to start with some hummus. It seems to take forever for the hummus to arrive, but when it does we fall upon it like ravenous wolves. It is creamy, smoky, and warm. There is a low heat from the adobo chipotle that is pleasant, especially when spread upon the rosemary-infused flatbread. Although I don't typically like crostini (too crunchy), these are crisp on the outside but moist and pliable inside. Nice!

Since most of the new selections are small plates, we opt to try a mix and share. Both of us are curious about the pulled pork nachos. They arrive on a long, thin platter, multi-colored tortilla chips sprinkled with mojo marinated pork, some scant scallions, and slathered with Hopmouth cheese sauce. My first bite is a smoky, spicy, and comforting blend of all components. These are great! As we both munch non-stop, I break down the ingredients and find the pulled pork is phenomenal. The marinade really shines through.

For my main pick, I choose the Pierogies. The plate comes with two dumplings on a bed of sauteed onions that are just shy of being caramelized, so they're more savory than sweet. Inside the pouches is a creamy blend of potato, shrimp, and bacon. To be honest, I missed the "shrimp" part on the menu (Juliet had to point it out). I didn't mind the seafood taste so much. Again, the pierogies are more savory than sweet. In the end, I'm on the fence about the dish. I neither like nor dislike it. I might order it again, but it's not something I would seek out. It doesn't speak to me.

Juliet goes for the baked pasta, with Gemelli pasta, fontina, stilton, and sharp cheddar. Spinach is also near the end of the description on the menu, but they should have put that right out front as ingredient #1. Although it looks and smells awesome when it comes in its tiny little skillet, the first forkful is full of either spinach or strong spinach taste. Not crispy, slightly wilted spinach either; this is full-blown "I hated this as a kid" slimy, overcooked spinach. Yuck. I try to eat just the pasta, but it is nearly impossible to avoid the spinach. I throw in my fork after a couple bites and concentrate on finishing my pint of Odd Sides Ales Peanut Butter Cup Stout.

As we pay our bill and prepare to squeeze back out of our seats (and then out of our tight parking spot), I realize I actually enjoyed much of what Cambridge House has to offer. The service, though slow at first, settled into a nice rhythm. The noise on a Friday night is horrendous, but it's our fault for not taking that into account. The food is eclectic and locally-inspired. I'm not sure how well this concept works in the context of the pub atmosphere, and pricing seems all over the map. The next time we visit, we'll make sure we're in the mood to party.
She Fed:
After a stressful week at work, I am truly looking forward to a relaxing dinner out with Jeremy. I've been tense and harried for days and it's time to enjoy a nice night out, just the two of us. Cambridge House is packed and, unfortunately, the noise level equals that of a crowded bar. It's incredibly loud and virtually impossible to carry on a relaxed conversation. In addition, the seating is quite cramped and we are sandwiched in between two other couples. This is not the atmosphere I was hoping for tonight. But I've heard great things about the menu and the chef, so despite the noise I am sure we are in for a solid meal.

We begin with the smoked red pepper and chipotle hummus with pita breads and crostini. I order a glass of red wine, a blend by Guardian Peak, which arrives promptly. Not so for the hummus; there is an unusually long wait which seems strange for a dish that's obviously been sitting the chiller. It is worth the wait, however, as the hummus is smoky and slightly spicy with more of a low burn than a lot of upfront kick. The pita bread does have a bit of rosemary essence while the crostini are slightly crunchy, but not overly toasted. The kitchen gets high marks for providing enough pitas and crostini to accompany the hummus. I hate it when you run of out bread but still have lots of dip. Although, I'd happily eat this hummus right off a spoon.

Our three shared small plates begin to arrive before we've finished the hummus. First up is the pulled pork nachos, which turn out to be the prettiest plate of nachos ever. Tri-color chips (the menu claims they're "handmade" but they look like every tri-color chip I've had before, so I'm a tad skeptical) are piled on a long thin platter and dotted with tidbits of pulled pork, sliced green onions, and a cheese sauce made with Hopsmouth beer. The chips are not smothered or unwieldly, which makes them easier to eat than most nachos. But if we want more of the delectible cheese sauce (which we do) there is a sweet little silver bowl of it on the side. I dab my chips into the sauce until Jeremy wisely drizzles the bowlful over the chips. The pulled pork has a slight citrus-y tang along with a little heat from the mojo marinade. The beer cheese sauce is light and hoppy. While not traditional, these are some of the best nachos I've ever had.

Our next two small plates arrive and I hate to say this, but I find them both disappointing. Always a fan of macaroni and cheese in any form, I am very much anticipating the baked pasta with fontina, stilton, and charp cheddar. The menu lists spinach, herbs, and spices at the end and I incorrectly assume there will be some chopped spinach mixed into the pasta. It's presented in a small cast iron skillet still bubbling and covered in toasted breadcrumbs. Gorgeous! But when I dig in I find a giant ball of overcooked spinach in the center. The spinach is very slimy and smells highly acidic, almost of ammonia. It simply overpowers the dish. Even the breadcrumbs taste of the spinach. I try a few bites around the edge, hoping to find something that tastes of pasta baked with three cheeses, but I cannot escape the harsh taste and smell of the spinach. It reminds me of the steamtable tray of spinach from the college dorms. No thanks.

The final small plate we decide to share is the housemade pierogi filled with potatoes, shrimp and bacon. The pierogi are much more golden than any I've seen before and I wonder if maybe they use whole wheat flour. They are lovely sitting in a bed of caramelized onions. As I cut into one, I'm expecting a taste sensation. But it's actually just so-so. I think the locally made pierogi I buy at Kingma's in the freezer section actually have more flavor. I really want to like these pierogi, but I don't. Maybe my tastebuds are still reeling from the astringent spinach in the pasta.

Despite this, I would come back to Cambridge House again if only for the hummus and nachos. There are several other items on the menu I'd like to try. They open at 4p so perhaps going at an earlier hour during the week would be less noisy as well.
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