Can we talk about the Grafton Centre? Some of us are old enough to remember it in its former heyday, before the Grand Arcade was a twinkle in the City Council’s eye. Debehnam’s and BHS did a booming trade, and no one had ever heard of Amazon.
It’s been a rough old decade for the Grafton Centre, but it’s finally on the up. The long awaited flagship PureGym opens in December, with 24 hour 7 day opening and memberships from £12.99 per month. Which is prescient, because Amelie Flammekueche do cheese fondue.
Owned and run by father/son duo Regis & Alex (and named after their sister), Amelie is gloriously independent. It’s the sort of food business that particularly floats my boat: nice, effective people turning out a simple, high quality product. Sound familiar?!
There’s something about people who have spent years behind the stoves or the spreadsheets of high end restaurants. Maybe it’s a sense of relief. It’s a tough old game, and the endless pursuit of perfection, coupled with tight margins, the stress of Michelin and the dustbowl of restaurant recruitment can take their toll on operators. Regis owned two of the most wonderful restaurants in East Anglia for decades - The Great House in Lavenham and La Maison Bleue (swoon, one of my all time favourites) in Bury St Edmunds. Not quite ready to hang up his pans, Regis joined with his son Alex (Hoteliere de Lausanne graduate and one of Gaucho group’s youngest managing partners). At Amelie i’m pleased to report that they are nailing a new relaxed concept with exceptional poise.
Flammekueche is a classic dish from the East of France, dating back to the 14th century. It has a thin, crisp base, is cooked very quickly and is a vehicle for interesting flavour combinations. Kids versions have simple accompaniments like mozzarella and salami, whilst my main menu pick is the ‘Smoky Pig: crème fraîche, sliced onions, smoked bacon, pulled pork shoulder, Gruyere cheese, cherry tomatoes, courgettes andchilli oil’. If that’s not enough to entice you then you don’t deserve this kind of happiness.
Which brings me to my next point. Bella Italia is opposite, and they sell pizza. It’s not even good pizza, but you can be sure that they are utterly rammed at peak times. I’m not certain why people are enticed into those chains; perhaps the assumption that they are more affordable (in this case i’ve done the maths and it’s not), but the provenance of ingredients at Amelie, the attention to detail and the speed of service mean there shouldn’t be any competition. The fact that there are queues outside Bella Italia but not Amelie speaks to the sad fact that chain restaurants have an unfair advantage. The only thing we can really do about it is to teach our kids that there’s something special about independent restaurants, and to sing their praises whenever possible.
I’m not the first person to notice that this place is a bit special. When I posted about it on Instagram I got 50 messages about Amelie in under 3 hours. From people who work near the Grafton and have already discovered it, cheese lovers who had no idea that the glory of fondue was only around the corner, and others who particularly rated the starters. There are indeed lighter options too: homemade hummus, side bites of Sardine Bruschetta (homemade tomato salsa, horseradish sauce, preserved lemon, coriander leaves), a salad of quinoa, avocado and chickpeas with tahini, feta cheese, olive oil, shallots & chilli. The Flammekueche themselves can be made gluten free, and there are vegan options too.
With rent prices prohibitively high in the centre of town (for this you can thank the mighty University of Cambridge), and chain outlets outbidding independents for the handful of available A3 spaces, new concepts and owner operated businesses are being driven elsewhere. Thankfully some are landing back in this formerly neglected part of town. I like to think that Espresso Library began to change the tide when it opened back in 2015, followed by the £18 million Grafton Centre Refurbishment investment, announced in Spring 2016. So now, things are looking up.
Have you visited Amelie Flammekueche and its independent neighbours on this side of town? Let me know what you think, and do check out some other glorious independents nearby…
Signorelli’s Deli, the friendliest service you’ll find anywhere, on Burleigh Street.
Aromi, who spread from their town centre double to open a third gelateria & eatery on Fitzroy Street.
Norfolk Street Bakery, the original branch from these custard tart kings.
Espresso Library, cycle cafe, coffee shop & restaurant, on East Road.
Zhonghua Traditional Snacks, definitely the best dumplings and probably the best food in Cambridge, Norfolk Street.