The Old Fire Engine House Telegraph Review

The Old Fire Engine House Restaurant & Gallery has been one of Ely’s most popular restaurants since it first opened it’s doors in 1968. The use of many local recipes, seasonal ingredients and traditional English cooking has helped make this quaint restaurant much loved with the residents of Ely and beyond.

Image: The Old Fire Engine House Restaurant

Respected journalist Rowan Pelling recently visited the restaurant and wrote this review for the Daily Telegraph newspaper as part of her column ‘Are you ready to order?’

Here is the review:

A friend and I once decided that the four words most likely to incite a public riot in Britain were: “I hate Judi Dench.” Some institutions are just too beloved to allow dissent.

Another such may well be The Old Fire Engine House at Ely. This idiosyncratic restaurant and art gallery (and former Victorian fire station) is a stone’s throw from the cathedral and has been in the same hands since 1968.

I have not met anyone in Cambridgeshire who doesn’t speak of the place with the unrestrained ardour Brits normally reserve for Labrador puppies.

Eating there feels like dining with a favourite aunt who cooks sturdy comfort food in a no-frills English tradition. It’s the only restaurant I know where you are always pressed by a solicitous hostess to have seconds, though I have yet to see anyone manage the feat.

I have not met anyone in Cambridgeshire who doesn’t speak of the place with the unrestrained ardour Brits normally reserve for Labrador puppies.

Most ingredients are sourced nearby and cooked using local recipes: pike and eel crop up regularly. So you can imagine the umbrage in the Fens this autumn when a pundit from another newspaper popped up from London and slated the food.

It was hard not to feel that the poor chap had somehow missed the point – rather like criticising the Queen for not being Kate Moss.

Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t visited the restaurant for well over a year. Could something have happened to excise a charm so overwhelming that picking holes seems somehow cavalier?

A full reconnoitre was planned for my brother-in-law’s birthday. Our exacting Saturday lunch party would comprise four adults and two children under five.

Winter is the time to visit Ely. You need glowering skies to wallow properly in the dour Fenland landscape. But our jaunt got off to a rocky start when my sister phoned in a tizzy to say my brother-in-law was stuck in a queue in Waitrose.

This is what happens when you get too posh for Tesco. We phoned the restaurant and eventually arrived 40 minutes late. But the greeting could not have been warmer: “Don’t worry at all. It’s not your fault.” Which it patently was.

Usually we have an aperitif in the cosy bar, but on this occasion we went straight to the dining room, a riveting journey that takes you through a kitchen bustling with purposeful females.

Men are never seen in the kitchen of The Old Fire Engine House. I’m not sure whether they’re outlawed or just daunted by all that oestrogen. This is a restaurant where you come, unashamedly, to be mothered and mollycoddled.

The airy dining-room has a cheery farmhouse atmosphere. We were seated at a round wooden table with a curved window seat that was perfect for children, although no one minds if infants go scampering.

Our sparky, 50-something, Scottish waitress was a model of solicitous efficiency and swiftly delivered a cracking bottle of 2002 Côtes du Rhône.

The owners, Anne and Mike Jarman, are clearly keen to share their passion for European wines, as the mark-up is remarkably low. The bottle we relished at £15.80 costs well over twice the price at a well-known restaurant in Belgravia.

Our starters reached our rumbling tummies with exemplary speed. My game terrine with crab-apple jelly was rich and rustic, and my brother-in-law applauded his pickled herrings in dill.

My sister’s mushroom soup was “lovely, lovely”, while my husband tried to provoke me by reporting that his carrot and coriander soup “tasted precisely of carrot and coriander”.

I repeat this infuriating comment because it does reveal the essential character of Old Fire Engine House fare: it’s just not an establishment where you will detect a sudden, unexpected hint of ginger or white truffle. What the menu says is what you get.

My second course of partridge casserole was a little disappointing because it was pretty much a slab of bird in thick gravy. But my brother-in-law’s beef and shallots braised in Guinness and port was a triumph, as was my sister’s lemon sole stuffed with spinach and prawns.

My husband enjoyed his leek and Stilton tart (the only vegetarian option) but hankered for something “more exciting”. But my beloved is unusual among veggies in that he can skin a rabbit and detests nut roast.

Everyone praised the giant, shared platter of creamed swedes, Brussels sprouts and leeks in cheese sauce. And it’s hard to underestimate the joy of encountering a dessert menu that offers “old-fashioned sherry trifle.

“My husband’s vast cheese plate of Stilton and Durrus was so good he quite forgot his disappointment with the veggie tart.

Meanwhile the infants were silently gorging on meringues submerged in chocolate sauce. There isn’t a specific children’s menu, but our blessed ladies of Ely go out of their way to adapt dishes for them, and charge half the adult price.

It’s the generosity of spirit here that carves such a sacred spot in many a patron’s heart.

It’s the generosity of spirit here that carves such a sacred spot in many a patron’s heart. On our visit all seven tables were full and most people stayed until teatime.

Across from us a young couple kept a watchful eye on two prams and I couldn’t resist a peek inside. “How old?” I asked. “Four months, but really two weeks,” said the father. The twins had been born prematurely.

It transpired our waitress was also one of twins who was born prematurely and “with Rhesus disease: the first babies in Scotland to survive a blood transfusion for the condition.

“It was all so unbearably poignant that I had to stifle a tear. If this restaurant gets any more doughty and heart-warming, Richard Curtis will have to write a film about it. Perhaps Dame Judi Dench can star.

The Old Fire Engine House, 25 St Mary’s Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire (01353 662582).

Dinner for four adults and two children, including wine and service, £150.

The Old Fire Engine House, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Old Fire Engine House was built in the Eighteenth Century on the site of a farmhouse which in 1614 was the home of Dean Tyndall’s widow.

Ely’s Fire engine was kept here at the turn of the century and the house was converted into a restaurant in 1968.

The restaurant specialises in traditional English cooking using seasonal ingredients and many local recipes. It has an extensive and carefully chosen wine list with many unusual wines. The gallery has sculptures, pictures and paintings for sale.

You can visit The Old Fire Engine House website here.

The Daily Telegraph

This review originally appeared in ‘The Daily Telegraph Newspaper and can be viewed in it’s original format here.

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