5 Favourite Foodie Haunts: Berkhamsted
Just 30 mins from Euston’s perennial building site lies the leafy Chilterns market town of Berkhamsted, Berko to the locals (of which, full disclosure, I am one). Whether you arrive by train, the A41 that snakes this way not so very far from the M25, or the more sedate Grand Union Canal, this is undeniably commutersville. And that means plenty of London dollars and pretty knowledgeable, not to say demanding, diners. Chains predictably have a tough time – but what’s bad news for retail investment consortia is excellent news for the local independent places and those who patronise them. But they have to be good to thrive: Berko can be withering in its judgement, politely but clearly voting with its feet.
There are plenty of good foodie places here – just good, no more – and some a little prosaic. The five below are, to my mind, the true standouts, delightful destinations that belie their small-town setting. You can choose between a rather swanky Turkish place, a great Italian that isn’t Italian at all, genial hipster types with coffee and brunch on their minds, authentic Greek home cooking and the second outpost of Marlow’s original indie wine merchant/bar.
This is probably the chicest Turkish restaurant I’ve been to this side of Istanbul. Together with a couple of glam sisters in St Albans and Harpenden it has been delighting the discerning folk of Hertfordshire for a few years now, mercifully obliterating memories of the dismal Chinese restaurant that occupied the premises before. Once you’ve fought your way past the velvet-curtained entrance you’re into a world of comfily intimate banquettes and open-kitchened fireworks. And how clever they have been to hide sound proofing boards amongst the lovely dangle of their filigree lighting (a trick so many other restaurants should employ). Service is great: perky and prompt but without any sense of rush. Ingredients are organically sourced too, I understand.
Its small-and-larger-plate dinning, so you’ll enquire as to how many dishes per person would be optimal. And then you’ll completely ignore the advice, ordering a couple extra for good measure. Well done. You’d be foolish to pass over the “bread and dips” section of the menu. There are some interestingly different things here (Kuymak for example, a traditional melted cheese and cornmeal affair) and even the familiar houmous, labneh or babaganus are elevated with libations of truffle oil or pops of confit garlic. And their pitta is a delightful, tasty, billowing hug (as far removed as it is possible to be from the pallid insoles of supermarket infamy).
Amongst the small plates you’ll find excellently handled traditional ingredients like aubergine, artichokes, harissa and sumac rubbing shoulders harmoniously with tuna tartare, merguez and flourishes of beetroot crisps. The larger plates beckon with promises of barley risotto and slow-cooked lamb shoulder (v. good indeed), apricot ‘n olive stuffed chicken with barberries and tarragon cream sauce (again, excellent) and some good, char-grilled things. There’s baklava and helva/halva/halwa for pud (of course) together with a provocatively named Aegean Mess. The latter featuring caramelised peaches and Chantilly cream as well as mastic (the ancient resin flavouring of the eastern Med) in its crème pâtissière.
I am far from an expert on Turkish wine, but I have a friend in the industry who is. She recommended the white and red by Vinkara both made from indigenous Turkish grapes (white Hasandede – in which Vinkara is somewhat a pioneer – and black Öküzgözü, respectively). The producer even has a traditional-method sparkling on the menu which might prove an interesting alternative to the usual fizz.
There’s a disproportionate number of Italian restaurants in town, but this one is not Italian – it’s Sicilian. And it’s a particularly good one at that. It began life as a small pasticceria called, baldly, I Love Food. It served a mixture of crispy, flaky cornetti-type things to appeal to your inner Don Corleone and more vernacular British cakiness. It was lovely and successful enough to grow first into a scrubbed-table and tumbler-of-rosso place and then into something more glamorous again. Today, the décor hints at the kind of velvet and gold drama that only the Italians (and Sicilians!) can pull off, but it’s matched by a relaxing jungle of foliage and some startling white ceramics set against the deep marine of the walls. Being Sicilian, there’s even the odd Testa di Moro – like the ones in White Lotus, only classier.
From cicchetti to dolce, there a whole heap of Sicilian and regional cooking on display here. You must order the Sgombro in Carpione if only to practice your finest baritone/alto Italian. This is surely a dish to sing out and sing about. The island-dwelling Sicilians, quite rightly, don’t have the same distain for mackerel (sgombro) as us foolish Brits. Here it’s served with an agro dolce sauce of onions and sultanas so typical of the local cuisine. I am, in general, a sworn enemy of arancini, those invariably disappointing, arid cousins of risotto’s creamy largesse. Rosanna’s are certainly better than most but little “mezze lune” filled with n’duja or the funghi pizzette with truffle oil are I think more interesting propositions to launch your evening.
It’s the pasta though that really captures the heart. It reminds you just how good a simple plate of pasta can be (and so often isn’t). I don’t know if its home-made – I didn’t care to ask with my mouth stuffed full of rigatoni – but I suspect it is. It doesn’t really matter, as good, dried pasta is (heresy alert) often just as nice. It’s a secret many a nonna keeps closely guarded (especially if she want the morning off to watch the footie). The norma here is a delight, fragrant and enlivened with salted ricotta. The pesto di pistachio is even better. Its kharki tones don’t photograph well, but the dish is utterly delicious – complex, elegant and comforting.
Do leave some room for the puds as there is a very deft pastry hand in the kitchen. The wine selection is heavy on southern Italy and Sicily, as it should be. Given that these areas are producing great wines, it’s a joy to have such a tightly focused list. Or try Chinotto – that lovely soda made from sour chinotto oranges. It’s great when you want a rest from all that Etna Bianco and Nerello Mascalese. Come back for brunch - less Sicilian to be sure but cooked with the same skill and love.
Fred & Ginger Coffee and Plates
A certain thrill of anticipation ran through the good burghers of Berko at the news that local indie coffee haven, Fred & Ginger, was opening a more grown up foodie place just down the road. Calling into action a venerable, if slightly tired, building vacated by Pizza Express, hopes were high that their laid-back welcome and love of top-notch ingredients would translate well to a restaurant. Plates was duly born and has since gone through something of a sustainable, natural wine rollercoaster to settle it seems into a more trad brunch and lunch groove (which may or may not be an improvement depending on your perspective).
Fred & Ginger, the coffee-slinging mothership sits proudly on the High St opposite the rather lovely parish church. There are a few tables ‘n chairs outside, usually with a dog or two tethered beneath; you can also take your pooch inside to enjoy the interior pitched somewhere between industrial NYC loft and shabby chic, raw-plastered scandi-dom. The coffee is the star of the show (not always a given in coffee shops!) with a goodly selection of roasts, preparations and alt. milks covering pretty much all bases. The range of breakfast and lunch food stuffs is small and pert (good granolas, a bit of patisserie, sarnies and some sausage rollery etc.), all served by a lovely array of beaming folk of the occasional piercing and dungaree type. There are small, intimate tables and larger spaces with a mix of those breakfasting n’ brunching, snaffling takeaway brews and the odd creative type pouring over a laptop whilst guzzling one too many oat cappuccinos (any resemblance to the author is merely coincidental).
The same scandi lightness of touch is evident at the larger (and also dog-firendly) Plates down the road: blonde wood, exposed brick and clean lines but handled with a certain warmth, a certain hygge one might say. The nice open kitchen from its pizzeria days remains where they now prepare an all-day menu of breakfast/brunch/lunch dishes fresh to order. Amongst the usual benedicts, French toast and English breakies sit more original creations: tahini and tarragon mushrooms on toast and very good shakshuka, for example. The crown goes to the ham hock hash with seasonal greens and fried duck egg – a rich and scrumptious affair. It’s the sort of thing the locals eat in Lyonnaise brasseries the morning after one to many glasses of red.
This place used to open in the evening, and I for one am hoping they do so again in the future. I miss their corn ribs with green sauce and the bottles of Arndorfer Grüner Veltliner they had stashed away out back.
The Greeks are a cheery lot (when they’re not bearing gifts or arguing about philosophy). And at the Olive Tree, there’s a lot to cheer about. The place is unmissable roadside, Greek blue and white set off nicely by the pink of the bougainvillea that climbs up the exterior (not real, but nicer than that sounds). It’s a little like the set of Mama Mia but with better food and less (although, like all Greek places, not zero) chance of spontaneous song. The pink planting continues inside where everything relaxes into a pleasingly Hellenic sway: exposed cyclopean stonework and photos of very Greek Greekness, windmills, fishing boats, (real) bougainvillea-filled streets. Staff are young, chipper and very happy to help with your attempts at pronouncing “melitzanosalata” (not a word designed for Anglo Saxon soft palates). There's a nice buzz about the place: it just feels like somewhere you're going to be fed well. And you are.
The menu is a roll call of meze delights. Again, the “dips ‘n pitta” are not to be overlooked (here they are homier, if no less tasty) and the filo feta wrap, crisply fried and anointed with sweet syrup, is so much better than the slightly prosaic name suggests. Meats come char-grilled and juicy (the likes of souvlakia and loukaniko sausages) or roasted slow into bifteki yemisto and delightful lamb croquettes that match unctuous lamb shoulder with light goat’s cheese mousse. The spanakopika is very nice indeed, shattery and squidgy in equal measure as it should be. The moussaka is really very good too – they call it their signature dish, with some justification. Good things from the sea too, octopus with fava bean puree and crispy capers, and calamari with saffron aioli reminding you just how good decent quality squid, freshly fried, can be. The gigandes – huge butter beans enrobed in lovely tomato sauce spiked with dill – make an excellent vegetable counterpoint. Puds, never really the eastern Med’s strong point, come in the shape of kataifi (baklava’s hirsute cousin) and portokalopita (a trad orange-syrup-infused sponge affair).
Greek wine is undergoing something of a renaissance: good for the Greeks and good for us. I’m rather fond of the Retsina of yore but admit it’s an acquired taste. There’s a more à la mode Assyrtiko here from Athanasiou (in Nemea) and a Vidiano (a much lesser-known white grape that hails from Crete). Athanasiou provides a red as well, in the shape of their fruit-laden “Thronos” made from 100% Agiorgitiko.
Real wine enthusiasts should head to Grape Expectations wine shop and bar where they will find a playground of interesting bottles ranging from the reassuringly familiar to the nicely aspirational. This is the second outpost of the business (the original is in Marlow, Bucks) where they continue their great formula of wine bar come merchant allowing you to sip in or take away at leisure. The building is a bit of ugly-bug modernism from the outside, but inside is dark and cosy – the perfect mix of elegant and informal. It’s very good for whiling away a few hours with a friend – human or bottle-shaped. Staff are agreeable and knowledgeable, welcoming to those who know their Riesling from their Rolle and those who are simply wine-curious.
There is a well-curated menu of wines by the glass but much more fun can be had by grabbing a bottle from the shelves and paying the small corkage fee. It’s a brilliant way to try something new and exciting without paying the vast mark-ups you typically find in restaurants. The range is good, touching all expected bases and augmented with some genuinely interesting finds (I’ve got my hands on Max Ferd. Richter’s excellent German Pinot Noir here, as well as one of my favourite [affordable] Henschke wines – Henry’s Seven). Good sharing platters of artisan cheese, charcuterie and bowls of salted almonds etc. are on hand too for when you start to flag.
The place runs a schedule of events, tastings, producer show cases and the like. I’ve been to a couple and they are relaxed and hugely enjoyable. It’s a really good place in which to gather for an aperitif or two before sauntering off to one of the local restos (Rosanna’s is virtually next door for example). Pub wine lists are almost always an afterthought so a place that really knows its grapes is thoroughly to be encouraged. Alternatively, its more than possible to spend a whole evening here grazing as if in your own wine cellar, pausing here and there for a mouthful of Baron Bigod or the odd passing truffle crisp.
The Rising Sun – characterful canal-side pub. Lauded by CAMRA for its cider and teaming with craft beers and obscure gins, there’s a regular cheese club and a quiz night with fish-n’-chip interval.
Zero Sushi – proper-grade fish, properly prepared. Proper.
Warehouse Pizza – More delightful Sicilians! They might not be Napolitana, but they certainly know their pizza. What a difference authentic, impeccably sourced ingredients make.
The Alford Arms – not quite Berko but worth the walk/cab for tasty, elevated gastro-pub snuggliness of the green-wellie, more-dogs-than-humans kind.
Daisy & Co. – quirky, tasty brunch ‘n burger joint. Nice interior and the most stylish loos in town.
5 Favourite Foodie Haunts: Hove
I head to Hove’s shingly delights as often as diaries allow. Brighton’s quieter and less frenetic sister has been hiding a small-but-perfectly-formed food scene for a while now. I’m very fond of the local hostelries, most of which have played host to my disreputable activities over the years. But I have forced myself to focus on the places that fill my heart with real joy: a purveyor of egg sandwiches with serious attitude, a perfectly pitched fine-dining place, a brilliant cheese and wine one-stop-shoppy, a genre-defining gastro pub and, finally, superlative baked goods to munch, greasy-bagged, on the beach.
I like to think of Brighton and Hove, now joined at the hip, as “B&H” – it has just the right whiff of gold-foiled Fag Ash Lil about it (I should point out that I am Brighton-born so have native carte blanche). Sometimes frighteningly eclectic, there are many faces to this two-in-one city. There’s the posh side (Brighton College, Roedene and the third-rate private school my mother attended that taught solely Greek dancing and deportment). Then there are the Thespians – retired Shakespeareans and their ilk. Queer B&H of course in all its wonderful, rainbow fabulousness. The inescapably seamier side too: all dirty weekends, kiss-me-quicks and, beneath that, genuine deprivation. B&H off season is another place again: it can be desolate and lonely (the sort of bored, boarding-house feeling captured perfectly by Julian MacLaren-Ross and Morrisey in his Everyday-is-Like-Sunday vein). But close the door of one of its hostelries against the winter blasts and you can truly appreciate the place and its local denizens once the tide of tourist tat has receded.
Fika, ah sainted Fika! Many a hungover Sunday has been salvaged by the egg-drippingly-good buns of this Hove (Worthing and now Brighton!) mainstay. Now in its 4th year, it’s all so very unassuming from the outside, with the shipping-container chic following through within. The chipboard and cushions vibe is very on point though – besides, it’s nicer to sit outside on the occasional morning that the weather isn’t howling up Fourth Avenue. Inside or out, the service is invariably efficient and genuinely friendly.
The main pull is the fried-egg sandwiches, a term which really doesn’t do justice to what’s on offer. Having eaten my way round the menu and back again I think choices fall rather neatly into two halves: more breakfasty sandwich-type affairs and more brunchy, burgery substantials. I invariably opt for the relatively purity of the “Ton Bacon”. I say purity, but we are talking beautifully griddled bread (of toast-meets-fried-bread excellence), top quality bacon, smoked cheese and sweet/savoury tonkatsu sauce all dripping with yolky delight. Not pure at all: plump and wanton really. It’s just not quite as out there are some of its buttermilk-fried-chicken, n’duja-and-chimichurri or grilled-haloumi-and-harissa-aioli compadres. There’s usually a special or two as well: invariably something delicious to tempt you from the path of “Ton” righteousness.
I have, almost unbelievably, never tried the wonderful-sounding Ugly Nug sides. Goes to show just how filling the main events are. I do however always manage to cram in one of their mighty cinnamon buns, just to tip my hat to their Scandi roots you understand. Coffee is, as they claim, damn good and there are excellent value weekday deals to lighten the rainiest of Tuesdays. “Filthy fried eggs & damn good coffee”, you say? Well, yes please. And be quick about it!
Fourth and Church
When I’m finally laid to rest, my rigor-mortised fingers still clutching a fork no doubt, I have stipulated full honours and a pyramid in which to lay my head for all eternity. Just a small one, mind, nothing ostentatious. Taking the necessities with me into the afterlife might well involve the entire stock (and staff) of Fourth and Church, such is the bounty of their table.
Intimate and elegant, its walls are lined with bottles – a proud Amontillado here, a ravishing Riesling there – the sort of things to beckon and demand an hour or two of your time. The drinking is good here: they make a mean cocktail but I am usually swayed by the sherry selection. There’s even, unusually, a Blanc de Noirs by the glass which I’d be having had I not my nose in the Manzanilla en rama. The rest of the wine list stretches away to the horizon largely, and for your purse thankfully, keeping away from pricier regions in favour of, say, Lagrein from Alto Adige.
There’s à la carte with smaller and larger plates but give in to the gravitational pull of the tasting menu. It follows the well-beaten path of snacks then starter, fish, meat and pud but a little cheese course had been inserted too (correctly, à la française, before anything sweet) without whiff of additional charge. As if cheese were de rigueur. Which it is. In this instance, a gorgeously sticky, stinky piece of Munster expertly paired with baked fig. Someone in the kitchen is fond of pickling, preserving and fermenting: they are a dab hand at it too. Cubes of pressed ham hock studded with pistache are enlivened with the vinegar hit of red and golden beetroot – at once fresh and deeply porky. The main course usually offers something slow cooked and unctuous: cheek or short rib with a little offbeat coffee and chili perhaps. And there’s always excellent home-baked bread. Overall, it’s stimulating, well conceived and executed.
I had unfortunately come a cropper back-wise the evening before my last visit (unbridled limbo, frenetic Houla or some such) which rendered our allocated bar stools rather too Himalayan in aspect. Despite being chocka, the caring staff found us a more trad table with neither rolling of eye nor gritting of teeth – the sort of flexibility and bonhomie that many a starched ‘n starred place would do well to note. Bravo!
A gastro pub and microbrewery, this place is a wonderful shabby-chic, Farrow ‘n Ball diamond in the rough of a slightly gritty side road behind Tesco (street urchin as much as sea urchin?). You really mustn’t let that put you off, though. Once inside, or indeed in the strangely calming gardeny bit, it’s all scrubbed tables, sauce-smeared smiles and the occasional fantastic event like an oyster feast or crawfish boil.
It’s impossible for me to decide between the simple raw oyster with mignonette or its crispy chilli co-worker to kick things off. So I never do, I have both. They are Jersey Rocks which, if you’ve trawled through my forensic analysis of the bivalve, you’ll know work well both live and kicking (in a kinda odd monopedal way) and cooked. I’ve also sampled a starter of fried squid and a nice potted-crab thingy served with cubes of citrus jelly (a well-judged textural counterpoint) and a little tangle of caper-flecked remoulade.
For the main event, I always promise myself that I will have one of their impressive crustace (whole crab or lobster) brought steaming to the table dripping in seaweed butter or whatever they have dreamt up that week. However, I have now resigned myself to the fact that I will never make it past their Malaysian Prawns. What arrives when you order them, and you must, is a fabulous copper contraption rather like a wok with hinged lid (perfect for discarded shells). There’s probably a Malaysian term for it but the Portuguese call it, or something similar, a cataplana*. Opening this thingamabob, you are met with plump prawinness bathing quietly in a liquor of deep umami joy. The spicing is note perfect: warm, fragrant, utterly intoxicating. The lentil-flecked sauce is so good you’ll need a spoon, some of their good bread and a side order of fries to mop and slurp it all up.
The well-tended wine list will offer you a perfect fish-friendly Croatian Malvazija, likewise a Verdicchio (Matelica, ie the other one, not dei Castelli di Jesi). The cunning Urchins have also bagged one of Larry Cherubino’s Apostrophe Stone's Throw blends from down under. This one’s an unusual Riesling/Gewürztraminer. I haven’t tried it yet, I was too distracted by the Verdicchio, but a citrus/rose combo is just made for the spiciness of those heavenly prawns.
* full credit to my Portugal correspondent for the insider track on their trad cooking equipment.
In those moments when existential dread can only be assuaged by a large carbohydrate hug (something that happens to me with alarming regularity), head to the small row of super-duper shops on Victoria Terrace (facing Kingsway, Hove’s seafront road). Kingsway Coffee is a friendly new addition and there’s a little Italian deli (Franco’s Osteria), Cookbookbake (an excellent specialist cookbook shop) and a small health-food number, Kernel (the sort of place I applaud loudly, from afar). But the real draw is the racks of freshly baked goods lining the windows of pastel-clad Sugardough Bakery (the working-bakery sister of Brighton's more restauranty affair).
Named one of Britain’s best artisan bakeries by innumerable broadsheets and such types, but still reassuringly “of the people”, this place takes ingredient sourcing and handling seriously. None of which would make a jot of difference if the end result were not so darn delicious. There are pies and sausage rolls (of the good meat and flaky kind); tarts, large and small, sweet and savoury, and good croissants (and this from a card-carrying croissant fancier): choc, almond or naked as intended. You’ll also find things that edge towards patisserie but remain firmly in the good-old-British-bake camp: a crispy-tipped lemon meringue pie or treacle tart – all nicely 1950s Britain, except made with love and skill. It’s topped off with oodles of sourdough bready products and loaves for miles. They serve the local Small Batch Coffee, too. And that’s a v. good thing.
There are a couple of cheery tables outside but, as it’s only a stone’s throw from the beach, it’s far better to join the snaking take-away line to grab a breakfast pastry (egg, bacon, black pudding a-top exemplary flakiness) and head down the promenade to feast with the locals amongst the shingle. Even on the most inclement of days you’ll find some game soul (it could even be me!) trying to cram a maple-glazed thingamajig into their mouth despite the force-eight gale. The south coast breeds ‘em hardy: it’s all that pastry.
Curds & Whey and Cases Wine Bar
Brunswick Town is the bit of Hove abutting Brighton that everyone forgets actually is Hove (actually). Its Regency glamour hosts the only remotely acceptable stretch of Western Rd (even then one must travel incognito in head scarf and dark glasses, perfumed handkerchief at the ready). A Brunswick Town morning might call for breakfasting at one of the nicer local places: Brodwolf if you’re feeling a bit Ibsen or the Salvage Cafe for full B&H razzamatazz; if the clock has announced a semi-respectable hour, Market
will offer restorative tapas and Manzanilla.
The real treat, however, comes from a browse and nibble at the twin delights of Curds & Whey and Cases Wine Bar. To the left as you enter lies the world of British cheese and salumi carefully curated by The Great British Charcuterie co. Sussex is now home to much artisanal making so there is a goodly supply of quality cheeses like Pevensey Blue or nutty Golden Cross. But these guys cast their net wider: Ticklemore, Tunworth, Irish Gubeen and delightful Cornish Kern amongst many others. There are meat lockers of salamis, hams and bresaoloas of unimpeachable breeding and deliciousness, delights such as Lomo from super-star Mangalitsa pigs (made by Beal's Farm). Everything is available to bag for later, or there’s a small grazing menu to enjoy with the vinous stimulation on the other side of the shop.
Here you’ll find “Cases”, a wine-case-stacked establishment run by North Laine’s L'atelier du vin. The impressive wine selection digs heavily into Burgundy for red, and especially white, supported by southern France, Spain, northern and central Italy. The larger Beaujolais Crus are represented and there’s a good sherry selection (from one of the oldest Bodegas, Delgado Zuleta, to newer producers like Ferando da Castilla). Lots of wonderful Sussex PDO sparklers and other Brit wines of course.
Windows are thrown wide in the summer for sipping and gawping, and there’s a speakeasy-style bar bellow for live music. Regular cheese clubs and pop-up restaurants complete the look. Another outpost can be found in Worthing, or so I hear. Online purchasing, delivery etc also a thing.
The Little Fish Market – Tiny place (not plaice), barely room for all the accolades. One tasting menu. Fait accompli. Noble Rot help out with the wine pairings, so you just have to.
etch. – high-endy and spendy. MasterChef: The Professionals winner Steven Edwards presides imperiously over recently refurbed lux. Local and seasonal and really v. good.
The Cheese Hut - Sometimes it’s nice to wander to the end of the promenade with no particular destination in mind. And “no destination” is a good description for the unprepossessing light industry of Portslade docs. Nevertheless, it’s home to good cheese goodly served forth by friendly types.
Wild Flor – utterly charming menu and dreamy wine list (carafes – well done!): Syrah, Pinot Noir, Riesling heaven. Stone’s throw from Fourth and Church – do try both, but not greedily. Excellent value prix-fixe.
Five Favourite Foodie Haunts: Norwich
Norwich’s food scene has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years and you can now find some genuinely intriguing independent places amongst the faceless chain-arama of yore. “The Norwich Lanes” (Pottergate to the locals), shamelessly rebranded to steal some of Brighton’s thunder, Upper St Giles and St Benedict’s are the places to “gyre and gimble” (which, incidentally, is the name of a rather nice bar and distillery close by). Thanks to cunning medieval town planners (who clearly had lunch in mind) these areas are but a stone’s throw from each other so wandering and grazing is a simple matter. Here’s my pick of the bunch: a veritable fine-dining institution, a wonderfully authentic French bistro, a truly outstanding fish ‘n chip emporium, some boho chicery, and finally a bit of flame-throwing, tomahawk-steak-wielding man-theatre that nonetheless manages to be entirely memorable.
N.B. Richard Bainbridge's Benedicts, one of the highlights of the local scene, has its own review.
I’ve been eating, dining perhaps, at Roger Hickman’s place for yonks. It used to be called Adlard’s and we enjoyed that too, until my mother got the knock with them (she was a great one for “the knock”: it probably wasn’t their fault). At least one graduation celebration, a few birthdays and any number of feasts for no occasion have been hosted in these sainted halls – it’s that sort of place. Unashamedly fine dining, it manages to be neither overly formal nor absurdly stylised. Impeccable sourcing, nuanced, assured cooking and the best wine list for miles (including a couple of unmissable wine pairings that have been put together with flair and intelligence) have seen it presiding imperiously over the city’s dining scene for decades.
I once ate at one of Richard Corrigan’s places in Soho that was so small I felt I was in some sort of art installation rather that out for a relaxing supper. Luckily the dining room here, although intimate, is sufficiently roomy and well planned to inspire and comfort in equal measure. I understand there’s a newish private dining space as well which, although I haven’t seen it, is sure to be pukka.
We’re in tasting menu territory here, but bear with – that’s not necessarily bad news. What it means for a chef is that they can concentrate on what they do best: with luck, a well-considered, seasonal affair as here. They are fans of the “series of disconnected nouns” school of menu writing, so it’s hard to offer any real sense of what’s on offer other than to say that the likes of duck confit, intelligently chosen cuts of beef and some nicely prepared fish are all handled with consummate skill. There is, to be fair, nothing on the menu to frighten the horses (which sometimes, frankly, need a bit of geeing up) but to name it excellent, dependable British cooking might seem a little churlish. It’s better than that: three Rosettes better in fact. Plus I recall good table linen (these things are important to the professional pedant, you see).
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a famous restaurant critic ventured into the provinces. He happened upon a tiny outpost of France in the back streets of Norwich (“The Lanes” in fact) and had a thoroughly good time. Hurrah. Quite rightly, L’Hexagone slapped his review on their front page. And there it remains. Things here are decidedly, as Monsieur Raynor pointed out, small: limited of table and restrained of menu. But that’s a definite plus – it’s an exquisite, jewel-like restaurant (not six-sided I think, but I didn’t count) with a reassuringly focussed, quintessentially Gallic menu.
“Authentic” is a positively horrid term for a chef’s oeuvre: over-used and pretty meaningless. Nevertheless, having eaten my way round France a few hundred times, I can declare this restaurant authentic in the way one might a ship fit to sail or (if Oscar Wilde) one’s genius. The genius here (at the risk of paraphrasing my esteemed forerunner) is to stick to the staples of French gastronomy and do them well. And that’s no mean feat as many French bistros have entirely forgotten the art.
There’s a steak tartare which you won’t order. It’s a strange French ritual (Escoffier blamed it on the Americans). No one likes it this side of the channel, where the English feel obliged to order it in some Brexit-defying bonhomie and then fork through it dreaming of a medium-rare burger slapped unceremoniously between two buns – à l'américaine no doubt. The remainder of the menu though is France as it once was, might be somewhere still, and certainly should be again (I exaggerate, you can still eat very well even in the back streets of Paris if you are tenacious and pretend to be Canadian).
Delightfully handled bavette frites, proper crème brûlée (i.e. not the fluffy, corn-starch horror of many a franglais menu) are served with charm and warmth. Simple, even over-familiar, menu terms like soupe a l’oignon and mousse au chocolat should announce marvellous things – and here, they do. There’s a Crémant de Loire, a Muscadet sur lie, a red and a white Chinon to drink (surely these guys are from the Loire?) and a Cahors Malbec for when you are feeling sultry.
The Grosvenor Fish Bar
Getting a fish and chip shop right is a tricky business. So much part of our cultural history and memory that any deviation from the norm is met with scepticism, even moral outrage. Aim too low and you’re in deep-fried-burger, anti-social-behaviour-on-the-street-corner territory; aim too high and you lose touch with the essentially working-class roots of it all. There are a select few who have cracked it: The Mayfair Chippy is one, Victorian-tiled and with a delightfully moreish menu or fish! Kitchen in Kingston-upon-Thames which sources fish from its own fishmonger, Jarvis, next door. Über fresh, excellent quality fish and superb chip-shop chips are a must, but how often have one or other (or both) been scandalously absent? You also want a bit of flair and a few things beyond the ubiquitous cod, haddock and plaice.
The Grosvenor Fish bar has it down pat. It shares the outré decor of its boho neighbours: beneath the pretty standard but wildly friendly/efficient take away lies a charming dine-in cellar where fighter-bomber zinc panelling and the odd whiff of damp somehow only stands to enhance the briny, vinegar tang of its crispy-fried ambiance. Who needs windows and natural light when you have the likes of soft-shelled crab buns with fried green tomatoes and Po-boy sauce or the jauntily named Seven Quid Squid with garlic aioli to tuck into. There are plenty of more trad things like cod cheeks and battered sea bass, but both the familiar and the new offer real, tasty value. Wine comes with limited “white Sauvignon” and “French rosé” credentials and is palatable if nothing more. But you can cheer yourself up with the battered gherkins (pictured) – unmissable.
The Bicycle Shop
The louche charms of St Benedict’s are freely given, in fact they rather thrust themselves upon you. There’s little point in trying to resist. Slightly disreputable galleries mingle with vinyl record shops, an arts centre, temples to vegan food and the odd Rosette-heralded fine diner (one in fact, Richard Bainbridge’s Benedict’s). It’s a heady, sometimes pungent brew and more than a little intoxicating. If Norwich had beat poets, they would live here (no doubt in one of the many ancient, flint-faced churches that seem to step back slightly from the thoroughfare’s modern-day Vanity Fair). This is probably the closest Norwich comes to the authentic North Laine vibe, if slightly too self-consciously to pull it off with complete success.
Slap bang in the middle of things sits The Bicycle Shop which rolls up its more-shabby-than-chic bamboo blinds at 10am every morning to welcome a motley crew of knitwear-clad Guardian readers, out of work sociology lecturers and the odd hungry food writer. Wobbly scrubbed tables, mismatched ‘70s crockery and a veritable jungle of the potted and the planted provide a low-key backdrop to a small, winsome menu. Breakfast and brunch offer forth things like black pudding hash (very nice) and, appropriately, a collection of benedicts; after the noon clocks have chimed in the luncheon hour, they are joined by charcuterie, cheesy things, the odd passing risotto and cakes.
In the evening, the lights are turned down and out come the candlewax encrusted bottles. The veggie-friendly supper menu focuses on roasted favourites like butternut squash with various sauces and pestos of the walnut and wild garlic ilk. There are usually a couple of meaty dishes as well. The food is good, if somewhat less radical than the clientele’s politics one suspects, and the wine list short but playful. An excellent place to sink into chipped-chintz revery with your favourite dog-eared paperback. There’s a pleasant, velocipede rhythm to its hospitality; it’s dog-friendly too which adds to the warm snugglines.
Brix and Bones
Insalubrious is perhaps a little strong, so let’s just say unpromising. Not a particularly gallant description of the building currently occupied by Brix and Bones but a fair assessment. It’s not their fault as they are “upstairs” which means that to some extent they are at the mercy of whatever goes on below (at my time of visiting, the boarded-up nothingness of a work in progress). But it would be an enormous mistake to turn away. Once in and up the stairs, the place is lovely, lively and offers up some brilliantly conceived and executed food. The staff are attentive, knowledgeable and seem to actually enjoy working here (not always a given). They sat us at the pass for a full view of the culinary theatre – highly recommended.
There wasn’t a single thing on the menu that I didn’t want to order immediately. A good sign. An embarrassment of riches for confirmed carnivores, there’s venison, mutton and meat lockers worth of beautifully aged beef as well as the odd, clever dive into the sea. We started with a deeply savoury, decidedly hand-made, merguez sausage nestling on sauerkraut and seasoned with just a hint of anchovy. This accompanied a lovely mutton and pheasant creation – a sort of croquette, although that mimsy word hardly does justice to the depth of its umami, katsu-inflected crunch. The main events came in the shape of a stone-age-sized pork chop, crustily charred and perfectly cooked inside, served with a sweet/sour fennel gravy and dusted with katsuobushi (bonito flakes). Its companion, slices of mutton leg with wild garlic verde, was tender, yielding and surprisingly light.
The side dishes were every bit as good: proper buttery mash with crispy chicken skin and carroty carrots cooked just so and intriguingly with kombucha. To drink, we treated ourselves to a Rasteau from Domaine Gramiller: brilliant (see my full Tasting Note for details). The bone-marrow fudge doughnut that finished off proceedings was everything I had hoped (see pic). Sadly, it’s sparring partner, a sea buckthorn tart, wasn’t available that night but I would go back for it given the standard of the rest of the menu. Altogether, this was astonishingly assured cooking which is unsurprising perhaps given the presence in the kitchen of George Wood, formerly of London’s Temper and Smokehouse.
XO Kitchen – creative, Asian stickiness in St George’s St.
Dozen Bakery – brutalist, minimalist bakery hidden in the Golden Tringle, selling wonderful fresh-baked goods and superlative sausage rolls.
Benoli – Imaginative Italian cooking at the hands of MasterChef: The Professionals finalist Oliver Boon. Parmesan croquettes beloved of Grace Dent.
Bread Source – great bakery and café in Upper St Giles (and other local outlets). Not only cinnamon, but cardamon buns!
Kofra Speciality Coffee Roasters – jolly, and jolly good coffee. Couple of venues citywide but main one in St Giles (of course!)