Before travelling to Norwich on a surprise visit, I decided to compile a list of restaurants for Maddy and I to try, and for me to review whilst I was there. I narrowed it down to three restaurants that I would call to check if there were any available tables and whether I could then make a reservation. This proved to be a much more frustrating process than I had initially envisaged.
The first one on the list could not seem to understand that I wanted a booking for September:
‘Hello, I’d like to make a booking for the 27th please’, I asked politely.
‘27th of October? Seems fine, what time would you like?’, the staff member replied. It sounded like a busy shift.
‘Sorry if I wasn’t clear,’ I said, then clarified, ‘I need a booking for the 27th of this month’.
‘How about the fourth?’, eh, where’d that come from? ‘We can do the fourth of October. Sorry, there has been a lot of interest lately, but I’m sure I could put you in sometime around then.’
‘No, umm, I am asking for Sep-’
‘Sorry can’t hear you too well mate, should I put you down for the 4th?’
By this point I was slightly peeved, ‘Why do you keep talking about October, I’m talking about September. It’s not even the middle of September yet.’
‘Oh, we’re all booked for September’…Holey moley.
But that was the worst of it. The other places were both closed, thus leaving me with my final option, Blue Joanna, which was not so bad considering all the good things we heard about it. When I called in, the manager who picked up was attentive and energetic, and when he couldn’t hear me, he had the decency of going somewhere quieter for a better-quality conversation. He managed to slot us in nicely at 7p.m on the 28th of SEPTEMBER.
Blue Joanna is somewhat unassuming and inconspicuous from the outside looking in, especially at night. It even took us a few seconds to spot the restaurant header despite looking right in its direction. There were very few people in at the time, which seemed unusual considering how loud it was over the phone, but we were not complaining and took our seats at a table a couple of steps from the bar.
The walls inside were a cactus green, with hackneyed light fittings that provided warm dimness through visible bulbs in metal shades and a weird mixture of surrealist artwork and old movie posters that did not particularly draw attention to themselves. We noticed cast iron adjustable bar stools which followed the theme of upheld by the scaffold bottle racks behind the bar and the genre schizophrenic 80’s music, but Blue Joanna did feel rather kitschy and perceivably dive bar-esque.
The Korean blue taco, taking about a third of the menu space, seemed to set the tone for the Asian inspired fusion inclusions on the menu card – predominantly twists on Japanese cuisine. Mentions of vibrant ponzu dressing, earthy hijiki, or the chilli spice blend of shichimi or togarashi seem adventurous and exotic when written on an ‘English Tapas’ styled menu, but this only heightened my scepticism because most places I’ve been to, especially food market stalls that endeavour similar ‘elevations’ do not seem to well-utilise the ingredients at their disposal and the flavours they are working with.
Due to how dark it was where we sat, it was quite frustrating how difficult it was to actually get a detailed identification of what we had actually ordered. Maybe it was a deliberate rouse on their part, but I did not want to risk Maddy’s irritation by my inquiry, so we’ll never know. Intuitively, our server at Blue Joanna, who also happened to be the manager, brought a candle to us. It’s light, though not ideal, allowed us to divine that what we’d ordered did indeed look appetising. The aesthetic of the powdery blueness of the taco with the sanguine reds of both the kimchi tofu and the pork filling; the crisply battered plump whitebait; the palpable crispness of the semolina flour coated tofu balls, with bountiful, crunchy skinned sweet potatoes; and finally, the wonderfully glistening golden prawns, each dish uniquely poised to pleasure us.
Let us go over the taste of each dish at Blue Joanna, moving from one end of the satisfaction spectrum to the other, starting with Maddy’s tofu taco, whose filling was absolutely delicious. Its lightly sweetened spicy red sauce, reminiscent of gochujang, albeit in this case, made milder to suit the local palate, was pleasant refreshing on the palate. The fried whitebait, an appetiser we tend to order every time we visit Turtle Bay with friends and family, seemed as bottomless as the baskets of fish, in the parable of the sermon on the mount. The fish were tasty and the batter crisp which is all we ask of a good plate of white bait. The chips, despite their size, boasted crispy skins and were well seasoned – by far the largest portion on our table.
The pork filling in my taco was scrumptious and moist in the shredded carnitas kind of way. The slice of cucumber and the plentiful swirls of spring onion were good additions for contrast. Normally, I would not complain about too much filling, but in this particular case, there was so much moisture that the lovely taco got soggy and broke apart halfway through. The tortilla at Blue Joanna was the star for me, so to see it ruined was a damn shame. I would advise lesser filling and maybe an extra taco to compensate.
The prawns were soft and without crunch by the time we got to them. They tasted quite similar to the other dishes in terms of the interplay between sweetness and spiciness, which we liked, but the texture was wrong and was made worse by the sauce. Coating a crispy batter with thick unctuous sauces puts a timer on the kind of ideal texture initially being reached for, an unnecessary gamble for the chef when he or she can just as easily serve each separately.
This, however, was not the only issue. After my first piece, I immediately checked the menu to see if there were other any other prawn dishes listed because what I was served was not tempura. Sure, the damage the sauce had done had skewed the texture of the batter, but when held to the light and then checked for consistency, the batter was darker and heavier than is expected of crisp light and airy tempura.
Maddy noticing my change in posture braced herself for my now inevitable word with the staff. When the chef confirmed my observation, explaining that ‘it was like tempura, just not as light and crisp,’ I was tempted to suggest that they change the menu at Blue Joanna to ‘almost-tempura prawns’ so that customers could make more informed decisions.
The tofu balls, which were almost certainly accompanied by a store bought sweet chilli sauce, were a pleasure for the teeth but not for the tongue. The whole process of eating them was an exercise in frustration. You bite into the beautifully crusted globe of tofu only to taste nothing but the hints of its shredded and squeezed components artfully formed yet inexcusably bland. There was little to no seasoning in any of the balls, and no amount of dousing into the accompanying sugary sauce was going to save it.
All things considered, the inexpensive nature of the meal and the great service, played a significant part in turning our experience at Blue Joana to a positive one. The dishes that we liked, though overshadowed by the ones we disliked, are still worth recommending if one is looking for some snacks with their pint. There are better places one can go for similar meals, maybe not too many in Norwich, but I think I’d rather head to the main market for my street food fix. Would I go to Blue Joanna again for a meal? I don’t think so, but I may pop in for a couple of drinks and for a nice chat about business and the weather.
103 Unthank Rd, Norwich NR2 2PE
Korean Blue Taco (filling) £7-8 (extras) £1-5; English Tapas £3-7; Desserts £2-5