Haggle, Norwich: ‘Are you telling me that’s not worth 20 shekels?!’  

When I asked if anyone wanted to join me at Haggle, one of the first rejections I received was because the idea of haggling down prices at a restaurant seemed too stressful. At the time, I was quick to explain this to be a misconception, that the name ‘Haggle’ was an obvious homage to the culture of compromise in the markets of Turkey. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t double-check whether the restaurant’s concept incorporated some gimmick that had an element of negotiation.

I wonder what tactics we’d have to employ when haggling in a restaurant. Would we have to bargain over prices or quantity? Would this happen when orders are taken? Between courses? Or would we do this at the end of the meal, once all had been consumed? What if there were no rules, and the restaurant was a heaving marketplace where each table had its designated server-cum-salesperson ready for a good haggle? To some, like many a frugal father, this may sound like a fantastic opportunity for a great deal, to others, potentially most, they turn into Brian from Monty Python’s Life of Brian and crumble under the pressure of having to bargain with the spectre of Harry the Haggler.

I imagine that quite a few haggling techniques and strategies would still apply. You could prepare by looking up a menu in advance, google each of the dishes to find comparatively priced fare in the area, and then use that knowledge as an effective bargaining chip. ‘This food looks great but is well overpriced. That other restaurant charges a fiver less! And don’t say the portions are larger because I’ve seen it served at the table over there and I was not impressed.’ That’s a classic. You’d, of course, use the appropriate body language too: shocked faces, subtle shakes of the head, point towards imaginary competitors, etc. The more I think about it, the less far fetched the idea becomes.

No firm positions would be occupied when restaurant haggling, a flexible and easy approach to proposed hard lines and assumed stances. It could even be fun; a chat about ingredients, origins, cooking style and technique, would demonstrate interest but also allow you to look for blemishes to exploit and for the vendor to commit too much time to let you walk away without a deal being made. If you go to the restaurant often enough, you could become a regular, a local, a loyal consumer, earning rewards for such dedicated devotion. Bring guests you want to impress, dates you want to flatter, birthday people, and parents who penny-pinch. Every dish would be scrutinised for the slightest imperfection: an untidy smudge, a malformed goujon or a missold hake, all to gain discount, reparation or special treatment.

There aren’t many people I know in England that would even attempt a market haggle, let alone bargain at a brick-and-mortar. Prices are taken at face value, or left alone – the vendor dictates the terms. My friends concur that to them it’s too much of a humiliating and tiresome activity, filled with almost inevitable rejection, that requires foreign bravery and persistence. A restaurant here based on haggling would either be a resounding business success because people who like the food would just patronise no matter the offered price, or a massive failure since no one would visit due to the fear and inconvenience of having to bargain.

Thankfully, for all those who cannot stand the idea of arguing over the mezze or mangal, Haggle is just the name of a popular Middle Eastern restaurant in Norwich.

Haggle is too stylish and well-kempt an establishment to condone haggling. Despite its bohemian aesthetic, its exposed brick walls, elaborate wallpapers, embroidered cushions, and ornate light fixtures, is a fashionable sophistication that shines through in its intentional arrangement. The restaurant provides for a comfortable and eclectic mix of pattern and texture that just escapes the kitsch. It has a cosy and charming feel that is so ‘in’ right now: the kind of hip place where you could impress a date, invite your work colleagues for a team night, or just bring your mates along for grub and cocktails before a night on the town.

The menu is a well-curated amalgam of Turkish and Middle Eastern classics that encourages people to try a few different dishes rather than stick to the familiar 3-course structure. To properly experience Turkish cuisine is to have a dinner table decorated with representation from the cold and warm mezze options, variations of stuffed, topped and/or plain flatbreads, meat off the mangal and something to wash it all down. Haggle’s menu provides for all of this and then some.

I made no attempt to haggle at Haggle (much to the relief of my very English company) and chose to start things off with some a’tom and humus accompanied by a plate of balloon bread with garlic butter. The a’tom was light lilting spread, creamy, with a subtle garlic pungency. Humus, a staple that we couldn’t help but order, was smooth as baby food, not grainy in the slightest, with no signs of clump or split, and the right amount of lip-smacking tahini. These were scooped up with gossamer-thin shreds of warm balloon bread, that left us smiling, nodding and humming at each other in shared satisfaction. I must admit that I was more than a little underwhelmed by the fact there was just one puffy napkin of lavash for us to share. I was expecting at least two or three, and for a fiver too? Felt harsh.  I don’t think it would hurt their margins to give us more.

          We ordered the wings because they sounded too good to pass up. Garlic and honey, a union of ingredients anointed by the culinary gods, glazing tender and supple chicken wings, modestly portioned, turned out very tasty indeed. The dish is a winner and easy to spot for those looking for a life raft when reading a menu that may seem initially overwhelming.

          The kiymali pide came next with its molten hot cheese, speckled with glistening lamb mince, on a crisp flatbread base. It is difficult to resist the urge to describe the dish as ‘Turkish pizza’ but it is fundamentally that, though more rustic in appearance and gondola shaped. While I did appreciate Haggle’s pide iteration, I found the crust to mid-section ratio too skewed towards the crust, and that of the cheese to meat erring too far on the cheese side. The pide is still worth recommending, particularly for Turkish pizza virgins looking to pop their cherries.  

We all slowed-clapped for the beyti. Juicy lamb kebabs wrapped in crisp yet malleable lavash, topped with rich yoghurt and savoury sweet tomato sauce. It is a dish that surprises the uninitiated, comes across as unremarkable on paper, but impresses with its simplicity and rich flavours. The dish’s execution at Haggle is one I’m sure even Beyti Guler would be proud of.

If we could haggle at Haggle then I probably would have attempted to haggle down the price of the school cafeteria-esque tajine that we had the misfortune of ordering. I dreamed of an earthen pot enclosed by a clay conical lid gliding towards us that, once opened, would reveal a rich, steaming Morrocan chicken stew. Instead, we were served a lukewarm plateful of Turkish chicken chilli and rice, plopped on as if by some jaded dinner lady. It was not all that unpleasant to eat, but it’s a dish I’d like to forget.

The pirzola lamb chops were as disappointing since they did not come to us fresh off the grill. They felt like they’d been sitting on the pass for too long – which can happen on a busy Friday night. It’s just a shame since I could taste the potential. The dish could have restored the meal to its glory before the travesty of the tagine, but alas…

The best products in any market are often those that you wouldn’t feel the need to haggle down. In fact, they are things that you’d pay almost whatever the vendor asked for (within reason) and would feel wrong trying to negotiate a lower price for. I don’t think the chefs at Haggle, on the whole, cook food that is too far off that ideal. Nevertheless, there are elements of their offering that I dare say would have opened up avenues for deftly maneuvered haggling if it was a possibility.

Location: 13 St Benedicts St, Norwich NR2 4PE

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