The city of Norwich, as soon as you step off the train and onto the platform, speaks to you as all cities do, in a way that can only be deciphered if you are truly listening. No matter who you are or where you come from, it is a homecoming of sorts. The station in its openness is cool, and offers a calm and genuine welcome that protects its visitors from the whip of the wind outside.
Welcome. Yes, it is cold. But outside is colder still.
As you pass through the ticket gates, you smell the Starbucks, the distinct effluvia of sugary, roasted Starbucks coffee, and then a whiff of Cornish pasties, hash browns and bacon. You stroll past the red brick walls and stone arches, a lady smoking her e-cigarette from her bra holster, a man playing the harmonica, and another tuning his guitar, into the fresh air.
There is a small bridge you cross over the Wensum. You stop halfway along, look down the river and are suddenly reminded that the prettiest cities in the world have rivers running through them. In previous years, especially in summer time, you might have seen school children having a swim and picnickers by the riverside. But today the portion of the Wensum nearest to the train station is like the Styx, for when you cross it, you pass into Norwich’s underworld – or at least its remnants from the night before.
Walking down the eponymous Prince of Wales, a street now known for its mischief, debauchery, and occasional violence, is probably not the best representation of Norwich. It used to be land occupied by the Greyfriars monastery, holy land, a celebrated route to Thorpe Station in the 1800s. Now the walkways of this street, particularly mornings after the weekend, the ominous mornings after, are minefields of bile and dropped kebabs, broken heels and cigarettes. During the day, Prince of Wales is just a street with shut bars and strip clubs and Chinese restaurants. A couple of men and women in uniform work to clean up the detritus, others make their separate ways up and down, utterly nonchalant.
Just as you clear the Prince of Wales pub at the end of the road, the final frontier, begins a different Norwich: this one prim and stately, down Agricultural Hall Plain. To your left the Savills and Anglia Television Buildings, attractive constructs of more red brick and stone, vestibules of culture that yet remain and give soul to the modern. I was heading to St. Benedicts Street, but it was only until I saw the oxidised bronze spire at the commencement of Castle Meadow, the spire atop the clock tower of City Hall, that I knew where I was going. Here you will see many buses. Some lining up, others driving past, dropping off and picking up people, sometimes lovers, at the end and at the beginning of their rendezvouses.
I know there are quicker ways to St. Benedicts Street. There are roads you should take and paths you should use in case you are in a hurry. But you shouldn’t be, and because you aren’t and have come with time to spare, you make the unavoidable detour through the Royal Arcade. It is Norwich’s prize, one of the most beautiful arcades in the country, an astounding English contribution to the international movement of Art Nouveau. With its emerald tint, pretty tiles, more beauteous arches, flowing geometric lines, large hanging lanterns, quaint shops and boutiques, and the people within.
Then you sense it.
It reaches your nose before you see it, before the colourful tops of market stalls, the array of produce and the busyness of Gentleman’s Walk. The fragrances, odours, and aromas of the market. It smells first of the sea, seafood brought and kept on ice, of vinegary cups of cockles in the hands of people walking through, sometimes the sweetness of shrimp too. Fresh produce contributes its own mellifluousness. Florists tend their bouquets, arrange each one, and then let them sell themselves. A grandmother sits on a bench eating a dressed crab, and her grandson beside her pops mini-cheddars into his mouth and feeds the rest to the pigeons.
I fight the urge to enter the market. I know that if I did I wouldn’t make my reservation at Benedicts. The allure of hog roasts, bao buns, chorizo baps, arancini and my favourite Chinese takeaway in the whole world. The market was never as pretty or as busy as it is now.
I fought the good fight and won.
Up the Lower Goat, into St. Gregory’s Alley, the city looks older but the people are younger. Hip cafés, restaurants, boutiques and the effervescence of the Norwich Lanes. You are seduced momentarily by Grosvenor’s fish and chips, then distracted by a busker passionately singing Wonderwall to a dancing little girl, and the sight of large mugs of cream topped hot chocolate at Alchemista. Through the alley, behind the church and finally you are on St. Benedicts Street.
Benedicts, the restaurant, is the one dressed in black. Black awning, black front door and window panes. It is so stark. Made more so by you having been around a city so full of colour. Think of it as a reset of sorts, a blank canvas, a point of transport.
White wood panelled walls, wooden floor boards, wooden table tops, and chairs, and bar. Tables neatly set, and with a subtle yet meaningful vase of tiny white flowers on every one. Little white flowers on green stems. The staff are all smiles. Lovely to talk to, full of Norwich pride, and seem genuinely happy to work at the restaurant. Maybe I visited on a particularly good day, but I like to the think it is always this way.
They even let me choose my table from the three available, so I picked a place by one of the rear windows because the overcast daylight did not reach the centre of the room.
Instead of one menu at Benedicts, you get several. One for drinks, another for the à la carte, one more for the tasting menu, a final one for the set lunch. I went through them one by one, and then again, held them side by side and then once again individually. I’m not good with decisions in restaurants, I do not ever really know what I want. All I have is the desire for whatever I receive to be worth writing about.
The first course to arrive at my table was an amuse-bouche, a biscuit and a mini tart in essence, but with the kind of sophistication you’d expect. They were bite sized replicas of conventional flavours: a prawn cocktail and a mini cheddar, prettified and made in a kitchen with proper ingredients. The mini-cheddar tasted just like the real thing, much to my disdain, with a creamy cheese filling that would have made my girlfriend swoon. I can appreciate the attention to detail but I’m not one for cheddars. I did like the prawn cocktail in the crisp shortcrust, sweet blushing prawns, made up with sprinkled rose powder, a lovely juxtaposition with its salty, cheesy partner.
A large rippling rice cracker dotted with miniscule blobs of salmon roe and apple gel, alongside a cup of sherry mousse, came soon after. I dipped a spoon into the mousse first, for a little taste.
The texture was agreeable, an emulsion which was soft on the tongue with a tendency towards lavishness. But the sherry that came through with strength in aftertaste had a strong matured flavour about it that I had yet to acquire and learn to appreciate.
I left it aside and then tried the cracker.
The intense umami of the salmon roe danced with the sweetness of the gel, and joined in threesome by the popping candy crunch of the cracker. I felt myself smile.
And then I had an idea. I dabbed a little mousse onto a piece of the cracker to see what would happen. ‘Kapow!’ is what happened. Umami Armageddon. A festival of textures and flavours, colourful Norwich in a metaphor that is cliché but a taste that was not.
Then a chunk of exquisite sourdough bread with some delicious brown butter to calm me down. Dough not too long fermented had a pleasurable bitterness, the bread a dense yet brittle crust. A course to regain professional perspective after being zapped by unanticipated high notes.
Next, a descent into decadence. A nest of salsify crowned by a pearlescent globe of confit egg yolk and garnished with coriander. A cascading pour of cream sauce is done at the table. Rich as rich can be, waves of dairy indulgence copulating with sumptuous runny yolk, brightened by the fresh crunch of salsify.
I had the fish for a main. A dulcet demonstration of North Sea cod, moist and delectable, midst a cacophony of sliced pickled daikon, baby leeks, lashings of champagne cream sauce, neat quenelles of wild garlic and pea puree, caramelised diamonds of sweetly tart lemon rind and the rather unwelcome addition of Ratte potatoes, whose textural contribution did not quite fit. They were ever so slightly underdone. I would much rather have had the dish without the potatoes. A remarkable dish nevertheless.
When thinking about dessert I looked around me for inspiration and found none. The trifle looked inviting but with the potential to disturb the balance of my meal. The Benedicts cheese selection that came in what looked like war time food tins did not garner my interest in the slightest. I inevitably defaulted to the dark chocolate and praline tart which I wanted to order at the start of my meal. I was told to wait in case I changed my mind. But when I know I want something, I very rarely deviate.
I’ve had better chocolate tarts, with chocolate filling better set (for this one was closer to liquid than set ganache) and crusts exceedingly moreish, but I did like the hazelnut ice-cream, not in the least like Nutella but that tasted very much of earth, almost ashen, hazelnut. I had an espresso besides that tasted like the Lavazza you get at the train station, but that which came with crisp pig-shaped fennel seed ingrained biscuits that I enjoyed immensely.
It almost goes without saying that Richard Bainbridge’s cuisine is a celebration of the local, not merely in terms of his ingredients but the sort of imagery they stimulate in composition and the feelings of nostalgia that they awaken. This is food that enriches experience, that creates it, reminds you of kinship and introduces to you, in bitesize, a city of such depth and humility. Benedicts is what I imagine Norwich to taste like at its very best: a place where the air is still pure, the history rich and a culture that constantly evolving.
I cannot think of a better compliment.
Location: 9 St Benedicts St, Norwich NR2 4PE
Menu/ Prices: http://restaurantbenedicts.com/menu