For a small town, Bungay has a fair few restaurants. You’ve got your standard chippy, your Chinese, your kebab shop, but you’ve also got a Cambodian, a Thai and a respected pizzeria. There are a few nice cafes by the pretty Buttercross, the Old Banke most notably, and a couple of rickety pubs for the resident boozers.
The Castle Inn is on Earsham Street, a bright blue building by the bus stop. It has got large white paned windows and pretty plants hanging over the top of the front door. The restaurant space is cosy; a narrow homely place that is more pub than restaurant except for the handsomely set tables and the effort put into lighting and paint. Its age still creeps through, like grass through cracks in stone, but it gives the place character and history and a sense of identity.
Though the fireplace isn’t lit it has an aura about it. Like it has seen things: people sitting, dining and passing on, sharing in its warmth or gazing at its once flickering hearth. Even with the absence of fire, it creates that comfortable feeling, like you were welcomed here to find refuge and are about to receive some warm hospitality.
The menu seems ambitious. There are a lot of options. There’s pub grub if you should so desire it: burgers, ham and eggs, fish and chips, and doorstop sandwiches. But there is also a more contemporary, bistro-style section that may surprise you. Charcuterie boards, antipasti, terrines, and fritto misto to start, and for mains, some steaks, lamb shoulders, fish fillets and prosciutto wrapped chicken. There is a lot to choose from indeed, and though the menu speaks of being somewhere else, I doubt you’d ever forget you were in Bungay.
We order a ham hock terrine, some homemade butters and some pistachio bread. The bread comes in its own tin, duly sliced, and the butter in little ramekin cups. A pool of balsamic vinegar and olive oil arrives in a shallow plate alongside. It is not the prettiest assortment in the world to look at but the taste of it all makes you soon forget about first impressions.
The bread is soft and moist with a subtle crumbly coarseness. The pistachio nuts spread within the bread add that extra textural excitement. It is like warm, savoury, Victoria sponge with a brittle crust that takes on the balsamic oil and butter beautifully. The butter is creamy and perfectly salted: one tasting more nutty and floral, the other more spicy and piquant. Spread on the bread, adding its delectable richness and incorporated nuances, the mouthful feels like a warm granny’s hug.
I loved the terrine. The cool, meaty, congealed ham is served with toast and more butter, this time unflavoured. The terrine is deliriously good, the epitome of country comfort food balanced by a brightly tart piccalilli and an acidic salad. As soon as I finished I felt confident I would be back, if only for more terrine.
I so badly wanted for the rest of the meal to go well. I selfishly wished to have my own special restaurant in Bungay, so that if I wanted something nice, I didn’t have to take the bus all the way to Norwich. But this was not to be. Maddy’s vegetarian meal was a disaster, some aubergine slop with a miserly potato dauphinoise, and my lamb shoulder, with samphire and new potatoes, was overdone and largely underwhelming. A friend suffered silently through a mediocre, dry chicken escalope, an excuse for a succulent saltimbocca.
All of us got the same roast vegetables on every plate, which obviously meant that it was there for the sake of being there, and not to compliment anything. I felt let down, utterly disappointed, but it was my own fault for getting my hopes up.
In a final Hail Mary, we called for dessert. A chocolate torte, some coffee, and a couple of Eton Messes. Thankfully these were tasty. Although the meringue in the Eton Mess was overly sweet, it came with enough cream and fresh cherries for it to please. My slice of chocolate torte was agreeable, ingratiatingly smooth and just the right size so as not to overwhelm. These are popular, predominately reliable desserts that helped end things on a positive note, which was just what the wonderful ham hock terrine deserved.
I am quite sure if I had not gone in primed by AA Gill’s review that I probably would have been more critical of The Castle Inn. He celebrates the restaurant for being unashamedly itself, for being the kind of restaurant one looks for when in a place like Bungay. And for the most part, I agree, though I find it difficult to be as charitable as he is when it comes to the inconsistency of the cooking.
AA overlooked a lot of their flaws in the spirit of being fair, setting a double standard even though he suggests we should not. The food at The Castle Inn is probably some of the best you can get in most towns in the country: they care about sourcing and make an effort to cook dishes that are conceptually sophisticated and elegant for a pub. But their execution is lacking, and lacking because of a certain degree of complacency. The quaintness of the setting and the warmth of the experience does not disguise this fact in my mind.
The advice AA gave the kitchen still holds relevance after so many years. There are too many items on the menu for the chefs to do justice to. And as a result, dishes that require finesse and control are not given their due diligence. Diners are ignorant of this fact because I assume, they either do not know any better or have grown accustomed to the way things are. Shorten the menu, specialise each dish, and I guarantee the quality will improve exponentially. No one is holding the chefs at The Castle Inn accountable so they seem to get away with their inadequacies.
If I ever go back to The Castle Inn it would probably be just for appetisers and maybe a poke at the sandwiches on offer. The mains are just not worth risking, and if I go with Maddy, there are not enough vegetarian options to be satisfactory. The Castle Inn, in any case, is more for the carnivorous Bungay local that for people like me who cannot help but hold cooking to a higher standard. They serve just enough variety to be out of the ordinary but with not enough attention to detail to be truly great. While The Castle Inn is indubitably a nice pub and restaurant, I would not go so far as to say that it is worth a detour.
Location: 35 Earsham St, Bungay NR35 1AF