Flourishes and small plates, morsels on sticks, atop Jenga forms and pyramids, are less scoffed at by the common man when they are affordable. When expensive, they ask what is the point of it all beyond pretention, the assembly of ingredients in colourful amalgamations to please those in positions of means and luxury. We are men and women of real taste, not of some complex idea that was created to exclude us. We too eat with our eyes and our noses first, before anything else, but know that only our tongues and mouths speak true.
We scoff at what we cannot afford because it allows us to live without what we cannot have. But I doubt that many of us, given the choice, would buy a Sainsbury’s custard tart if we could afford to make the weekend trip to Lisbon, and eat pasteis de natas in Belem at a counter behind which they are freshly made.
I think it is the same with fine dining. No one can really challenge, in most cases, the skill, creativity and talent behind some of the dishes that came out of some of the most prestigious and well-celebrated kitchens in the world. They produce special moments, beautifully artistic creations, too expensive to be quotidian and thus remain exclusive – to some in perpetuity.
But then somebody asked a question, and the answer made them realise that things did not have to be the way they were. That the fripperies and flamboyances of elite dining could be reproduced for a fraction of the cost in settings more convivial and comfortable and easy going. If food can be tasty at home. No… If the tastiest food irrevocably comes from home. Then why can’t that same deliciousness be reproduced with the same ornamentations and prettifications that would be so precisely displayed on a plate in a Michelin starred restaurant?
Remy did it for Anton Ego. And at the very end of Ratatouille, when we see the inevitable closure of Gusteau’s fine dining French restaurant, we also see the opening of a new, smaller, better loved, independent establishment, run by an extraordinarily talented rat and his human friend. One of my favourite films of all time could perhaps be seen as one big metaphor for the ushering in of a new kind of food culture. One that now prevails and succeeds, not just in London, but across the country and indeed the world.
Which brings me to Norwich’s Woolf and Social. I had been to Benedict’s and Farmyard and loved them both, but I needed a new place, several more, to satisfy my gastronomic yearnings since I have now moved to the city. Research has revealed several reputable locations on my radar, but Woolf and Social was to be the first.
I had asked a few people I knew where I could get proper fried chicken in the city. Some mumbled about the kebab shop they went to drunk the night before, others shrugged in despondent resignation, but some remembered a place called Woolf and Bird that opened and closed in the city not too long ago. Something about not enough business, misreading the market, good food but no patrons. A damn shame, yet a familiar story.
But I heard their flagship restaurant Woolf and Social was open, a tiny corner house outside the city centre. A longish walk from the city centre, one made, I imagine, by those particularly hungry and in need of something specific. People will go to great lengths for food they love.
I called on the day because I had remembered that I may need a reservation. And then begged to have a table at the start of service when I heard a hint of hesitation in the voice of the lady on the phone. I promised three patrons and demonstrated a willingness to give my card details. I was not the type of customer they feared, I assured them. I promised to order copiously and eat well. Needless to say, we were eventually found a table, and all was right in the world.
A tiresome trip into town after a mediocre house viewing made for a very hungry Leander and Maddy. And then we added Ollie, our stylish third wheel to our hungry tricycle, and we were off to dinner. It took us about thirty minutes to walk to Woolf and Social from where we were because we spent a few minutes heading in the wrong direction since I am famously untrustworthy with directions.
We entered Woolf and Social as soon as they opened, and were sat right by the bar. A unique construction of stacked, attached and amassed upcycled material, a piece that looked as if it could reassemble itself at the press of a button like something out of Assassin’s Creed. The rest of the restaurant is more bland and regular, some poster art and a few potted plants dotted around. The place emanates relaxed, almost stripped back vibrations but with a style that could have been more remarkable if akin to its most impressive piece of furniture.
I could have visited on my own. But having company brought things together a little, made up for the lack of visual distraction or goings on. It is a setting, subtly antipodean, made for the coming together of people that care little for the pretensions of haute cuisine, but value the potency of its taste.
Woolf and Social have styled their menu in a way I have come to love. Cryptic, foreign and particular names for dishes may work in traditional restaurants, but it is far safer and perhaps more intriguing to have the main ingredients listed simply and unadorned on a piece of card. If the combination suits, it would be ordered, if it doesn’t it would be avoided or questioned.
I have also come to learn that some people do, indeed, require an explanation of menus. It is the butt of a constant running joke made by food critics, but there is a place for making concepts clear to those unaccustomed to them. To some, the clear delineation and separation of courses form a structure of comfort. Now taken away, they feel displaced, and it is up to the hostess to give them something to hold on to. Three dishes or so per person, she advises, and prices usually indicate portion sizes or the inclusion of meat. Short and sweet.
We order quickly and almost indiscriminately, wary of our time constraints. There were not too many difficult decisions, but I did inquire about certain ingredients that I had not remembered eating before. I was happy with my selection. And I ignored the faces of my companions who worried I had ordered too much.
A short few minutes after our drinks, a little harmless gossiping about work, king oyster mushrooms descend with a generous slathering of a sauce that has the subtly granular consistency of a sweet chutney, with a kick that harkens to a mild Sichuan chilli sauce. Soft yet firm mushrooms are like sections of perfectly cooked pasta with an unusual but reminiscent mouth feel of squid. This is complemented by a pertinent outcrop of pickled green tomatoes, a tart helping that enriched with its complexity. What the fuck is this, Ollie says under his breath. This is fucking good. To which Maddy and I, both mouths full and widely smiling, nod vigorous agreement.
Hasselback new potatoes are stacked like a dog pile in a ceramic dish, beside a cup of ogorki sauce. Ogorki being a kind of Polish pickle that added mystique to an evident take on a warm potato salad. The spuds are crisp for the most part, some of the hasselback cuts inconsistent, but this last is easily overlooked. The Ogorki sauce has a fresh herbaceousness, a light twang to the palatal banjo that contrasts the more intricately spiced dish that came before.
Maddy was not impressed by the glorified broccoli and cheese. A modest dish really. Just some cooked broccoli topped with a melting of nutty home-grown Norfolk dapple cheese and few shavings of fried garlic. This is tasty to be sure, short of outstanding, but more so because we were expecting a build up to a crescendo not a sudden lull in the melody.
Fish next. Flaky, light and opalescent hake topped with charred spring onions is surrounded by an odd moat of pickled cucumber juice that was dotted with a vinegary hot sauce. While the fish commended itself as a paragon of culinary seafood quality, the sauce just felt like the chef run out of ideas and just popped something on the plate to make it appear more vibrant than it was. This dish annoyed me a little because the fish deserved a better-dressed entourage.
The Woolf fried chicken that was, in earnest, one of the main reasons why I wanted to visit, was exasperatingly close to perfection. You see I’ve fried and eaten hundreds of batches of fried chicken, been to festivals and judged competitions, both professionally and in my own time, and know that while some would consider the chicken perfectly cooked, I would say my pieces were a touch overdone. Only by a smidgen. By a strand of chicken fibre. The breading as well, despite its delectable seasoning, comes off too easily, which is a big thumb down in my coliseum. With a thick swirl of Korean gochujang mayonnaise and the added astringency of kimchi, the dish as a whole comes together nicely. I regret ordering two portions for Ollie and me in excited anticipation. We definitely could have been better served with another dish instead.
Chunks of pork belly come next, atop a mound of rice lashed with the juice of delicately acerbic damson berry. While the pork is unctuous and crisp at the corners, a salty fatty indulgence, the rice is fragrant and the damson piquant in a thoroughly complimentary arrangement. This is not a dish to excite, but one that provides for a feeling of warmth and fullness, with the addition of the berries to keep things interesting.
Our venison in finale at Woolf and Social was perhaps the most artistically plated. Slices of sanguine meat placed in charming overlap are surrounded by strands, flecks and dashes of jus and blackberry intermingled with smears of celeriac purée. More celeriac, carom disc pieces piled beside the venison, gave Ollie his first taste of a supreme root vegetable that both Maddy and I thoroughly enjoy. Succulent meat and the sweetness of celeriac, the burst of minute yet whole damson as well on the chew, delivered a jubilant end to our meal.
Although we would have liked to stay for dessert, we had unfortunately outstayed our welcome. The time allotted to us had so quickly passed by as the three of us ate and chattered with happy abandon. We need more places like Woolf and Social in Norwich, doing their own thing with dishes that animate and satisfy with equal measure. There is a wariness in humble cities such as this one that keeps some people from venturing too far from the popular chains that so infest their locales. It is up to the Woolfs, the Bainbridges and the Jones’ of the city to make sure their culinary voices are heard, so as to usher in a locally sourced and creative gastronomic renaissance in Norwich.
Location: 21-23 Nelson St, Norwich NR2 4DW