Earlier this year, two fine dining restaurants in Norwich were named in SquareMeal’s ranking of the top 100 UK restaurants outside London.
Benedicts, on St Benedicts Street, achieved the enviable position of number 20 on the list, and Roger Hickman’s Restaurant, in Upper St Giles Street, came in at number 89. Both have three AA Rosettes for culinary excellence – alongside other awards – but the SquareMeal listing is unique as it’s diners who nominate the restaurants.
This is great news for our fine city. It’s exciting to have such a thriving and ambitious food scene on our doorstep!
Fine dining in a fine city
Back in February, my friend Eleanor and I had treated ourselves to a lunchtime meal at Benedicts. The Square Meal accolades then gave us the perfect excuse to try out Hickman’s too.
Set lunch menus are high on my list of favourite things. Often representing excellent value for money, they are a good way of sampling the cuisine of high-end establishments. Plus, dining out at lunchtime is a lovely luxury that I consider a benefit of being self-employed. After all, if you can’t grant yourself a degree of flexibility, what’s the point in being your own boss?
That’s the theory anyway. In practice, I usually end up tearing myself away from my desk at the last minute, mentally reciting my ‘to do’ list in the car, and turning up in a bit of a fluster. Not quite the same vibe as a chilled-out lunch on holiday somewhere exotic, complete with wine list action and the promise of an afternoon snooze, but very worthwhile nonetheless.
Anyway, back to Norwich, and down to the food.
We found Benedicts to be immediately welcoming and friendly, and the warm and attentive service provided by the restaurant managers throughout our visit furthered this impression.
The atmosphere was lively and struck a pleasing balance between informal and professional, with a fair scattering of business lunches taking place. The tables were quite close but we didn’t feel encroached on at all.
Things got off to a very promising start with the arrival of malted barley sourdough bread, served with brown butter. That was some seriously special butter, I can tell you. It set the bar high from the outset.
We were both delighted with our choice of starters.
I opted for salsify spaghetti with truffle cream and egg yolk (below left). It was phenomenal. I can’t say my palate was especially familiar with truffle (nor salsify for that matter) so this dish broadened my gastronomic horizons. It was simply delicious and I would love to order it again.
Eleanor’s pescatarian option was equally exciting, featuring kohl rabi sorbet, mackerel and sour apple sauce, and apple balls with black onion powder (below right). Each component presented a taste revelation and combined perfectly to create a truly memorable dish.
‘Steak and chips’ with brown butter sabayon (which carried a supplement on the fixed price menu) was somewhat disappointing. The steak seemed overcooked and although the potatoes had been elevated to an elegance well above their station, I was left hankering for a simple steak-frites.
However, Eleanor’s vegetarian dish certainly hit the mark. Who knew it was possible to swoon over swede? For one moment I thought a celebratory shimmy might be on the cards – Eleanor being a bellydancer – but composure was swiftly restored and the ‘fire-baked swede’ pronounced a fabulously flavoursome creation.
I’d sampled Benedicts’ signature dessert 18 months ago and had raved about Nanny Bush’s tantalising trifle – a winning dish from chef-proprietor Richard Bainbridge on The Great British Menu 2015.
On this occasion, though, it was distinctly below par; lacking in zing and a bit too solid. Perhaps it was an off day. But it’s clearly not had its day – in fact the latest seasonal variation of the dish looks mouth-watering and enough to prompt a return visit in itself.
The picture below is from my first visit to Benedicts in 2016 and depicts Nanny Bush’s trifle on top form.
Unfortunately Eleanor found her dessert overwhelmingly sweet and glittery, and we both wished we’d chosen differently, or just gone to Figbar.
The stars of the show were the two starters and the vegetarian main.
Roger Hickman’s Restaurant
Endeavouring to exude “an air of low-key elegance” to match the restaurant’s self-image, we donned reasonably smart attire for the more formal fine dining environment of Roger Hickman’s.
Our booking was towards the end of lunchtime and the restaurant was almost empty (normal for a weekday, I imagine). Front of house staff were efficient but distant, despite our trying to engage them in informative conversation about the food.
Home-baked focaccia and soda bread were brought out, which we quite enjoyed. These were followed by tomato-based amuse-bouches which lacked punch, taste-wise. But we both coveted the beautiful bowls they were served in.
I chose a salmon dish for starters: ‘blow torched salmon, textures of beetroot, horseradish, wild puffed rice.’ The salmon with delicate horseradish foam was full of flavour and a real pleasure to eat. But the beetroot I found bordering on bland.
Eleanor’s dish – ‘asparagus, wild mushrooms, egg, yuzu’ – was inventive and interesting with some very tasty elements. Both starters looked a knock-out from a presentation point of view but we felt they punched below their weight in the flavour stakes.
My choice of main course – ‘lamb, potato terrine, textures of garlic, red onion’ – was downright delicious; superbly rich, imbued with powerful flavour and a triumph of presentation.
‘Pea and mint ravioli, spring onion, baby gem lettuce, butter milk’ was Eleanor’s dish. Again it showcased fantastic colours and the utmost attention to visual detail, but left her a little underwhelmed in the eating. She also noted the repeat appearance of asparagus, which was the main component of the vegetarian starter.
‘Coconut rice pudding, mango, pineapple’ was too sweet for me. It was definitely not a good choice after the richness of my main course. On the other hand, ‘Poached pear, apple, streusel, pear sorbet’ was a sensation that will endure in our memories. It was Eleanor’s favourite dish of the meal.
The not-so petit fours (pictured below) were a little baffling. The cookies fell apart and didn’t seem in keeping with the finesse of the meal, and the white chocolate squares were messy to pick up. All in all I felt they hit a strangely discordant note to end the meal.
Our top dishes were undoubtedly the luscious lamb main and the perfect pear dessert.
You can’t argue with the style and aesthetic appeal of most of the dishes at Hickman’s. We did find that some didn’t quite live up to their billing in terms of taste.
Benedicts was a vibrant and exciting experience. There was a real sense that the carefully crafted dishes reflect the passion of the team, and I left relishing the prospect of returning.
The culinary journey continues…
This foray into fine dining in Norwich well and truly whetted my appetite to explore other options in the city. I’m glad to say that fellow foodie Eleanor agreed to accompany me on occasional missions!
What’s been your experience of fine dining in Norwich? Do leave a Comment below.e dining in Norwich
Set Lunch Prices
Benedicts – 3 courses £22
Roger Hickman’s – 3 courses £26
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