I’m not big on food telly. I’ll watch everything Nigella is in, but that’s nothing to do with the food and everything to do with Nigella. I love the quietly charming, cerebral approach of our own Yotam Ottolenghi. And I’ll try to catch episodes of Masterchef that feature my critic colleagues, or to scream obscenities at Gregg Wallace. That’s because there haven’t been many good programmes about restaurants, my particular food fetish. I liked The Restaurantand Michel Roux’s Service (and I adore First Dates), but that’s about it.
Anyway, I’ve never watched Great British Menu, which causes the manager of Benedicts some consternation. He talks us through the menu with a litany of “Richard did this on Great British Menu. Did you see it?” With every shake of our heads, he seems more deflated. Didn’t we know that Richard Bainbridge, Benedicts’ chef-patron, was a TV star? Didn’t we know that he won? We didn’t. Our very, very bad.
It was local wisdom, not televisual, that led me here, and I’m glad it did: it’s a little treasure in pretty bar-and-restaurant-lined St Benedicts Street. Firmly in the contemporary canon, it’s all stripped-back tongue-and-groovy, big, unadorned windows, staff in blacksmiths-style aprons. There are large, heavy pottery plates and bowls, a winelist packed with pleasures from picpoul to Puligny-Montrachet, and an air of engaged informality. It reminds me of Robin Gill’s mini-empire (The Dairy, The Manor, Paradise Garage), which in my book is a very good thing.
Friday night is date night in this corner of Norwich; we’re the only table that isn’t a two-top. People are ordering champagne. Nobody’s photographing their food. (Well, apart from me.) Everyone, both staff and diners, looks as if they’re having fun. And the jolliness isn’t dissipated by the arrival of our food. We don’t choose the tasting menu, mostly a round-up of Bainbridge’s greatest TV hits, but do manage to eat everything from the bijou à la carte.
There’s some powerfully seductive stuff here. A starter is built around potato: a hoop of crisped potato, wittily referencing those cheffy metal stacking rings, contains a potato foam so light that it threatens to escape, plus there’s a crisp shell of a tiny baked spud and lashings of real truffle. To inflict such aristocratic delicacy on the proletarian tuber takes some doing. Equally gorgeous is Norfolk crabmeat packed into silky, elastic pasta and served with tiny brussels sprout leaves and “compressed” apple, for sprightly freshness. Jerusalem artichoke is tricked into myriad guises (roasted cubes, puree, foam) to go with egg-yolk-topped barley risotto dotted with fried capers and baby carrots all wrinkly from butter-basted heat.
Hawthorn scents G&Ts; blackberries and a puree of salt-baked beetroot accompany gloriously gamey venison; dishes are slicked with oils verdant with “garden herbs” or dusted with freeze-dried fruit powders. But this is no hedgerow-robbing puritanism: Bainbridge knows how to inject luxury, often with the assistance of very good butter. A lick of the nutty brown stuff enriches Norfolk partridge and a kind of pommes Anna made with pumpkin. I love a chef who gets jiggy with the animal fats.
True, some dishes bemuse me a little: “Nanny Bush’s trifle” comes in a calico cottage made by Bainbridge’s wife, and seems to be… well, a slice of perfectly fine trifle with popping candy on top and condensed milk beneath. But it’s much feted and trails a price supplement, so I’m guessing that’s down to its status as “seen on TV”. A fudgey squidge of quince tatin, the pastry treacling at the edges, with bracing apple and rosemary sorbet is, however, perfect.
If I have any (constructive) criticism, it’s that they lay off the GBM references (although with a new restaurant offering a very different – for the city – approach, every little helps). And perhaps calm down on the number of things on the plate, or that put in repeat appearances: airy, microwaved sponges with both artichokes and a chocolate ganache; that orzotto also piles into a messy cod dish, rather overshadowed by the acrid bitterness of scorched turnip – the evening’s only dud. But, yet again, I blame competitive food television for this kind of grandstanding; it’s the rare show that allows anything the luxury of being simply delicious.
Apparently, this was Bainbridge’s fourth time on GBM, so I’m delighted his perseverance saw him winning. His restaurant is a winner, too.