Benedicts restaurant, Norwich
16 July 2017
Benedicts is a small restaurant - 34 covers in a well-organised space where one wall of the room is the open plan bar - at once casual and relaxed whilst also managing to be rather stylish, with lots of little attentions to detail.
Richard Bainbridge, the chef, has a Michelin star past (and probably future), and his stated passion is for sourcing exceptional local ingredients. He’s been on the TV and all that (Great British Menu) - winning dishes are identified on the menu. Since we’re here to celebrate a birthday and it’s our first time, we opt for the tasting menu. Because why not?
Before you even get started, there are a number of pre-courses which come in quick succession. Little intense mouthfuls of flavour, and often quirky presentation. Like the pine cones with four potato crisps artfully attached, along with a light-as-a-feather potato mouse that disappears in the mouth leaving behind complex layers of sensations that you can’t quite place. Stunning artistry.
Only a few days ago, I was experimenting with Heston’s purple cabbage gazpacho, so I’m intrigued to see strawberry gazpacho on the menu, along with crispy garlic and mint.
It seems wrong in concept - something that is going to be like an overly sweet starter. But apart from it’s gorgeous appearance, with the mint patches modulating the red colour, brightened with edible flowers - it is actually much more savoury than you would expect. The sweetness of the strawberries fills out the flavour but within the bounds of what a gaspacho should be. It is light, cooling, perhaps a touch more refined than a gazpacho should be.
But above all it is delicious.
After the starter came a small plate with north sea mackerel, a tomato water foam and raspberries.
If you’ve never had tomato water - the enhanced extract the idea for which came to Raymond Blanc from the juice at the bottom of his mother’s tomato salads - it is an intense flavour description of everything that makes a really good tomato. Here, it is turned into a foam, which simply enhances the lightness of the flavour. That makes it a perfect foil for the rich flavour of the mackerel.
Once again we have summer fruit on a plate where you would not expect it. But completely unexpectedly, it turns out that raspberries go perfectly well alongside perfectly cooked mackerel. It seems the most natural pairing in the world.
The main course is Blicking Hall Aberdeen Angus, with local girolles and samphire, and a potato rosti. You just run out of superlatives for the quality of the meat in this dish, along with how perfectly it is cooked. It’s melt in the mouth texture, with the sort of earthy taste that stays in the memory.
There’s a choice of desserts. I opt for the TV award winner - Nanny Bush’s Trifle which comes with something called milk jam. I didn’t see the episode of Great British Menu where this dish emerged triumphant - but it was certainly the most refined and the best balanced trifle I can remember eating. In fact, long after this meal was done it was the one captured most vividly in my food memory bank, and which I rather craved enjoying again. I downloaded the recipe from the internet. It’s on my list of dishes to try out. I hold out little hope that my version will satisfy the hunger, though.
The milk jam it comes with is not - as I initially thought - a thick caramel. The Argentinian ‘dulce de leche’, which is really the same caramel you get with a banoffee pie, is literally translated as ‘milk jam’. But Bainbridge’s version is less intensively cooked - more milky and less caramel. Basically half and half of milk and sugar (plus some vanilla) reduced down to a sauce consistency. It works perfectly - although I daresay this being trifle a little drizzle of cream would be just as good.
This is a fantastic restaurant, and a superb illustration of how the focus on local ingredients can create a refined and delightful menu that is full of the most fantastic tastes and sensations while also being right in the spirit of good, sustainable food.
In addition to the food, it’s worth just noting that the front-of-house experience was equally excellent. Each stage of the meal was introduced, the enthusiasm for the food was communicated, and the qualities of the matched wine were highlighted. Being told, succinctly and compellingly, the story behind what you’re about to eat is the best way to enhance the experience. And it’s done superbly well here.
EDIT: 12th September 2017. That front of house team were duly recognised - winning the Best Front of House award in the Eastern Daily Press food awards. Well deserved.