Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Roger Hickman's Restaurant, Norwich

Norfolk is, egregiously unfairly, probably the most maligned county in Britain. Silly (if not-entirely unamusing) stereotypes abound about the good people of Nelson's County, generally alluding to a lack of intelligence, a fondness for intra-familial relations and a tendency towards eccentric, abnormal behaviour - or, as the medical profession's tongue-in-cheek acronym would have it, NFN: 'Normal For Norfolk'. 

Spend any amount of time there however and you'll discover not only that none of this is true (OK, not entirely true...), but that there is a very great deal more to love about the county than there is to mock. Its towns and city offer all the comfort and amenities of more thriving metropolises without the congestion and crime. Its historic villages are beautiful oases of calm offering a quality of life at least comparable and perhaps superior to, say, the Cotswolds at half the cost. 

And, to get to the point to which you have I expect been urging me to get for two paragraphs now, Norfolk has the most fantastic food scene; artisan producers, rare breed farms, organic grocers and weekend markets mean that whatever outsiders might like to think of the locals, no-one could ever say they're not at the very top of the culinary tree. The wealth of quality food has even spawned a Norfolk Diet movement.

Although I've not eaten at all that many restaurants in my adoptive home county - my family having now all gravitated there from almost-as-roundly-mocked Dorset - I can confidently say that I have not eaten at any better than the Ronsealogically-named Roger Hickman's Restaurant in Norwich. Chef-patron Roger Hickman was head chef under former owner David Adlard and took over the premises when Adlard sold up to found a now hugely-popular cookery school. I ate once at what was then Adlard's with my family a few years ago and remembered having been impressed with the Tom Aikens-esque technique of the chef; that chef was, it transpires, the Aikens-trained Hickman. My mum's recent birthday presented the perfect opportunity to re-visit and see what had changed now that it's Hickman's name out front. 

As far as the decor goes, the answer is 'not much'; the interior is very much as I remember it, bright, neutral and homely with a few French bistro posters interspersed with bold modern photography adorning the walls. It's a bit of a mish-mash but an inoffensive one, and the lack of anything much to distract the eye means at least that diners' focus will be, deservedly, on the excellent food that's on their plate. 

As well as a haiku-short a la carte - just two choices for each course - there's a keenly-priced lunch menu at £17 for two or £20 for three courses, which we ordered from. Before our starters came, we were given - to my surprise, as such little extras don't tend to be included with set menus - a cute amuse-bouche of chicken liver parfait topped with minted pea mousse and a bacon crisp. Just a mouthful of each, layered in a shot glass, it got the meal off to a promising start.

Our starters were, like everything on the menu, as simply and elegantly presented as they were described. 'Asparagus and quail egg salad with pickled mushrooms' was Spring on a plate, crisp asparagus spears and halved soft-boiled quail's eggs lying under a scattering of small - but not fussy micro - leaves, a quenelle of light asparagus mousse contrasting with the piquancy of tiny pickled ceps. 'Poached salmon with dill cream and apple and ginger purée' comprised a ballotine of cooled poached fish, rolled in finely chopped dill and served, in addition to the advertised accompaniments, with a portion of excellent smoked salmon.

We were joined for our main courses, unexpectedly, by my extremely pregnant sister Helena, and our already attentive waiter's level of care for my beloved elder sibling was so fantastic that even if the dishes that followed had been inedible muck I'd probably have still left loving the place. Far from it; all three were terrific. My roast skate wing with saut
é potatoes, samphire and caper cream, mum's roast chump of lamb with spinach, confit tomatoes and pearl barley risotto and Helena's roast duck breast with confit leg, roast carrots and crispy egg (£16 from the a la carte menu), were all uncomplicated, well-executed compositions of clearly very fresh - and local - ingredients, and completely delicious.

It being a birthday there had to be desserts (as if I ever need an excuse) and these too impressed us. If roasting was the preferred cooking method for main courses, poaching was the technique du jour for puddings. Helena loved her poached peaches with rice pudding, granola and apricot sorbet, as did mum her poached cherries with cherry jelly and chocolate mousse (I'd like to be able to tell you how delicious the mousse was but mum devoured it with such enthusiasm that there wasn't so much as a teaspoonful left to try). I thought my choice, raspberry Arctic roll with vanilla jelly and a hazelnut tuile, was splendid - a retro favourite given a clever modern makeover. The popping candy-studded truffle petits-fours which came with coffee were the perfect end to a brilliant meal.

Spot the very pregnant sister.
But it gets better. With a bottle of crisp, apple-y Les Vignes Comte Tolosan from the regularly-changing list, two coffees and service (not included, so entirely at diners' discretion) we paid - for two three-course lunches and two courses from the a la carte - just £95. Less than a ton, for food of exceptional quality, good wine and brilliant service in very pleasant surroundings? Say what you like about the people of Norfolk; with a restaurant as good as Roger Hickman's to call their own, they're the ones who'll be having the last laugh.

Roger Hickman's Restaurant, 79 Upper Saint Giles Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1AB Tel: (01603) 633522 http://www.rogerhickmansrestaurant.com

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  1. Norwich is FINE CITY. You are so right about the food scene too, it happily radiates out from Norwich to the sea, and right down into Suffolk. The fresh produce, seafood and meats are to die for; it's wonderful to read about another restaurant doing these materials justice.

    And at such prices! As I said, I adore Norwich: pretty, friendly, champagne treats on lemonade money- what's not to love?

  2. Perdita, we DON'T mention the 'S'-word! :-)

  3. OK, so I'm going to have to go there now, aren't I, dang it? ;)

    Good find, Hugh!

  4. Walked past Hickman's yesterday and noticed that it's currently closed for 'redecoration' (reopens 17 Jan). Could be coincidence, or maybe someone's taken on board your comments on the decor.... Look forward to seeing what they're going to do with the place :-).

    1. How exciting - we shall have to pay them a visit and take along a certain little man who, on the visit reported here, was only a few hours off making his first appearance in the world!

  5. Had dinner there last Saturday and hugely disappointed. Pointless over elaboration; unrendered fatty pork belly and tough venison followed by two truly poor desserts. I think that Mr H has gone over the top in his cheffiness and needs to remember that just because you can put six flavours on a plate, it doesnot mean you should.


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