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Restaurant review: Benedicts restaurant, Norwich, Norfolk

Norfolk sweetcorn with gremolata sauce and mustard greens. Picture: Rowan Mantell
Norfolk sweetcorn with gremolata sauce and mustard greens. Picture: Rowan Mantell

Winning the Norfolk Food and Drink Awards is a phenomenal achievement. In a county of foodies, now sprinkled with Michelin stars, being shortlisted in a category is a big thing; being a finalist for not one, but two, intensely competitive awards, then going on to win them both, is extraordinary.

Benedicts was named best restaurant, and best front of house experience in the Norfolk Magazine Food and Drink Awards, announced in the autumn, and recently featured in a Good Food Guide to the UK’s top 15 ‘restaurants with exceptional warmth.’

So hopes were high when we arrived at Benedicts for lunch. Not only were we looking forward to enjoying fabulous food; it would come with a side-order of convivial atmosphere.

Great British Life: Benedicts won best restaurant category of the Norfolk Magazine Food and Drink Awards. Picture: Matt Potter Photography and VideographyBenedicts won best restaurant category of the Norfolk Magazine Food and Drink Awards. Picture: Matt Potter Photography and Videography

Benedicts is a fine dining kind of place. It has tasting menus, wine flights and a chef patron. (Richard Bainbridge, who launched the restaurant with his wife Katja, and appears on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen Live.)

However, while the menu is a delight of the very best seasonal local ingredients prepared with panache and enhanced with innovative combinations and stylish flourishes, it is strangely affordable.

Our previous meal out, in a Norwich pub/hotel the same week, had been a Norfolk Restaurant Week set menu, three courses for £29. The hotel had run out of everything, literally every dish, so we chose from the main menu. It was OK – but it made it clear that the Benedicts £32 set lunch menu is an absolute bargain.

Great British Life: Pork scratchings at Benedicts. Picture: Rowan MantellPork scratchings at Benedicts. Picture: Rowan Mantell

As befits a restaurant which wins local awards and national recognition for its front-of-house brilliance, we were met with smiles and, coats taken, ushered to a table.

Some fancy restaurants show off with cutlery and glassware lined up into the distance, and then amended, removed, shuffled or replaced, depending on menu choices. Here, the table was pleasantly fuss-free and the waiting staff friendly enough to embolden me to, in an after-order wobble, ask to have another look at the tasting menus, before settling on a set-menu-plus arrangement, adding an appetiser course.

The item that had prompted this crisis of confidence was the mackerel doughnut, which suddenly sounded not both unusual and unmissable.

Great British Life: Appetisers at Benedicts. Picture: Rowan MantellAppetisers at Benedicts. Picture: Rowan Mantell

Soon a couple of the fishy delights were on their way to us, accompanied by a mini griddle pan of pork scratchings with cod roe dip and dainty cheese shortbreads, sandwiched with a smear of fish puree.

The artistry matched the textures of flavours of this feast of appetisers. Normally I steer clear of crackling, assuming it will break my teeth – but this was like eating an airy crisp. The doughnut was as yieldingly unctuous and piquant as I’d guessed it might be and the cheese biscuits were slightly sweet, slightly creamy, totally moreish.

And soon there was more – soft home-baked bread with caramelised brown butter, and a starter of Norfolk sweetcorn with gremolata sauce and mustard greens. I was not sure what this would be, and was glad of the introduction as it was served – although, the complexities of this kind of cooking mean I’d really like to jot everything down to I make sure to appreciate every nuance and ingredient properly.

Great British Life: Confit Gressingham duck leg. Picture: Rowan MantellConfit Gressingham duck leg. Picture: Rowan Mantell

It turned out to be a vibrant red, green and yellow mix of creamy sweetcorn, salty vegan feta and salad leaves, with a consistency between soup and omelette. One of the joys of a set menu is that there is no choice (although you can pre-order a vegan version, and request vegetarian, gluten-free or pescatarian options). It is not a starter I would have ordered from a list, and that would have been my loss.

The main course was confit duck leg, served on creamy mash, and surrounded with haricot beans in tomato sauce.

I have to admit that my main contact with haricot beans in tomato sauce involves a tin opener and while I am an admirer, this was very different.

Great British Life: Macaron and madeleine petit fours. Picture: Rowan MantellMacaron and madeleine petit fours. Picture: Rowan Mantell

They were described as a cassoulet on the menu. Having stayed in the beautiful French lakeside town of Castelnaudary, self-proclaimed birthplace of the cassoulet, and gorged on its gorgeous stew at the end of a day’s cycling, I was looking forward to the Norfolk version.

This was more refined, but still full of flavour, and a very distant and aristocratic relation of the tinned version. The haricots were hearty and robust, complementing the melt-in-the-mouth, fall-from-the-bone, tenderness of the duck. It was also served with black garlic, for which I could develop a passion bordering on the unseemly. Never mind the strong, vampire-busting, violence of normal garlic, this is a smoking sweet, soft and seductive obsession.

Each menu can be accompanied by a wine flight although, being lunch time we stayed fairly grounded, just enjoying a glass of the glorious smooth Rioja paired with the duck course.

Great British Life: Benedicts, St Benedict’s Street, NorwichBenedicts, St Benedict’s Street, Norwich

The arrival of pudding was a ‘ta-dah!’ moment - at least eight layers of almond sponge, ganache and buttercream (yes, I counted, in awe), topped with shiny chocolate glaze and a little triangle of gold. The heavenly gateau opera was served with two egg-shaped scoops of ice cream, one hazelnut and one coffee, on grated chocolate.

We finished with a coffee – served in lovely blue clay beakers made by Fire and Flux ceramics just down the road, and with a macaron and a madeleine each.

Lots of restaurants pay lip service to local; Benedicts incorporates its Norfolk roots from menu inspiration to crockery choices. It is a place for a special occasion, but there is nothing snooty about Norfolk’s best restaurant (source: Norfolk Magazine Food and Drink Awards.) It is welcoming, relaxing, serves very fine food with flair and heart – and even the loos are fabulous, with the ladies' featuring an old-fashioned kitchen range.

Menus change every four to five weeks and, after experiencing the joy of Benedicts' food, service and atmosphere, I would very much like to use that as a minimum guide to how often to visit.

Great British Life: Richard Bainbridge, one of the owners of Benedicts on St Benedicts Street in Norwich. Picture: Danielle BoodenRichard Bainbridge, one of the owners of Benedicts on St Benedicts Street in Norwich. Picture: Danielle Booden

Benedicts, St Benedict’s Street, Norwich. restaurantbenedicts.com



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