While eating a bowl of fresh pumpkin cappellacci at Benoli in Norwich, I realised it had been about 10 years since I’d last travelled this way in search of food. That is shameful on my part, because good things are happening in this nook of East Anglia. The Assembly House, for example, one of the UK’s loveliest boutique hotels, offers a storming afternoon tea, the coffee shops around Elm Hill are fabulous, and restaurants such as Farmyard and Benedicts come highly recommended. In fact, overall, Norwich is a great place for structureless mooching, which is my favourite type of break.
And then there is Benoli, a modern, three-floored Italian hidden up an alley in the city centre. I tried to look up which part of Italy Benoli was in, only to discover that it’s a combination of the names of brothers Ben and Oliver Boon, in the type of mash-up that has warmed my heart ever since my grandma’s neighbours Ron and Valerie went upmarket and named their terrace house Ronderval in the 1970s. Chef Oliver – a MasterChef: The Professionals finalist who has worked for Gordon Ramsay and was head chef at Roux at the Landau in London – recreates memories of childhood trips to Italy and Sicily, and my pumpkin pasta is the star of today’s show. It is all made by hand, rather than by machine, the pasta is soft, firm and lustrous, and the cappellacci come swimming in a rich sea of sage butter with salted ricotta. There’s no skimping on portion sizes – there can never be too much fresh, pumpkin-filled pasta, after all. Or, for that matter, too many top-quality, purple-hued winter tomatoes, cut once and drizzled in brilliant olive oil.
It was a cold, foggy Wednesday night in Norwich, and dinner at Benoli was exactly what we needed. The humble-sounding “parmesan croquettes” from the snacks section of the menu turned out to be fearsome hay bales of mozzarella, potato and parmesan, deep-fried and smothered in another glut of parmesan. They looked more like furious Shredded Wheat preparing for battle than croquettes, and from the moment I set eyes on their cheesy weirdness, I knew that Benoli was no ordinary Italian restaurant. It is the safe option, for Italian restaurants outside the larger British cities, to serve a few pastas and pizzas, and tiramisu for pudding, but at Benoli there is a definite reach towards the strange and the difficult, with the likes of cod and ’nduja kiev with whipped baccalà or a spin on vitello tonnato made with veal belly, maitake mushrooms and flaky, fishy katsuobushi. The menu is hectic and helter-skelter, Japanese-influenced in places, and then – oops – we’re in eastern Europe, which is all fine by me because Boon can really cook.
I’d certainly recommend the aubergine caponata, a pleasing chunk of eggplant in a light tempura batter sitting on a tomato sauce laced with furikake. I had fully intended to share this with my dining companion, but sometimes it really is the thought that counts. My friend Ainsley had the gorgonzola tortelli with cocoa, porcini and chestnut, a defiantly rich bowl of pleasure into which I poked my fork numerous times. To my credit, however, we did intentionally share a radicchio salad with a glossy, chive-emulsion dressing.
If Benoli was closer to my house, I would eat here a lot. It doesn’t stand on ceremony; so little so, in fact, that you could probably turn up in your dressing gown and the delightful staff wouldn’t turn a hair, plus it’s dimly lit enough for you to get away with being secretly dressed for bed, anyway. The antipasti and pastas are great, but if you’re feeling fancy, they’ll also rustle up a halibut, chanterelles and pancetta fricassea.
The pudding they made me, meanwhile, was so starkly weird that it could have come straight off the set of a MasterChef final, with a bed of softened, still-quite-tart rhubarb topped with a pale-pink, almond-butter gelato on some sort of white chocolate-based plinth scented heavily with hibiscus. Did I like this dessert? I am not sure. Did I finish this dessert? Yes, I did – I ate every mouthful, not least because I was trying to work out where the hibiscus was hidden. Was it used to steep the rhubarb? And if I don’t care for white chocolate particularly – as no grown adult really does after their Milky Bar years – why on earth was I licking the bowl?
Few things give me greater pleasure than wandering out of a hotel on the hunt for dinner, expecting nothing and finding a local gem. Benoli isn’t perfect – some mouthfuls are just too much, some dishes are erratic, and if you come expecting a soothing plate of dough balls, you may be a bit disappointed – but the Boons are striving, experimenting and delivering some sort of greatness. And they’re doing it all quietly up a side street in Norwich. I won’t leave it another decade.