The wind moaned over the marshes as I drove towards Holt and coming out of deep darkness into the High Street was a shock. Every building had been sprayed with tiny white lights - the visual equivalent of jingling bells. It was with a childlike sense of delight and expectancy that Monica, Sam and I walked into Yetman's.
You know that the owners, Alison and Peter Yetman, are on take-it- easy terms with life from the moment the answering-machine message says the restaurant is open for "supper". As we walked in, the atmosphere was immediately relaxing. The primrose-yellow walls and ceiling were like a blast of sunshine; there were stretches of white tablecloths, but no starchiness, and the service had a merciful lack of servility. "Can I take this furry monster?" the waitress asked Monica, relieving her of a film-star fake fur.
Peter Yetman wears jeans and old T-shirts that he changes mid-service owing to spills; the record is four in a day. He writes the breezy tasting- notes on the wine list and is particularly into the New World and the sauvignon blanc grape (they take a couple of tasting-cases on holiday and the sense of pleasure comes through). Alison Yetman cooks with good ingredients, local and organic if possible. The star of the first courses came from down the road at Stiffkey: mussels that arrived in a steamy waft of seaside freshness, gently fragrant with leeks, onions and garlic. Monica's chargrilled Cornish squid with chilli jam was a jumble of crispy- tipped tentacles sprawling over perfectly cooked, firmly tender flesh. My crayfish bisque needed a tiny touch more oomph and I cast covetous eyes over the towering wobble of a twice-baked cheese souffle on the neighbouring table.
All three main courses hit bliss point smack in the mouth. Isn't it strange how really good food inspires championship greed? I could have cleared the table like Steve Davis. My brill had a dill-flecked potted shrimp and champagne sauce; the tartness of the wine was made more mellow and surprisingly fruity by butter and cream. The shrimps, a good chew rather than tough bumps, were a foil for the soft fish.
Holt is a town of about 4,000 people served by no fewer than four fishmongers and on the street you see a good smattering of salty maritime beards alongside Range Rovers driven by sea-bass-eating types. The fish at Yetman's tasted as though they had leapt from the sea to the pan to the plate, without any hanging around. To make matters even better, portions are generous. Sam's halibut was a big slab, with its pearly flakes of smooth flesh contrasting with the mealiness of the spiced, sweet-potato puree below. As for the meat, Monica's duck breast had been marinated in Californian, black-muscat pudding wine and was served with spiced figs and sweet onions - plate- licking stuff.
When the vegetables arrived, in a big, oval dish, it took about five seconds before fingers flew to the roast potatoes, which had been cut small enough to get an all-crunch chew. It was one of the finest and freshest plates of veg I have seen in a restaurant for a long time: kale with dollops of nutmeggy bechamel, leeks, a rich squash puree, sugarsnap peas and those irresistible spuds. Each texture, colour and flavour was alive and kicking.
At this point our eyes fought with our stomachs. Should we stick at two courses for pounds 23.75, raise the game to three courses at pounds 28.25 or go for bust with cheeses and pud at pounds 32.50? (The pricing policy does not round up figures, just as the portion control does not round them down). On the evidence of this meal, next time I would go for something light such as the passion-fruit jelly with tropical fruits and steal pickings of a friend's cheeses - six fine specimens from Neal's Yard. It did not feel as though heart and soul had gone into the puds in the same way as into the other dishes. The wild strawberry creme brulee had a quarter-centimetre of unglazed icing sugar below the hard top, and my vanilla ice-cream had the distinctly uncreamy grittiness of freezer-burn. It accompanied a pear and home-made mincemeat jalousie, a puff-pastry affair that was fine but did not inspire enough greed to cope with the size of the portion. I have enjoyed puddings here before, so perhaps the semi-hibernation of Norfolk off season had come into play. This part of the world heaves in summer, but by December is visited mostly by the hardiest species of ornithologist.
It says much about the style and content of Yetman's that this last course did not feel like a let-down. In fact, it was rather a relief. Absolute greed had suddenly turned to weariness and it was as if a judge had stepped into a marathon just as you hit the wall at 21 miles and said: "OK, forget it, put your feet up."
We enjoyed a glass of the pudding wine recommended on the menu, a 1997 Jurancon "Symphonie de Novembre", and stepped out into the calmest of nights, drinking in the clean, clear air in cold mouthfuls and pausing to listen to the music of a Norfolk winter: utter silence.
Yetman's, 37 Norwich Road, Holt, Norfolk NR25 6SA (01263 713320). Open for supper Wednesday to Sunday and for Sunday lunch. All cards except Diners Club. Disabled accessReuse content