Mud, mud, glorious mud
Sunday 29 September 1996
There are those who maintain that mud-flat chic is rather last year: but pah! The pleasures of sitting, at the end of the day, overlooking beached boats and bits of polythene bags, seagulls, murky water and mud, must surely be agreed to be timeless, especially with a delicious lobster soup in front of one. I was scoffed at by a Norfolk friend when I said I was dining out in King's Lynn. He claimed there was nothing pretty there, apart from Tuesday Market, an historic square.
The Riverside, in fact, is just off Tuesday Market, which is indeed a charming, old-fashioned town square: the sort of square where you could imagine the BBC filming a costume drama, if they got rid of all the cars and cashpoints. Things get even nicer as you approach the restaurant. An archway next to a small theatre and arts centre gives way onto a courtyard with an almost Mediterranean feel, surrounded by mellow red-brick buildings and greenery, leading past a beautifully flat lawn and up a flight of wooden steps overlooking the estuarising Ouse, at its flattest, muddiest and ousiest.
It would be very nice indeed to dine on the terrace, which is open from 10am to 10 pm, on "clement" days. This, alas, was not one of them, being more of a howling wind and pouring with rain style day; so it was a relief to finish fighting the umbrella and burst into the welcoming candlelit warmth of the restaurant.
Riverside is set in a 15th-century wool warehouse, conserved by the National Trust. It is small and oblong, with one end overlooking the river: where there are three sought-after tables which are worth requesting. It's the sort of place designers would shriek and bite to get their hands on, with exposed historic brickwork and a high, pointy ceiling criss-crossed by weathered ships' timbers. The designer who did get their hands on it, however, was not into neutral-walled, wooden-floored metropolitan rustical- minimalism at all. No. Curtains with pelmets, displays of crockery, a patterned blue carpet, mock art-deco wall-lights and sturdy upholstered repro dining chairs bore witness to that. But much as my snooty metropolitan mind was thinking "Darlings, I'd kill to loose the wall-lights and put halogen over the beams," I couldn't help feeling, with rain lashing against the windows, it was bloody cosy just as it was.
It was early evening as I sat down, looking across the river to the docks and utilitarian sheds of a Del Monte canning factory, and downstream into the openness and wild Norfolk light, towards the sea. Inside, the air seemed to be filled with the tinkling of piped music. This turned out, startlingly, to be a real piano, with a real pianist soothing the diners with Richard Clayderman hits and inoffensive arrangements of the works of Elton John.
I was dining alone on a Saturday night, but was immediately made to feel comfortable rather than freakish and nobody stared - well, not too much, anyway. A canape of not particularly interesting curly cheese straws was served when the menu was brought to the table but, the ordering done, things immediately began to look up with the arrival of warm home-made brown bread buns. Riverside buys its ingredients daily from local suppliers and in Norfolk, what with the shellfish and the fields full of vegetables, that immediately sets things off to a flying start.
Lobster soup was lovely: piping hot, creamy tasty, well-judged on the brandy, generous on the lobster and somehow exactly what you felt like eating, which is more than can be said in many a fancier restaurant. By this time the dining room was full and as darkness fell, with the lights twinkling on the water and the candles twinkling on the tables, there was really quite a sense of occasion. At the same time there was the rather formal air of best behaviour which often hovers around in restaurants outside cities: fronts of cardigans and backs of hair patted into place and handbags held defensively across chests like mini-riot shields. This was enhanced by the waitresses, standing alertly to attention at the end of the room: their striped shirts, black skirts and stockings, and keys jangling at the waist, creating an impression somewhere between rather gorgeous staff nurses and prison warders.
The wine list, though, spoke of more hedonistic worlds. I thought it was great, with the vast majority of bottles under pounds 15, some generous pricing - Louis Latour Macon Lugny at pounds 14.50, for example - and a tempting selection of bin-ends such as a Louis Jadot '88 ler Cru Beaune at pounds 30. Glasses of house wine came in three sizes, ranging from pounds l.75 to pounds 2.75, and there was an impressive range of 16 malt whiskeys, plus six Irish and two Bourbons. I indulged myself with a half bottle of J Moreau et Fils '94 Chablis at pounds 8.95 which glided down a treat.
For main course I ordered monkfish tail, baked and served with a spicy oriental sauce with yoghurt and rice, which sounded an eminently happy combination. It arrived with perfectly done vegetables, tasting as much like supermarket vegetables as Louis Jadot 88 ler Cru Beaune tastes like Hirondelle. The oriental sauce was too hot and unexciting but the monkfish morsels were fresh, light, big and juicy, really perfect.
It seemed both irresponsible and lazy to only try one dessert, so I selected an apricot and almond tart - which didn't taste as apricotty as it might - a triple chocolate bavois which I enjoyed very much, thought the subtlety of the bavois was rather swamped by the chocolate sauce which tasted like the sort of delicious meltdown you might make with a bar of Bournville at home. Best - although the base was too hard and kept shooting all over the plate - was lime cheesecake, with a light, creamy texture and a wonderful taste blend of sweetness, cheesiness and tang of lime. My meal, including three desserts and wine, came to pounds 39 plus service. Excellent value.
I thought Riverside was a real find: cosy, atmospheric, friendly, with food which was fresh, wholesome, tasty, unpretentious and expertly done. The perfect place to eat after a bracing day on the mud-flats. !
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