Nowhere in Britain divides opinion quite like Norfolk. Most counties come with a ready-made, dinner-party-safe prevailing view. Berkshire? Bucolic, unaffordable. Derbyshire? Lovely hills. Cornwall? Too long a drive, but worth it when you get there. Norfolk? Ask the person on your left and they’ll say it’s flat, featureless and totally without merit. Ask the person on your right and they’ll say that its luscious flora and coastal heritage are the envy of England. Ask either of them when they’ve had too much to drink and they’ll give you the opposite view, except stronger.
On at least three Norfolk-related matters, however, most people now seem to agree. First, Delia Smith’s still got it. Second, Stephen Fry (a native) is a genius. And third, Wiveton Hall’s café is one of the best restaurants in Britain. Curiously, the first two points are true, the third is false, yet the reason people hold the third to be true is that Delia herself made the claim.
Yes, barely a year ago Delia was asked what she made of the march of Michelin restaurants in Britain. “On the whole, I am not a great fan. I like the 1970s the best, really,” she said. “There is one person left doing that at the Wiveton Hall café and if I could go to her restaurant I would go that extra mile because it’s... well, I just think everything else has got very overdone.”
So your correspondent has come the extra mile, and on first appearances, this is a gorgeous place to eat. Five years old, it sits in a converted barn behind a vast stately home bought long ago bought by Desmond MacCarthy, the literary critic and journalist, back when literary critics and journalists could afford such things. It is just along the road from the lovely village of Cley. At the end of a long drive, you can see a vast fruit farm, pigs, chickens and a sunset to nourish the soul.
Inside, pastel pinks, yellows and blues combine with children’s art to create the impression of a giant nursery, and the kids running joyfully around seem to agree. Mostly, however, the clientele is of an age when they might well appreciate the large fonts on the menu containing weekday breakfast, weekend cooked breakfast, children’s menu, afternoon tea and a reminder that the lunch menu is on the big board in front of you.
It’s commendably short, with just a few starters, mains, and in-betweeners (desserts are separate). And here, I am afraid, we search in vain for the wow factor. It’s reasonably priced – you can get a decent bottle of Sauvignon for £12.50 – but not spectacular.
They front-load the best stuff. The celeriac and apple soup (£5.50) is very thick and slightly sweet, and the crispy whitebait with home-made garlic and lemon mayonnaise (£8.50) has our fingers lunging at the generous bowl in which they come. The Wiveton duck-and-ham hock terrine (£7.50) comes with a spicy, warming autumn chutney and excellent brown toast. Morston mussels steamed in cider (£11.50 for a large portion) are good, but well short of the stunning bowlful you get at the Anchor Inn in Morston, a few miles away.
But all this sets the bar very high, so what follows is underwhelming. The wild rabbit and mushroom tagliatelle with cream, tarragon and Parmesan (£12.50) doesn’t have enough of the latter two in my estimation, and the pasta is overdone. The roast pork belly and loin with Wiveton veg and roast potatoes (£14.50) suffers from the opposite: the veg is delicious (particularly sweet, vinegary red cabbage) and the crackling is good, but there’s so much pork that neither Matt or Orazio, two of my generally hungrier friends, can come close to finishing it.
After this, the desserts (a date-and-walnut sticky-toffee pudding) and a dark-chocolate and amaretti biscuit torte and cherry glaze are fine rather than thrilling. But the coffee, apparently made with unchlorinated water from a chalk spring on the farm, is proper and classy.
Wiveton Hall café doesn’t, then, emphatically settle disputes on the merits or otherwise of Norfolk. It is an attractive, reasonably tasty and more reasonably priced restaurant. The term family-friendly could have been invented for it. But if you’re thinking of spending Christmas in Berkshire, don’t change your plans on this account.
Other Norfolk Nights
The Neptune 85 Old Hunstanton Road, Old Hunstanton, tel: 01485 532122 - The Mangeolle family’s 18th-century coaching inn is really making waves – very fresh fish dishes make up much of a menu that’s realised with skill, care and imagination.
Lavender House 39 The Street, Brundall, tel: 01603 712215 -This village restaurant in a thatched building of character is back on top form now that proprietor Richard Hughes is back behind the stoves.
The Gunton Arms Cromer Road, Norwich, tel: 01263 832010 -This lovely, three-year-old rural gastropub is set in a large deer park. The food is cooked on an open fire in the dining room, and local venison is a speciality.