Not long ago, an EC survey found Norwich the most "habitable city in Britain". I find this a rather strange idea, as if we didn't all want different things from a city. Still, there is a great deal to like in this unspoilt, relatively untouristy place: its beautiful cathedral, more than 50 of those flinty churches unique to East Anglia, an unusually good market, and (although not to everyone's taste) the funny old university campus - a sort of pastoral version of the South Bank Centre, designed by Denys Lasdun. There is also, or so I had been told, Adlard's.
Adlard's was recommended to me as a Norwich institution by someone who eats there often. The guide books, too, rate it highly: Egon Ronay, The Ackerman Guide, even Michelin give it a star and in The Good Food Guide it gets a prestigious four out of five. High marks indeed. I arrived, then, slug-like, with a trail of saliva marking my route from the station to the restaurant. My stomach was churning, my nose aquiver, my enzymes getting ready for work.
Adlard's sits in a little narrow town house, close to one of those 50 flinty churches not far from the centre. A thickly curtained door leads you into a small, dark-green room, with seven or eight tables, on which sit table lamps waging a losing battle to illuminate their surroundings. This is the sort of atmosphere that the restaurant guides inevitably describe as "cosy" but which strikes me as plain gloomy. You wouldn't have known it, but this was lunch and there was daylight outside.
Everyone these days is talking about the Great British Gastronomic Revolution, but people don't seem to notice another change that has overtaken us, this time in the quality of service. I really can't remember the last time a waiter in this country was rude or neglectful and Adlard's proved no exception. A friendly and efficient waitress did most of the legwork, but David Adlard himself appeared often enough from the kitchen to make sure we were all happy - the restaurant was three-quarters full, not bad for a January lunch. There are other good things, too, about this place. The lunch and dinner menus (both fixed-price) are, or should be, good value (a three course lunch is pounds 16.50; a three course dinner, pounds 32); and the wine list is long and varied, with lots of bargain bin-ends, half bottles and a larger than usual range of wine by the glass.
Still, there is no point in pussy-footing around the fact that our meal did not really shine as I had hoped. David Adlard trained at the Connaught and I had been told to expect light-handed, more or less French cooking, making imaginative use of local ingredients. (And why not? This part of the country has long had deep contacts with France, as well as Holland). Yet our (I like to think unrepresentative) meal seemed heavy and slightly staid. Part of the problem doubtless arises from a conflict of taste. Coming up from London, I arrive in a place like Norwich wanting tastes of the surrounding countryside - briny fish, earthy vegetables, unadulterated fruit - while Adlard's offers the sort of nobs and scrolls I'd probably dream about if I lived in Norwich. But beyond that, on this particular day at least, our dishes somehow lacked flair.
I begun with a curried mussel soup that, while rich and mellow, didn't really taste of the sea - with eyes closed, I'd never have known about the mussels. My blanquette of lamb with winter vegetables and rice was also disappointing. Blanquette - a ragout of usually white meat, cooked in a bouillon and served with a heavy white sauce - has never been a favourite, but it seemed the right thing to have on a cold wintry day. My lamb, though, didn't fall apart around the fork in the way it should; its sauce, too, was more floury than even a heavy, flour-based sauce need be. I liked the tagliatelle and lemon beurre blanc that came with my companion's roast halibut, but the fish itself was a little over-cooked. A side-serving of broccoli florets arrived with a dollop of butter and a heavy dose of salt on top - I think a restaurant of Adlard's standing should bother to toss its vegetables.
Feeling I had perhaps ordered unwisely up to this point, I went for the lightest item on the dessert menu: caramel ice-cream with roast pears. Here, too, though, the pears proved unnecessarily sweet, and the caramel ice-cream was rich and gutless in much the same way as my chowdery mussel soup had been. The one exception in this roll of disappointment was my companion's first course, an old Adlard's speciality in the form of a mushroom and onion tartlet, topped with soft-cooked quail's eggs and hollandaise. This, too, was rich, sweet and eggy, but sublimely so. It showed what David Adlard and his kitchen are capable of, so I understood what his little constellation of stars were for. But it also worked to highlight the fact that nothing else quite measured up
Adlard's, 19 Upper St, Norwich NR2 1AB (01603 633522). All major cards accepted. Lunch: Tues-Sat. Dinner: Monday-Sat. Expect to pay pounds 45-50 per head for a three course-dinner with everything included; half that for lunchReuse content