Laugh more and serve less: A valued chef who knows about good local ingredients has turned up in Norfolk, but Emily Green could not do justice to his five-course menu

Emily Green
Saturday 13 November 1993 00:02

Nick Gill is a dedicated English chef who believes in his food. His search for an audience that will believe in it, too, has taken him through a succession of jobs - some triumphs, some bruisers. Now he has cropped up afresh in Norfolk.

The move follows something of a 20th-century healing trail for the disenchanted of the Home Counties. East Anglia is a magnet for the likes of advertising executives who drop out to seed oyster beds in Suffolk, and stockbrokers intent on farming hemp in Cambridgeshire. They have a surprising success rate. Among them, too, runs a mildly nutty contingent that only stops at the sea. Those who reach Cromer might well be bent on fashioning fairies from crab shells.

If, indeed, Mr Gill did hear the siren call of the Wash, he stopped short of the marshes, in Coltishall, to be exact, just north of the Norwich ring road. Here he and his fiancee, Philippa Atkinson, have set up Norfolk Place, a genteel little two-hander, where he cooks and she carries.

From 1980 to 1987, Mr Gill was chef at Hambledon Hall, a Relais et Chateau country house hotel in Leicestershire. This made his name. He proceeded to cook brilliantly at the Feathers Hotel in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, where he offered three- and five-course menus. After dabbling in the consultancy game - dreaming up eclectic food served in Chinese steamer baskets for the London chain, Tall Orders - he appeared at the Bull in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, a town notable for its ratio of pubs to residents. This was a ramshackle, short-lived arrangement.

Now, newly migrated to Norfolk, Mr Gill has again set up his restaurant to serve set five-course menus, this time with 'wine menus' to boot. More about this liquid later; first to the food menu. Ours came dated and personally inscribed as a 'surprise dinner'. Sweet gesture. However, no amount of enthusiasm for Mr Gill's ability as a cook can convince me that the locals, or visitors from anywhere, want five-course surprises from dinky Norfolk restaurants. These, complete with their serried ranks of cutlery, are best dished up by the grand houses. Grandeur protests when strapped into a cute and cottagey straitjacket, and at Norfolk Place you can just about hear the groans. We began with a basket of 'crudites' that was more like a misbegotten seafood platter. Granted, there were raw carrots, served still topped with their feathery greens (this looks pretty, but means the carrots shrivel as the wilting foliage thirstily saps the root). As sauce for the carrots, there was a pot of pesto-flavoured mayonnaise. Built into the bargain was a pile of tiny shrimps and, for some reason, a raw oyster for each of us. Carrots, pesto mayonnaise, shrimps and raw oysters? It sounds like a Ben Elton 'what you find behind the fridge' joke.

To follow came real food, delicious chunks of smoked salmon that tasted fresh and meaty in a salad of baby spinach, nice salad leaves and a light, tarragon vinaigrette. It was a perfect starter. The logic of following this with another fish course was, again, elusive. And this was no ordinary fish course but sea bass, lobster, cockles, mussels and scallops in a champagne and saffron sauce - a fishmonger on a plate. Less would have been more and, in the case of the cockles and scallops, less grit would also have been desirable.

To clean the palate, we were given glasses of a claret sorbet. As if claret were not enough, it also involved passionfruit and lemon. Why?

Then came a super dish: pot-roast partridge and pommes Maxim. The latter sounded like yet another curiously named French potato dish; but Mr Gill made it give the whole dish a thrill: gratineed potatoes made with white truffle. The musk of the truffle set off the buttery quality of the potatoes and light meat of the partridge. Add to this the shallots and chestnuts cooked with the bird, and the upshot was autumnal and deeply satisfying.

Out came the cheeses, all raw milk, all in perfect condition, all redundant on such a full stomach. Also on offer was a sour potted cheese made with wine and, to my taste, quite unpleasant. Dessert consisted of a large pear souffle with ice-cream spiked with poires william. The souffle smelled and tasted a shade eggy, but good.

To follow, came decent filter coffee and petits fours - which could have been porcelain, for we were so replete they could not pass our lips.

Now, a word on that wine menu supposedly devised to flatter our food. Wines by the glass are only a plus if they are special wines. As served at Norfolk Place, our five samples, adding up to pounds 12 each, were disappointing. For pounds 36 we could have drunk a damn sight better than a decent gewurztraminer, an OK Australian chardonnay and a hard, young Dolcetto d'Alba. Better were a Portuguese port and Italian sparkler with cheese and pudding.

It will not do to close with a gripe. Mr Gill is too valuable. He is just starting out in Norfolk, and has arrived there having worked his clogs off to hone his skills. He is changing the menu daily, and sourcing its ingredients from the best local suppliers. He has rare commitment to good food. For these reasons, and for his terrific partridge, I will return to Norfolk Place. I only hope it learns to serve less and laugh more.

Norfolk Place, Point House, High Street, Coltishall, Norfolk (0603 738991). Children welcome (special meals). Set five-course dinner pounds 22.50. Wine menus pounds 12. Vegetarian meals available by request. Open dinner Tue- Sat. Major credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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