Thursday, 27 March 2014

Three Ways

Sometimes you eat out because you want excellent food; sometimes you do it to mark (or make) an occasion. On Tuesday, Abby and I ate out with the explicit intention of chilling out, maxing, and relaxing all cool.

Our first choice, the veggie cafe Wild Thyme, née Pulse, was closed, so we consulted The List. We ended up at the less veggie (phew) Three Ways, a family-run Lebanese restaurant hidden in plain sight in almost the exact geographical centre of Norwich (by which I mean, less than 100 yards from The Works.)

Do the Enduring Grub team know a lot about Lebanese food, you ask? 

Do we ever, we reply. But we say that as a way to dodge the question, really. We spent a few minutes trying to work out where Lebanon might appear on a map before giving up, claiming such activities to be guilty of  'cultural pigeonholing' and 'annoyingness.'

Apparently Lebanese food always comes on a bed of fresh, if slightly off-kilter, salad, and with a pre-starter of raw beans. Abby thought the beans a nice touch, while I could understand why they were served free, before you'd eaten anything else (the only conditions in which I would be likely to consume them). 

We shared a couple of starters. The spinach kibbeh were tasty and unfamiliar, while the battatta harra (spicy potatoes) were tasty and familiar in the extreme. I had the lahma mishwia for main, juicy lamb kebabs with rice and an over abundance of onion, but I was immediately jealous of Abby's pick from the specials menu; halloumi and falafel, with pickled chillies, houmous, and bright purple, salty-as-hell pickled turnips. 

I paid the price for my slightly unadventurous choices, coming away with an impression of generous portions of merely decent food; Abby feels this to be a slightly unfair conclusion. 

I was more won over by the restaurant itself than the food. Readers of the 'Grub will know it is high praise indeed when I say that if Three Ways were to appear as a set in a film, that film would be directed by Wes Anderson. And we had the lovely room to ourselves for the first half of the evening, except for the owner, who served us with great informality and friendliness. 

We were joined by other diners about half way through. Despite the fact that Amr Diab (according to the CD case left on the counter) was singing the same song over and over again for the whole evening, the restaurant was quiet enough that you could hear your fellow diners order a drink, say, or discuss the shish tawouk; and similarly, our neighbours could presumably hear us bicker over whether Lebanon was an island, steal each others food, and take sneaky photos for a blog of some description. 

And yes: perhaps they could hear one of us fart. And perhaps it was a much louder fart than that person had expected. Perhaps--perhaps--the fart may have echoed. 

Perhaps one person got silently told off for this, and only then realised that the other group of people had all stopped eating for some reason. Perhaps the farter found this funny, but really shouldn't have laughed. And--who knows?--perhaps the other person found that funny, and the whole thing escalated.

We'll never know.

But a restaurant that lets you feel so at home that you can give birth to a mighty wind, such as legends are made of? That restaurant has done its job of chilling you out, maxing you, and relaxing you--yes--all cool.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Unthank Arms

Sitting in bed today, home from work with a miserable, stinking cold, Sunday afternoon already seems like a far-off, golden memory. Just a few short days ago, I, too, sat out in the sun drinking cider and gaily swapping cheerful anecdotes, sans tights, cardigan or worries. Now, as I snivel into my Supernoodles and stare glassy-eyed at my eighth consecutive episode of Come Dine With Me, I shall take comfort  in recounting mine and Ben’s latest dining adventure: Sunday lunch at the Unthank Arms. (Ben is also off sick today, having learned the hard way that by giving me his cold said pathogen would not simply enter my body and vacate his, leaving him fit and well again. Instead we are both sick, grumpy people.)

I was lucky enough this weekend to be graced with the company of my dear friend Phoebe, who set aside her exciting London lifestyle and world-changing climate research to pay a visit to sleepy old Norwich. We were doubly lucky as the weather on Sunday appeared to be under the misapprehension that it was mid June or so, rather than the sad damp month of March. After roping Phoebe into helping me plant potatoes on the allotment, and then lying in the sun in Eaton Park for an hour or so to recover from this exertion, we met up with Ben and headed for the Unthank Arms on Newmarket Street.

We had booked a table, but decided to forgo the (undeniably light and pleasant) bar and sit outside in the lovely garden instead. The unsmiling chap who took our order at the bar seemed to resent the fact that he was stuck inside serving us drinks instead of basking outside, like the rest of us, with very little clothing on. There was quite a long wait for food, but we were happy chatting and soaking up as much vitamin D as we could. But when the food did come out, Ben and Phoebe’s came out quite a while before mine, leaving me staring longingly at their plates, insisting in a martyred fashion that they start without me and nicking Phoebe’s chips. Which I did find a bit annoying, as it shouldn’t be that difficult to get three meals out at the same time. But my meal arrived at last, and a ten minute silence punctuated only by chomping and gentle belches (Ben’s, of course. Phoebs and I are delicate ladythings) bore testament to the goodness of it all.

For his main, Ben opted for the spatchcock poussin, which sounds a bit rude but I have been assured is nothing but a flattened baby chicken (which sounds so much worse than what I was originally imagining). He enjoyed it though, the meat was tender and juicy and the Israeli couscous with chorizo and peppers that accompanied it was tasty. And, according to Ben, any meal where you have a carcass on your plate at the end of it has got to be good. I shall not comment on that, but will add that I’m pretty sure he actually only ordered it so he could reference this.

Phoebe and I both went for burgers of different descriptions. Phoebe’s satay pork and king prawn burger came open-faced on a ciabatta with a sort of spicy Thai slaw. We weren’t sure where the prawns were, but figured they must be ground up in the burger, because Phoebe said she could detect a hint of seafood. She was impressed by the flavours and the authentically Thai combination of pork and prawns (she lived in Thailand for several years, so we shall trust her knowledge of these things.) I ordered the jalapeno bean burger, and it was truly stupendous. How, you may ask, can a veggie burger be described as “stupendous”? Well, my skeptic friend, it was everything a bean burger should be: crispy on the outside, soft and moist in the middle, fragrantly spicy and absolutely covered in melted cheese. Served on a perfectly toasted sesame bun with a homemade-tasting tomato and onion relish and fat, golden chips. I AM SO HUNGRY RIGHT NOW.

We paused for a brief breather: then dessert. Phoebe, a world renowned custard fanatic, practically bathed in the stuff that came with her apple and blackberry crumble (I am noticing a disturbing theme on this blog of the desire to bathe in gooey foodstuffs). Such a connoisseur is she that she actually ate (or drank?) most of her custard separately from her crumble, so as to fully enjoy the flavours of both. Both were good. Ben and I both had crème brûlée – I was going to be more exciting and have something different, but having borne witness to the devastation crème brûlée envy can wreak on an otherwise healthy relationship, I decided it was safest to get my own. In the end, though, they were slightly different as there was only one left of the white chocolate variety offered on the menu, so I selflessly volunteered to have Baileys flavour instead. Both came in seemingly bottomless coffee cups, with a scoop of pistachio ice cream, a stick of white chocolate and an ocean of mango coulis. They were exhaustingly creamy and delicious, and mine was very, very boozy.

Sunshine, a food coma and good friends will make you happier than drugs or money – I think it was some rap guy who said that. Maybe. Anyway, full points to the Unthank Arms for delicious food and a beautiful day (yes, I am giving them credit for the weather), if slightly undermined by slow and less than friendly service (but who cares, because the weather was nice). Now it’s time for a lemsip and a snotty nap, and perhaps I shall dream of bean burgers.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Dining Rooms

Like all hard-working, rule-abiding citizens, Abby and I got tickets for Wes Anderson's latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, as soon as we could. We arrived at Cinema City with expectations of pointlessly good sets, the colour orange, and Bill Murray. We were given pointlessly good sets, the colour orange, Bill Murray, and free whisky. We liked it.

At one point in the film Jason Schwartzman, playing a not-even-second-rate concierge, takes your drink order. Or maybe that wasn't in the film, but in the bar, where the staff wore ridiculous bellhop hats and literal pencil moustaches--all the better to sell you Wes Anderson-themed cocktails, or tell you where to find the GBH-themed Guess Who? board. It's nice when a cinema is as excited about a film as you are. And did we mention the free whisky?

You have to pay for your whisky at The Dining Rooms, but you can still see the bellhops looking stupid (or cool? Maybe it's cool) behind the bar. It's small, with tables tucked under arches, and just far enough from the bar to fit between being quiet and noisy.

The chef was something like the John Cleese mountaineer organising a two-team climb of the twin-peaks of the Kilimanjaros, who sees two of everything. At least that's my theory; both our main courses seemed to be doubled. I ordered the guinea fowl--which came with lentils, parsnips, and a definite sniff of smoked parika--and my plate contained at least two birds. Abby had salmon fillet with crispy mussels, and hidden under her decently-sized chunk of fish was another chunk of fish, almost as big.

The mains were large, but what was more exciting were the starters. Abby's goat cheese, pear and pecan crumble, apart from being a clever mix of textures and flavours, had nearly enough cheese for her to bathe in (which is the long term goal), and really good cheese at that. I had pigeon breast with black pudding and watercress, which I would like to eat again right now. The pigeon was rare (and even rarer now that I ate one), and black pudding is very fashionable, if Master Chef is anything to go by.

The staff spoke so confidently of the food that I started to interview Abby as to whether waitresses get to taste all the dishes they serve. Not at any of the establishments that have ever employed Abby, I learn. Maybe we were being eavesdropped upon, because two minutes later our waitress came over to explain that they had all had a special tasting session of the new menu, and that Abby had picked all the waitresses own favourites. My own excellent choices did not provoke comment.

So we'd recommend the Dining Rooms, especially if you're looking for a genuinely interesting menu in a cosy but not informal old building. And we'd recommend The Grand Budapest Hotel if you like sets, orange, or Bill Murray.

Or free whisky.