Norwich – Benoli

Benoli is an Italian restaurant which opened a few weeks ago in Orford Street, conveniently (well for me anyway) opposite the entrance to the Bell Hotel. It’s run by Oli Boon, who was a finalist in Masterchef the Professionals and who was also previously Head Chef at Roux at the Landau, a role he held in his mid-twenties.

Anyway, although Norwich isn’t necessarily short of fine dining options, I’m not sure that I can think of another chef in the city with such a glittering CV. I’m sure that Greggs will soon be listed in the Michelin Guide and Norwich will then have several top-rated restaurants, but until then, Benoli is a marvellous addition to Norwich’s dining scene.

The starter, or to be more accurate, the snack before the starter. I was at the restaurant with eight other people in the private dining room, but I won’t bore everyone with the gossip from the other members of Hike Norfolk, some of which would be unwritable (untypeable) anyway.

The pre-starter was Pagnotta bread, which has evolved from being a rustic loaf cooked by working classes in Italy. The exterior is dark and firm, whilst the interior is soft and just a little fluffy. Served with oils, I could have perhaps just have had three courses of this. Rather lovely.

I had to ask the waiter, who incidentally was engaging and competent, what the ‘baccala mantecato’ was. It’s apparently a Venetian dish of salt cod which is mashed and served with the consistency of a pate. At Benoli, this is then served with grilled onions on a sourdough bread.

I can’t say that I’ve ever eaten anything similar to this and I’m not sure that I would have guessed what the dish was if it just presented to me. However, the mashed cod was light in texture but had a rich and pleasant flavour. The onions added texture and the sourdough bread was softened slightly by the cod, but it remained crisp. Again, quite marvellous.

For main, I went for the bucatini pasta served with octopus and flavoured with lemon and oregano. Again, I didn’t know what bucatini was, but the waiter patiently explained that it was spaghetti with a hole inside it. That hole running through the centre means that the pasta picks up more of the sauce and it also makes for a softer taste.

The octopus, and indeed the pasta, almost melted in the mouth and the pangrattato (or bread crumbs) added texture to the dish. The flavours were strong, but the dish was simple in its make-up and tasted freshly made. Perhaps there could have been just a little more octopus to balance the pasta, but I certainly have no complaints.

On which point, the prices. This pasta dish came in at £12, which seems to me, when taking into account the experience of the chef and the quality of the dining environment, perfectly good value for money. Other mains were a little more expensive, with starters around the £8 to £9 mark and desserts were mostly £8.

And, finally, the dessert which was morello cherry sorbet served with an amaretti biscuit and garnished with fresh almond. The flavour of the sorbet was intense and the cherry was very much in evidence, with the texture being soft and not grainy. The biscuit is one of the largest of its type I’ve seen served with a dessert and it had a subtle flavour of almond and a suitably crispy texture.

Partly, writing this post is a bit pointless insomuch as the chef is clearly an expert in his craft and I had to have a waiter explain some of the dishes to me. However, since my only perspective is whether it tastes good, I can confirm that it does. And it was all well presented and at the appropriate temperature.

The service was attentive and professional throughout, with the dining environment being clean and comfortable. In terms of negatives, I’m hard pushed to find any. Perhaps some of the seating in the restaurant is a little exposed and there’s a traffic of customers going by, but there’s still an authentic feel to the whole arrangement. I also like the bar section at the front of the restaurant, so those just wanting a quick snack can easily pop in.

There has unfortunately been a lot of rubbish served up as Italian food in restaurants in Norwich and across the country over the last few years. Mid-market restaurants have opened up, and in some circumstances served some really low quality fare and then tried to get customers in by cheap and even slightly squalid Groupon offers. Fortunately, Benoli appears to be authentic, genuine and informal, based on quality and not generic mass produced pasta dishes. So, how lovely.