Norwich: Iron House
The building has been through a variety of incarnations in recent years, but Iron House, the latest caf�, deli, gastro-pub, restaurant hybrid is the best, says SARAH BREALEY.
In that very modern grey area between caf�, gastro-pub, and restaurant sits the Iron House brasserie. More literally, you can find it in that far-from modern area known as the Norwich Lanes, in a historic building that used to be Mike's Bar, previously Boltz Wine Bar and the Ironmongers Arms before that.
The brasseries — in St John Maddermarket, (just behind Thorns and near the Maddermarket theatre) — opens for breakfast, which is served all day and does bread and pastries too. So far, so caf�. The menu reads more like a gastro-pub, with ham hock terrine, smoked haddock risotto and chicken breast with fondant potatoes at prices from �11 for a main. Tables are fashionably bare, but the food is easily smart-restaurant standard – and it must be said, smart-restaurant portions to match.
The paint is still gleaming from a major refurbishment which has left it looking better than for years. The upstairs, formerly living accommodation, has been completely redone to create another dining room, and also removed in part to give a high, striking ceiling on part of the ground floor. The new owners apparently have some history in the restaurant trade, though this is their first venture in Norwich.
The Real Ale Drinker had a bottle of local Grain bitter, which was very good, if slightly steep at �4 a bottle. I had a glass of Rioja from a list which pleasingly offers half-litre carafes as well as glasses and bottles, and starts around �14.50 a bottle.
The Real Ale Drinker had the smoked mackerel rillettes, essentially a coarse-textured, fishy pate. It was very nice, although the accompanying 'toast' was so delicate as to raise a taxonomical question about when the dividing line falls between toast and croutons.
My starter was one of the specials, gnocchi with a fricassee of vegetables including chanterelle mushrooms. The gnocchi themselves were not startling (but have you ever had a startling gnocchi?), though the mushroomy, creamy sauce was very pleasing. There was a vegetable in there I couldn't quite put my finger on, but I think may have been salsify.
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The Dingley Dell pork from the mains menu turned out to be pork belly, which prompted a debate between us about whether this should have been specified on the menu. It was tasty, tender pork, although it was almost out-shone by the Savoy cabbage accompaniment.
A leaf was rolled up to look like a tiny cabbage, but was stuffed with a smoked ham mixture that was full of flavour. There was a sausage-shaped potato croquette, too, and a swirl of carrot puree.
We also had a pithivier, which is essentially a posh pie, in this case vegetables in a circle of puff pastry. The vegetables were more of a harmonious whole rather than any individual vegetable making its presence felt, although I did detect a note of parsnip. It came with a swirl of butternut squash puree, a few baby leaves, and ratte potatoes – these last being a variety of posh new potatoes, albeit slightly under-cooked in this instance.
There are side dishes on the menu, too, including hand-cut chips or salad. I think a person of a hearty appetite would be well advised to either order a side dish or go in with the full intention of having three courses.
As for desserts, flourless chocolate cake with salted caramel ice-cream and candied nuts sounded unmissable. It was very tasty, though the cake was more like a dense brownie rather than the lighter-than-air dish I had imagined. The ice cream set it off nicely – thankfully, the salt was a mere background note — and the candied nuts were like an elegant pane of peanut brittle.
There was also a Bakewell tart with a swirl of blackcurrant coulis and a scoop of very good vanilla ice-cream. At �52 for two with just one drink each, it might have been my new favourite restaurant if I had left feeling just a fraction fuller. But then I may just be greedy.
Either way, this is a grey area that is well worth venturing into.
St John Maddermarket
Open: From 8am daily.
Vegetarian options: Plenty.
Wheelchair access: Yes, but some stairs.