It was once the Regal cinema, before becoming a bingo hall, casino and pub. Now it is home to Norwich's newest all-you-can-eat oriental buffet. SIMON PARKIN paid a visit.
The old Regal cinema at the end of Dereham Road has had a chequered history since the last reels flicked across its silver screen.
For a while it was a bingo hall, then a casino before becoming derelict and then being taken over by Wetherspoon's, which opened it as the City Gates pub in 1999. The pub chain gave it up several years though it struggled on as a pub in various guises until its closure last year.
Now it has undergone another transformation to become Merge, the latest of Norwich's burgeoning number of buffet-style all-you-can-eat oriental restaurants.
Oriental is a catch-all way to describe somewhere that offers a huge range of different Asian cuisines. Whether you fancy going Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Singaporean, Korean or Malaysian, you'll find dishes from each steaming away on the help yourself hotplates.
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Owner Cindy Meng rather romantically says the concept is based on the travels of Zheng He — a Chinese explorer from the 15th century who is just as famous in China as Christopher Columbus is in Europe and America.
The explorer set out to establish new trade routes in South East Asia and India and discovered new ingredients, spices and herbs which he brought back to China. Dishes were served in a buffet style to allow people to sample these exotic new delicacies.
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The initial impression of the building's interior transformation from pub to restaurant is good. Well laid out tables on several levels, a nice yellow, red and dark wood d�cor, a few oriental touches, Chinese lanterns and the like, and a friendly welcome. The design also incorporates elements of the Zheng concept with maps, compasses and boats adorning the walls.
Look hard and you can spot its still a work in process — the chairs don't match, for example — but its still impressive and thankfully it has a much more laidback feel than similar restaurants closer to the city centre.
In truth though many diners at this type of restaurant aren't too bothered about the surroundings — it's the help-yourself concept of all-you-can-eat that appeals. That and the fact that you can get a three-course — or 23-course, if you so wish — meal for a flat fee of �13.99. The price for lunch is even better value at �6.99, though the range of dishes is more limited.
As well as sit-in diners they also do a buffet takeaway service of a small box of rice or noodle with three toppings for �4.50 or a large box with four toppings for �5.50.
Much of the food will be familiar to anyone who regularly orders from a Chinese takeaway but there are plenty of less familiar dishes too. A whole section of Korean cuisine, for example, such as Kumuchino vegetables, yellow bean chicken and cold noodles. Plus Malaysian delicacies like chicken curry or deep fried fish, Singapore lamb, street noodles and Tai dongying soup.
There is also a sushi bar, though on our visit it was looking rather forlorn and largely being ignored by the crowds who were instead heading, plates at the ready, for the more familiar.
The quality was one the whole good. The Thai-style king prawns were excellent, the Japanese miso soup good and the salt and pepper squid — or chicken wings, we tried both — very moreish.
As ever with this type of restaurant, some of the lesser known dishes aren't helped by their unfamiliarity as they tend to sit stewing longer as people scoop up things they do recognise, unless you're lucky enough to be there as they are first brought out.
A couple of the beef dishes we tried feel victim to this, being both overcooked and lukewarm.
It's also depressing that despite the huge array of choice they still feel the need to include the very unoriental chips, garlic bread, onion rings and gravy, though that says more about the diners than it does about the restaurant.
We came away full, satisfied and not too light in the wallet. Perfect for a mid-week meal out.
Though its recent history may be chequered, I wouldn't be surprised if the old Regal's latest incarnation isn't its longest running feature yet.
Open: Lunch 12pm-3pm, dinner 5.30pm-11pm daily
Prices: Lunch �6.99, dinner �13.99, children half-price
Vegetarian options: Loads
Wheelchairs access: Yes