Thursday, 21 November 2019

Norma, Fitzrovia

As much as you can ever be sure about these things, I was sure I would enjoy Norma. So sure that I booked a table for the day of my birthday. So sure that I invited 5 of my closest friends (6 if you count the baby) to enjoy it with me. Convinced that so many positive reviews couldn't all be wrong, and the necessity of making a 5:45pm reservation on a Wednesday night indicating that so many members of the public couldn't be wrong, either. So sure, as I bounded into this beautifully decorated space on Charlotte Street, with its spotlit booths and gleaming crudo bar that absolutely everything would, this particular evening, go my way.

We started, because it was my birthday, with cocktails. My own, called "The Bronte Pistachio", came served, for reasons only known to them, in a bowl, meaning that instead of picking it up to drink you leant over the table and sucked it up with a straw. It tasted fine, a bit subdued and with quite a few shards of ice floating around in it suggesting that someone behind the bar hadn't used the correct filter, but you know, fine. A friend's "Alchemist" was sweet and bland, needing a lot more of the advertised lemon. But I was still sure everything would be fine as soon as the food arrived.

We balked slightly at the £4.50 each price tag on Norma's West Mersea oysters (they weren't even natives), and the rather left-field dressing (salted capers and fennel oil?) but nothing was going to stop me ordering oysters on my birthday so I brushed such concerns aside and ordered them. As soon as the first one slipped onto my tongue, I wish I hadn't. Adding salted capers to already incredibly salty oysters is an idea every bit as stupid as it sounds, and the fennel oil only served to make this festival of saline ever so slightly bitter and vegetal. These were genuinely unpleasant. But I was still sure everything would be fine as soon as the snacks arrived.

For a tantalisingly brief moment, everything was. Red prawns, surely one of the world's greatest seafoods, came dressed with a remarkably unobtrusive rosemary and orange dressing, and were every bit as sweet and soft and lovely as only the freshest examples can be.

Anchovies were decent, not the very best I've had even this month being a bit mealy in texture, but still ate pretty well and looked the part.

Spaghettini fritters were crunchy and gooey in all the right places, and came with a seriously addictive parmesan (I think) based dip which complimented them beautifully. True, it's probably not easy to mess up the deep-frying of balls of pasta and subsequent grilling with cheese, but even so, these were very fine things indeed, properly comforting comfort food.

And I don't think I've had a better cod's roe since Quality Chop House, and as anyone who's ever tried their version will tell you, that's high praise indeed. It was so silky smooth and packed full of flavour that all 6 of us fought to polish it off, but because it was my birthday I won the battle for the second helping. So would everything be alright in the end?

In a word, no. The red prawns, the spaghettini and the cod's roe were merely a brief tick up from the downward trajectory, and with the arrival of the giant saffron arancini (singular, so surely 'arancino'?), we were once again hurtling towards earth. In the same way as some people can't eat coriander because it tastes like soap, I have a weird immunity to the taste of saffron - no matter how much there is, I can't taste it. So for a full appraisal of this antipasto I will refer you to my dining companions, every last one of whom declared this dish "way, way too saffrony and pretty disgusting" whereas I just found it cloying and bland. So there you go.

Vitello tonnato needs to be made exceptionally well, with exceptional ingredients, to stop it being anything more than a plate of cold meat and mayo, and this was nothing more than that. The overwhelming effect was cold dairy (we found no trace of smoked eel), the veal only announcing its presence via being rather chewy and difficult to eat. Not fun.

It was about this stage in the evening that all the odd flavour combinations littering the menu at Norma, that seemed so quirky and intriguing while we were ordering, returned to show their true horrific forms. Strozzapreti would presumably have been quite nice with a simple tomato ragu, but Norma decided to add orange(?) and fresh mint(??) to theirs, the end result tasting a bit like a plate of party lasagne that someone had accidentally spilled a cocktail over.

Ravioli were unpleasantly hard, underseasoned and underflavoured, and the huge chunks of soggy broccoli they came with just looked - however unfairly - like an attempt to bulk out the main ingredient with something cheaper. Also, each of these hardly vast mountains of pasta were £16, punchy even by central London standards (a similar amount of the wonderful Spicy Pork & N’duja Mafalde at Bancone costs £11).

More out of hope than expectation, we ordered desserts. Mine was a fairly decent brioche bun (could have done with being a bit sweeter and less chewy, but fine) with a nice smooth salted caramel ice cream. Weirdly considering the rather meagre portion sizes elsewhere this was actually a bit too big, and even with a bit of help it didn't all get eaten.

But I fared a lot better than those who ordered the cannoli. A dreadful hush descended on our table as these were sampled, as we tried to work out exactly what we were eating. Bizarrely, inexplicably, they tasted of exactly nothing - not cream, not pastry, not sugar - just a complete absence of form and flavour, like tubes of Polyfilla wrapped in stale bread. Those with more knowledge of pastry work than me (hardly a high bar) suggested perhaps they'd used cornflour to thicken them artificially, but I can only offer this as (someone else's) educated guess. Whatever the reason, quite how anyone thought these things were good enough to serve was beyond any of us.

I should try and claw back a few positives from what still ended up being an entertaining - if largely for the wrong reasons - birthday dinner. Staff did occasionally forget to fill up glasses and left old glasses hanging around quite long, but overall were attentive and friendly and made the very kind gesture of gifting a bottle of sparkling Falanghina when they saw cards and presents being opened. They were also very accommodating when our party size changed 3 times in the course of the day, and made plenty of space available for a pram, meaning a newborn's sleep-deprived parents managed an evening out in the real world, a rare luxury I'm reliably told.

But overall, I can't think of many nice things to say about the food at Norma, and that is after all the main bloody point of the place. At over £60 each I can think of far better Italian restaurants worth your wages - start at Bancone in Covent Garden, for a start, or perch at the bar in a Barrafina for some top-notch crudo - and all the salivating reviews would have left me genuinely questioning my sanity had I not shared the experience with five other people who can all corroborate the above, including, embarrassingly, an Italian native who I left that cold November night shaking his head sadly and repeating "Why would they put orange and mint in pork pasta? Why?". Why indeed. Why indeed.



Anonymous said...

Had exactly the same experience as you! Some fairly well done snacks and then jesus christ that orangey ragu with some seriously al dente pasta (and I'm someone who like my pasta al dente but this was properly chewy). If I never have to endure that flavour combination again I will die a happy man.

Anonymous said...

Why would you go there in the first place? All the wrong signs of an overworked, overthemed, instragamable, soulless, fake restaurant.

Unknown said...

Also...the guys behind the place have a great restaurant pedigree which made the whole experience even more bizarre and disappointing considering how bloody expensive it was

Alex C said...

Poor parents - the only time they're likely to see the outside world and it's wasted on that. At least you get to go back to the untold delights you've found recently found more or less whenever you like.

This article though, did get me wondering. I've had a number of dinners ar restaurants that should have been wonderful (David Bouley's 2 michelin starred New York restaurant springs to mind - that was a $400 car crash). If a meal starts going wrong I wonder how much of what one might have otherwise passed off as fine, starts being looked at in a bleaker light. By the second glaring error you're wary and by thr third you're actively looking out for things to be wrong.

Possibly Chris is professional enough to be permantly objective in his opinion, but I'm just out for a good time so usually just try to enjoy myself, trying to be actively delighted by what I'm buying (or what's the point in spending all this money when the food and wine are usually pretty good at home).

By the way your parent friends should embrace the bit where they can take the kid out with them at night and it sleeps peacefully - later on they have to leave it at home with a baby sitter and will already be £30-50 down on the night before the first Negroni is poured... When that moment arraves the food had bloody well better be good. Also, there had better be plenty of wine.

Happy birthday by the way.

Anonymous said...

Had a similar experience very recently, but paired with pretty lacklustre service which then tipped the whole thing (I was celebrating my birthday as well) into a downward spiral.

Pleb said...

Sounds grim...but still managed to score 5/10? Shouldn't 5, on a scale of 1 to 10, be about average?