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Suffield Arms, Norwich: ‘a delicious experience’ – restaurant review

<span>Sketches of Spain: Suffield Arms.</span><span>Photograph: Ali Smith</span>
Sketches of Spain: Suffield Arms.Photograph: Ali Smith

Suffield Arms, 393 Station Road, Lower Street, Norwich NR11 8UE (01263 586858). Small plates £4-£12, cured meats £12-£22, large plates £13-£25, desserts £7, wines from £27

Hanging on the wall in the deep-varnished, oak-panelled stairwell at the Suffield Arms is a red neon sign which reads “Beer Girls Porn” with a blue neon arrow pointing to the ground floor. It is not entirely inaccurate. For all the restaurant trappings, this place still displays elements of pub. There is a public bar at the front with a pool table, a big screen TV and a number of ales on tap, many of them from local breweries like Lacons and Woodforde’s. Both genders are represented among the clientele, so in the very loosest sense of the sign, I suppose – and in a less than obliging manner – that’s the second word dealt with.

One of the things restaurants can do well is create a space in which you can participate in benign role play or fantasy

Then there is the third word. Certainly, the walls are hung with pictures, of a sort which might once have been called “risqué”: faux American pin-ups; glowering documentary shots of life-class models, preparing to pose. That sort of thing. I gave these various images a bit of my male gaze and I’ll be honest: none of them started my engine (insert your alternative euphemism of choice here). And if it doesn’t do that, it’s art not porn.

Perhaps all of this comes with the territory, by which I mean the fields that surround it. The Suffield Arms, located half an hour outside Norwich and a one-minute stroll from Gunton station, is a country pub, much as I am a country squire. Which is to say, I’ve been to the country and enjoyed myself there, but my heart is somewhere else, back in the belch and hard kerb of the city. Likewise, this is an outpost of urban sensibility amid the pasture and meadow. It’s the second business from the art dealer Ivor Braka, who has the Gunton Arms a couple of miles away. There, the walls are crusted with neon signs by Tracey Emin, flashing legends like “I said don’t practise on me”. There are works by Damien Hirst, Julian Opie and Paula Rego, and in the grounds, part of a sprawling deer park, sculptures by Anthony Caro and Sol LeWitt.

It’s all displayed with the lightest of touches, as it is here. For these are places of studied, and extremely comfortable loucheness. At the Suffield Arms there are long, reconditioned communal tables which are less distressed than mildly disconcerted. There are slate-tiled floors. There’s a long counter edging the open kitchen, its frontage panelled in limed wood. Above the kitchen on the ceiling are daubed the names of painters from the Norwich School. Upstairs is what they call the saloon bar, a downlit snug with banquettes upholstered in blood-red corduroy, and swags of damask curtain, placing it somewhere between steampunk fantasy and Victorian brothel. In the most tasteful way possible, the whole place is mannered and contrived. All of which makes it a delightful place in which to loiter, even if you end up hating yourself just a little bit for liking it so very much.

At the Gunton Arms the menu is, like your critic, meaty, butch and dark. There is a live fire grill and an Elk Room in which to eat. Here, the Spanish-accented menu, overseen by a young northern Italian chef called Alberto Mesini, is full of sunshine, soft winds and tidy ideas. To go with tumblers of sherry or vermouth there’s a lengthy list of jamón, lomo and chorizo, along with boquerones, tortillas, olives and almonds. So just your basic early evening in Granada, even on a grey winter’s day in Norfolk. There is also a mildly evolved selection of tapas. The mini chorizo sausages, which elsewhere might just lie languidly in a hot bath of cider, here come glazed with a sticky sauce of reduced rioja and honey. There are padrón peppers, and white Andalusian prawns, given the lightest of grillings, then allowed to swim through a lake of garlicky, parsley-rich butter.

But the cooking also roams around Middle Eastern and North African flavours. Hunks of long-roasted lamb, in a sauce spiked with harissa, come with whorls of whipped hummus and puffy triangles of warm flatbread. The latter also turn up with a sweet-savoury dish of borani, the Iranian dip of puréed beetroot whipped up with yoghurt, garlic and walnuts, then heavily layered with crumbled feta. Aubergines have been cooked until mashable, then turned into lengthy, squared-off, crisp-shelled fritters with an almost liquid centre. Or chips as we might prefer to call them. They are stacked up like Jenga blocks and sprinkled generously with pomegranate seeds and more crumbled feta. A lot has been done to those aubergines for £7.

I don’t need to tell you that these dishes are meant for sharing. For those who hate their friends and double dipping, there are also a few larger plates, priced from £15 to £25. A couple of these source their star ingredient from the deer park surrounding the Gunton Arms, where you can first admire the wildlife and then later eat it. There’s a venison tagine with apricots or a heaped pyramid of hand-cut tagliatelle, generously swamped with a venison and pancetta ragù cooked down until dark and almost crumbly. This is solid and satisfying cooking, rather than the stuff of thrills and grasps. It’s there to lubricate the chat and give purpose to a few lost hours at one of those long tables. The most on-brand dessert is a terracotta bowl of a furiously hot rice pudding, or arroz con leche, with bursts of citrus, under a bendy, melted sugar topping which will get stuck cheerfully in your teeth. Or, because they’re still cos-playing as an English country pub, there’s a rather good individual sticky toffee pudding in a deep lake of caramel sauce the colour of molasses.

It’s while I am spooning away my sticky toffee pudding, purely in the name of diligent research, that I conclude I have really been far too literal with that neon sign in the stairwell. One of the things restaurants can do well is create a space in which you can participate in a kind of benign role play or fantasy. For a couple of hours, you are hanging out in a Thai beach shack or a Parisian café or in a Manhattan grill room where everyone talks in italics and the barman mixes a killer ice-cold martini. It’s all about trying on a lifestyle. The word “porn” in that sign? It was referring to the whole of the delicious Suffield Arms experience. And I am very much here for it.

News bites

The very lovely Seaside Boarding House on the coast in Burton Bradstock, Dorset is running a monthly series of guest chef events throughout 2024, with services cooked by, among others, Hector Henderson of Rochelle Canteen (April), Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis (June) and Abby Lee of Mambow (October). Tickets for each event go on sale roughly a month in advance. The series begins with Anna Tobias of Café Deco in London’s Bloomsbury, who will be cooking dinner on Saturday 23 March. For more information go here.

A tiny café in southeast London has become home to Bereket, a delightful pop-up offering the food of Turkmenistan. The short menu, prepared by chef Guncha Mameddurdiyeva, includes minced lamb and butternut squash momos, yoghurt or beetroot salads, rice with mutton, and honey cake to finish. It operates from Thursday to Saturday from Café Lulu near Brockwell Park, and is BYO. For more follow them on Instagram @bereketfood_uk

The terrific Helen Graham, former head chef of Bubala, is bringing her Middle Eastern-influenced brand of plant-based cookery to the Shoreditch wine bar and shop Oranj for a three- week residency. Graham will be cooking from 5-30 March. For those who like to know about these things, the entire wine offering at Oranj is ‘natural’. Bookings can be made here.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on X @jayrayner1