wish I could tell you when it happened, but it seemed to occur all of a sudden. One month, nothing, and the next: a whole new city to discover.
Norwich, dear sweet little Norwich, got…cool.
Somewhere between then and now, grotty little shop fronts gave way to swanky barbers and coffee shops, and people started talking about where’s good for brunch. All the boys grew beards and got undercuts. Food started being served on slates and wooden boards. Pockets of the city became like London, full of independents and entrepreneurship, but without the tourists and grime.
But it’s not the first time Norwich has had excellent food. My personal favourite? The Belgian Monk. Tucked away on what passes for a hill in Norfolk, this Belgian beer pub has been going for 15 years, offering around 50 Belgian and specialty beers, including a cookie beer (hellooo!). The menu has changed a little, and it no longer offers the vegetarian lasagne that’s become part of my personal folklore – the one that was so delicious, and so rich, topped with thick slabs of goats cheese, that it brought a tear to my eye. The concept of a meal that makes you cry is a great marker of the quality of both food and company, as people who don’t get it may never, ever understand that joy. Not once slumped back into your seat in sheer gustatory pleasure? We might not be destined to be friends.
So when it came to taking my partner in crime around the city I grew up in, there was only one place I was desperate for him to experience. And it didn’t disappoint.
The menu is a whopper, coming in at 11 pages long. It’s huge for a reason – it covers everything, including not just Belgian favourites but seafood, meat, vegetarian options, and even a good selection of vegan fare, imaginative enough that even I, most certainly a meat eater, was intrigued by some of the dishes on offer. And just to make your choice that much more refined, they even suggest a beer that goes with each dish.
But we’ll start at the beginning.
For him: sautéed duck breast with peach, pomegranate, and blood orange jenever with fine herbs and crispy bacon. For me: pan seared scallops, squid, and chorizo with tiger prawns, roasted garlic and santos tomatoes served with rocket.
I slumped into my chair, and made a sound somewhat like “muuurghmygod”. He did the same. And then we basically didn’t talk for ten minutes; barely uttered a word until our plates were all but licked clean, the bowls tipped and sauces spooned up until there wasn’t a drop left. I believe all I could say between mouthfuls was, “I’m sorry about my breath but I can’t not eat these bits of garlic.” Everything was perfect: the squid was still tender; scallops just right; roasted garlic soft and irresistibly sweet. It required tactical eating that meant trying different combinations to come up with the best forkful – for that crucial final taste I went with scallop, thoroughly swished about, and chorizo. I only wished there was either more, or a little bread on the side for soaking up the sauce that hit every part of my tongue.
But the focus of the menu, and probably the thing most people go for, is the two full pages of mussel options. With everything from steak strips to cheese, chorizo to whisky, and even a green and yellow themed option in homage to Norwich City Football Club, there’s a flavour for everyone.
And my god, the portion. A “mains” size comes with chips and a bread roll to add to the huge, huge pot of mussels, and if I have one regret it’s that I didn’t manage to get through more of the chips because they were excellent (see photo above!), but I was extraordinarily full. He plumped for – and was plumped by – the Spanish-influenced option, with chorizo, paprika and garlic, while I took it upon myself to get as many types of dairy into one pot as possible (four cheeses, and cream).
They were, of course, delicious. It’s not a complaint by any stretch of the imagination, but there were so many mussels that I was almost relieved when I found a couple of non-openers. I struggled through the last few mouthfuls, determined not to waste a thing, dipping what was left of the bread into a
puddle lake of cheese and cream at the bottom of the mussel pot.
We couldn’t fit dessert in, despite all I’ve said about having a separate stomach for puddings. But going from past experience, this photo* of the chocolate assortment is pretty accurate. In fact, the whole dessert menu is heaven for chocolate lovers, full of ice creams and brownies and chocolate sauces. As someone who’s not into chocolate puddings, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the return of the glorious lemon dessert assortment of days gone by.
After rebuttoning our jeans – we take this eating seriously – we almost had to roll down the hill, but I can’t help but feel like I have unfinished business with that pudding menu. I shall most certainly be back.
The service: Attentive but not pushy. On a Saturday lunchtime, the place was busy, at least until around half two, when I limped over the finish line, but we never felt forgotten.
Location & atmosphere: Tucked into a side street, the Monk might be easy to miss if you didn’t know about it. The same can be said for a lot of Norwich’s best eateries, as chains dominate the malls and high street. Luckily, with so much to see in Norwich, it’s all about the curving back streets and hidden shops.
In terms of atmosphere, on this and previous visits I didn’t really notice it, which in my book is praise indeed. The bar and dining rooms are both small, but spaced out enough that you don’t spend your whole meal listening to the next table’s family dramas.
The dollar: Two courses for two people, including starters toward the higher end of the range and enormous pots of mussels, and a few drinks each came in at about £80, which is maybe a little punchy for a lunchtime. Honestly, I love a cheap and cheerful lunch at a chain as much as the next closet cheapskate, but I didn’t begrudge that money one bit – big portions and high-quality food and drink kept me more than happy.
But it is easy enough to do the Monk more cheaply, especially as those excellent beers are about a fiver a pop, and they have a cheaper “dubbel deal” during the week.
You’ll love it if… You’re looking for something that’s a bit of a treat without being pretentious. Or, you know, just have working tastebuds. Basically: go, it’s brilliant, and it’s never not been brilliant.
- Going to give it a go? If you’re looking at going at the weekend, I’d advise booking – it’s popular for a reason!
The Belgian Monk
Norfolk NR2 1DS
Tel: 01603 767222
I wrote about Norwich’s chocolate heritage too! check it out HERE.
*Photo courtesy of Jasmine. Photos of TBM sign/exterior courtesy of Ard van der Leeuw/Flickr under Creative Commons. All other photos taken on my phone which explains the dodgy focus and lack of them…