Have you eaten fish and chips at Galton Blackiston's Cromer restaurant No 1 yet?
PUBLISHED: 13:12 08 November 2017
Charlotte Smith-Jarvis talks all things Cromer and fish with Michelin-starred chef Galton Blackiston.
I don’t think Galton Blackiston, of Michelin-starred Morston Hall in north Norfolk, realises how much his star has risen over the past few years.
As we sit in a bay window at his restaurant Upstairs at No1 in Cromer, watching the freezing sea biting at the pier, the chef seems bemused by the fact they get through around 15 tonnes of Norfolk potatoes in a week, serving a whopping 3.000 customers on one record-breaking day.
“You’re the Rick Stein of Cromer,” I laugh as Galton blushes.
But even as I prod his ego, humble Galton is telling me the seaside town, which can be perceived as a ‘kiss-me-quick’ neighbour of trendier spots such as Wells and Holt, has so much to offer in its own right.
“Cromer is an extraordinary town,” he explains. “The beauty of it is it’s affordable for everyone and it’s got some real history. Yes we have the tat and the slot machines, even I go and use them from time to time and I love it, but you also have some lovely Victorian houses, and fishermen’s cottages and that pier, the vibrant, thriving pier, is brilliant. I could just sit here and gaze out all day.”
No1 lures visitors to its downstairs fish and chip restaurant and takeaway, while upstairs, formerly a dilapidated pub, is a quirky fish eatery with, it has to be said, some of the most spectacular views you’re likely to find in this part of East Anglia.
It’s incredible to think the place pretty well came about after a throwaway remark at the footie.
“It all came about watching Norwich playing (pretty poorly) at football,” Galton smiles. “The whole family are massive keen Norwich supporters and someone sitting next to me said ‘would you ever consider another Morston?’. I literally said off the cuff that my standard answer is ‘never say never’, but at this stage in my life the only thing that interests me is fish and chips.
“Within two weeks somebody said ‘well come and have a look at this place’. My wife saw the potential of the place. It was big enough to do something with, which was important for me, so it was a bit of a no-brainer.”
But, admits the chef, he’d never done fish and chips in volume before, and it was quite a learning curve. “I’ve learnt so much. I can tell you the Maris Piper is the best variety of potato for chips, and the various times of year when potatoes have more sugar content or water content. There are so many different things one learns. I’ll never forget the day we opened. It was the middle of June and we had this fanciful idea of using fish caught fresh locally, bringing it in, battering it, serving it. We opened with about 200 portions. That went within an hour and a half so we had to dramatically close for the day!
“I did seek advice from Rick Stein at Padstow. There was a documentary, Trawlermen, a few years ago and it showed these guys going out in hell and high water to catch quotas of cod, plaice, haddock. They get ‘em, gut ‘em, fillet ‘em and freeze ‘em there. That’s what we do. The fish comes frozen at sea but it is fresh. It’s the only way you can do it actually.”
So what is it, about from the Blackiston name, that gets holidaymakers and daytrippers drooling over No1’s fishy dishes?
Well, aside from the traditional fish and chips (including skate wing, lobster and crab in season) downstairs, on the upper deck of the restaurant, head chef Jimmy distils recipes from Morston, inspired by both his and Galton’s kitchen experiences and travels, into a menu of tapas-style bites and bigger plates that tickle every tastebud.
Galton says you have to try the mushy pea fritters, served with mint jelly in homage to his wife, Coventry lass Tracy.
“I like the fish tacos and the squid bun too. What I like about the menu is Jimmy surprises you with so many different things.”
I can see what he means as I take a break from the view and glance downwards at the list, which reveals popcorn cockles, and ‘explosive chicken’.
The main menu, of course, showcases the restaurant’s classic fish and chips, but also opens out to include a soothing smoked haddock chowder, crab burger, and even an ox cheek Massaman curry.
Pushing him for a recommendation, Galton tells me diners should try the fish stew, hailing from his new book Hook Line Sinker. “It’s got in it whatever fish is beautifully fresh. Probably monkfish, plaice, a little smoked haddock, prawns. Usually four or five fish in a lightly curried stew served with plenty of crusty bread.
“The idea came from a mate of mine, Atul Kochhar. Many years ago I did the Great British Menu with him and he gave me his curry recipe, which is not like you chuck a bit of curry powder in. It’s a curry paste and that’s the basis for lots of things. The stew is very light on that and is very reliant on fresh fish and fish that, to a certain degree, will hold, which is why monkfish is great. It just has to be beautifully fresh.”
It’s enough to make me salivate, so before I try and find the kitchen and beg the team to feed me, I ask Galton where else he recommends to eat in the Cromer area. His top tips? The Rocket House, and Rocky Bottoms, which featured this year on Nadiya Hussein’s BBC food show Nadiya’s British Food Adventure.
It definitely seems there’s more to the Cromer dining scene than meets the eye.
What Charlotte tried
Galton kindly fed me, and I was very impressed.
Popcorn cockles: If you’ve never had cockles don’t be scared, just close your eyes, pop one in your mouth and munch on the delicately mussel-flavoured morsels. These were crispy as you like, and came with spiced salt and chilli vinegar to shake over, reminding me of those Salt and Shake crisps of my youth.
Turkish prawn flatbread: A crisp-bottomed bread covered in pickles, fresh chunks of tomato and tiny shrimp.
Squid bun with tomato and chorizo jam and saffron aioli: I wanted to kiss someone after eating this bun, stuffed with delicately crusted squid, a sticky sweet smear of chilli jam and an aioli so ethereal and light it disappeared in my mouth like a cloud. Wowsers.
Cod and chips: Expertly made chips. Sweet flakes of fish. And that batter – tick, tick, tick!
Ox cheek Massaman curry: Gelatinous, fall-apart nuggets of ox cheek in a velvety sauce with more sides than you could shake a stick at. Loved the twirly whirly crunchy potato, the garlicky naan and exceptional pickles. I want the recipe for the piquant, mustard seed-flecked Benagli style pickle.