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Norwich: Mackintosh's Canteen

PUBLISHED: 08:00 17 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:02 22 October 2010

The man behind Mackintosh's is none other than Henry Watt, he of Wildebeest Arms and Mad Moose fame. Ingredients are carefully-chosen, often local, cooked skilfully.

If a modern-day Rip van Winkle were to wake up and ask how food had changed during his slumbers, you would need to start with canteens and macaroni cheese. Once a canteen was somewhere you ate not out of choice but because it was all there was, perhaps lumpy gravy in the school canteen with chips floating in the water jugs; or mushy vegetables in the work canteen amid a haze of cigarette smoke. But never somewhere you went out for dinner.

Even now the Canteen.com website is a reminder of the dark side of the canteen. It offers “innovative dining solutions”, better known as food that you put in a vending machine. This terrifying US company has trademarked the phrase “Fresh to You” and describes its healthy eating range, in glorious nonsense, as “a completely 'better for you' destination”.

Whether Jamie Oliver rehabilitated the canteen along with school dinners is not quite clear. But that the resurrection was real was confirmed late last year with the opening of Canteen, an open-all-day communal-seating restaurant in London's Spitalfields that has had rave reviews.

One of the dishes on Canteen's menu is macaroni cheese, a dish that had become synonymous with stodge and was so deeply unfashionable that even the people who make ready meals had begun to turn up their noses at it. Now it is regarded as a British classic, an illustration that simple food well done is as good as a million Michelin-starred meals.

Last month Mackintosh's Canteen opened in Norwich - the name is a homage to the site's history as a chocolate factory - with many of the same aims as Canteen in the capital. There are all-day breakfasts, light dishes, bigger dishes, sharing plates and puddings. And macaroni cheese, of course, which was substantial but not stodgy, blanketed in a thick layer of Montgomery cheddar, and lifted to another level altogether with a mound of tomato sauce, sweet and rich and with little translucent jewels of chopped onion.

For the most part, this is not a menu that tantalises. Chicken Kiev and Scotch egg are dishes too massacred by bad pubs and motorway service stations to seduce the reader, even if the Scotch egg is made from free-range pork and served with spicy red pepper puree. Ham, egg and chips sings on the plate rather than the page, with its chunky, handmade chips and well-cured Suffolk ham.

The menu does score well for telling you the provenance of things (meat and fish especially) but the words “light” and “simple” appear too often and the spelling is downright eccentric, though I liked the idea that the dessert Eton Mess, from the famous public school, might actually have come from Eaton near Norwich. It would be nice to know how much the daily tart, pasta, fish and grill cost too - the jeans-clad waitresses reel off details of each, but there is no mention of price.

By and large you need to not worry about the menu and have faith. The man behind Mackintosh's is none other than Henry Watt, he of Wildebeest Arms and Mad Moose fame. Ingredients are carefully-chosen, often local, cooked skilfully. The salads section of the menu is especially worth checking out - it is a broad church, encompassing chicken livers with bacon and watercress, and a white bean puree with gloriously charred artichokes and red pepper which is about the most exciting salad I have ever eaten, if a little overpriced.

Upstairs looks slightly smarter and is more popular by far, with attractive views through the enormous windows, and at the other end, a good view of what is going on with the kitchen. There were lots of women dressed in white; one was having a birthday celebration and received from her friend a book called “Cooking for Dinner Parties” which as presents go, sounds like a bit of a double-edged sword.

The wine list spans the world and has a fair selection at a starting price of £13.50, though you can easily spend more (apparently their house champagne is the same as Harvey Nick's).

Sadly, some top-class food was spoilt by what should have been a lovely bottle of real ale from Acle, which was that temperamental beast, a bottle-conditioned ale. It came too shaken to be drinkable and with a glass that it was too small for a pint bottle. Apparently they don't have any pint glasses at Mackintosh's, which is something they will need to change if they are going to sell proper beer. It was a small thing that nonetheless cast a shadow over the evening and need not have done. Mackintosh's has every reason to succeed and no doubt will. And if they grow complacent, they should remember that once the only place that fancied itself as a canteen was Bar Ha Ha.

t Mackintosh's Canteen, Chapelfield Plain, Norwich; 01603 305280

t Where is it? On the edge of Chapelfield shopping centre, next to Tootsies and near the church.

t Disabled access? To the ground floor, yes.

t Can I smoke? No.

t What about children? There is a children's menu, baby changing facilities and high chairs.


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