Norwich: Le Bistro

There is much about Le Bistro that is curious - not least the floral wallpaper, whose extravagant design is only matched by that of the curtains. The whole place has a Seventies feel, down to the half an avocado - with or without prawns - and banana split to be found on the menu.

There were six plump snails nestled in a dish, coated in garlic and gleaming with butter. With their black, furled bodies peeping out of the brown and white shells, if there was ever a test for a new carnivore this would be it.

We were in Le Bistro, me, the Real Ale Drinker and his sister. A vegetarian of 15 years' standing, she has now started eating fish. Now snails were not classified as fish last time I looked, but after spotting a dish of them in the window downstairs, snails were what her heart desired. She explained that she had never eaten them, and I paused to wonder whether snails were necessarily the best choice for someone whose diet had hitherto featured nothing more dramatic than beetroot.

The snails duly arrived, complete with a special tool for holding them, a tiny fork for pulling the flesh out, and one of those dishes designed to hold snails, which thrilled her. She ate every bit, pronounced them better than mussels - “I don't like all the bits you can see on mussels” and concluded “If I was to see snails on a menu somewhere else, my worry would be that they would not be as good as these ones”.

No-one else got a look-in, so I cannot report how they might compare to other snails, but they were deemed extremely satisfactory, not least because of the large quantities of garlic.


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My home-made vegetable soup seemed rather pedestrian in comparison, but for a mere £2.30 it would have been churlish to complain. The Real Ale Drinker was quite happy with his shoal of whitebait, their little eyes just poking out of the crispy batter. Bread and butter is extra - 28p extra per roll, to be precise, which seemed a curious but very reasonable figure.

There is much about Le Bistro that is curious - not least the floral wallpaper, whose extravagant design is only matched by that of the curtains. The whole place has a Seventies feel, down to the half an avocado - with or without prawns - and banana split to be found on the menu.

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Apparently Seventies food is back in fashion, desserts especially, but I suspect that long-established Le Bistro has been like this all along. The only reminder of the 21st century was the adverts on Radio Broadland playing rather too much in the foreground. The market place outside the window and its opportunities for people-watching seemed like all the entertainment we needed.

The new-found pescatarian was not quite as thrilled with her sole Normandy, sole fillets baked in a cheese and white wine sauce, as she had been with the snails, but she said she would happily eat it again. The Real Ale drinker tucked into a whole trout, which had been dusted in flour and grilled, which he pronounced excellent.

Most restaurants leave the head on, presumably for no other reason than to make it look bigger, but on this occasion it had been helpfully removed.

Then there was my mushroom stroganoff, in another blast from the past. There's only so much you can do with mushroom stroganoff, but this one was pleasant enough, and came with good basmati rice. All the meals came with salads and a generous amount of chips, whose strangely flabby texture divided the audience.

The Real Ale Drinker was kept happy with bottled Waggledance, a honey-flavoured brew from Youngs, while his sister and I drank a carafe of house red, at £5.80 for a half litre surely the best value in Norwich. Otherwise wine is a reasonable £2 a glass, or little bottles of Mateus Rose for £2.50 a go. We looked around in vain for the Blue Nun, though.

We had no room for desserts, but the special of hot apricots, rum, cream and ice-cream did sound appealing. There was also a hot cherry dish on similar lines, blackberry and apple pudding, and various combinations of fruit and cream.

The meal for three with drinks cost £40, which seemed like stunningly good value. On our Saturday evening visit we were inexplicably the only people in there, but I suspect this is a lunchtime kind of place.

Like Bramley's in Aylsham, another fine establishment, in the daytime it is probably overflowing with people of a certain age who know a good meal at a good price when they see it.

And if the snails can even convince a vegetarian, then it must be doing something remarkable.

t Le Bistro, 2 Exchange Street, Norwich; 01603 624452

t Do I need to book? Not when we visited, but you can call.

t Parking Usual city centre - you could try St Andrew's car park.

t Is there disabled access? No, it is up a flight of stairs and the toilets are up more stairs.

t What about vegetarians? There is usually one vegetarian main course plus some starters.

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