Stoke Holy Cross: Wildebeest Arms

DAVID WAKEFIELD Few restaurateurs have made such an impact on the Norwich area as Henry Watt, whose “empire” includes The Mad Moose, in the golden Triangle, the recently-opened Mackintosh's Canteen, tacked on to the Chapelfield shopping mall, and his “jewel in the crown”, the Wildebeest Arms, at Stoke Holy Cross.

DAVID WAKEFIELD

Few restaurateurs have made such an impact on the Norwich area as Henry Watt, whose “empire” includes The Mad Moose, in the golden Triangle, the recently-opened Mackintosh's Canteen, tacked on to the Chapelfield shopping mall, and his “jewel in the crown”, the Wildebeest Arms, at Stoke Holy Cross.

Watt's way is imaginative and up-to-date cooking, with top ingredients, served in value for money style in surroundings that tempt one to look twice. And I would use another description: Unpretentious.

Take the Wildebeest, for example. My family and I love the place, perhaps because it is only a 10-minute drive from where we live, but mainly because of its predictable excellence. We have celebrated various family occasions there, with personnel ages ranging from six months to early 80s, have been warmly received, our various fussy eaters sympathetically treated, and we have never felt less than fully satisfied. And if you think my praise is a little over the top, then just try getting a table there at short notice, particularly on a Saturday night.


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For me there is no finer recommendation. It's also non-smoking, by the way - another big plus.

So, when my wife “hinted” that the Wildebeest would fill the bill admirably for her birthday outing, I suppose I over-reacted somewhat in booking a table for the end of January some time before Christmas! Well, better safe, and all that.

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So, comfortably installed at our table for two, we perused first, the wine list, and then the menu. Just a word about wines, and what is obviously Mr Watt's policy: The list itself is, to my mind, reasonably priced given the quality and the choice, as I'm not one who subscribes to the usual notion that restaurant customers are there for the fleecing via a 100pc mark-up on a fairly ordinary bottle of plonk. This is not a way to win customers and influence them.

There is a good selection of house wines, all priced at £12.95 (around a 60-70pc mark-up, I would guess); but move further up, and the loading seems noticeably less. Mind you, not being connoisseurs, we seldom go beyond the house list, and were well satisfied with our fruity Italian white. Water was also offered (but not tap water, and we didn't ask) but arrived in a generously-sized bottle for a reasonable £2.95.

But on to the main business of the evening. My wife made what was to be aninspired choice of starter with the mussels, served in generous quantity in a creamily delicious sauce (£6.95) while I was immediately drawn to the Crotton of goat's cheese, with a honey and hazelnut crown, and flanked by a tomato-based salad (£5.95). I love goat's cheese, no matter from which country it originates, and, although this was only really a taste, it was of good consistency and didn't seem to have come straight from a refrigerator.

The main course warranted a little more thought, and, although temporarily tempted by the lamb, I followed my wife's lead in choosing the fillet of sea bass (£15.95).

Style, so far as restaurants go, is as much about presentation as the cooking, and if you get both elements right, then you have a winner. This is where the Wildebeest scores highly, and the delicate taste of the fish was perfectly complemented by the thyme sauteed potatoes and baby leeks on which it rested, and by the Duxelle mushrooms, brown shrimps and lemon and caper beurre blanc which surrounded it like a gastronomic ocean. Quite sensational, and the kind of dish you want to go on for ever. Sadly, it was over all too soon.

After more deliberation, and finishing the last of our wine, we opted for a “two spoons” sharing operation with a pudding, and went for a delicious cardomon flavoured brulee (£5.95) served with a shot glass of piercingly fruity granita, - which was just about the perfect finish. Had I been slightly less full I might have veered towards the cheese board, which contained more of my favourites, the Pont L'Eveque, from Normandy, and the nutty tasting Cashell Blue, which originates from Ireland.

With a bill a shade under £70 we felt that the Wildebeest had, once again, delivered the goods. Oh, and I almost forgot the other thing that I like about the place - the fact that it doubles, without any difficulty, as a local pub. Drinkers and diners seem to mix quite happily, not surprisingly given the fine condition of the Adnams on hand-pump.

We hope to have cause for another celebration later in the year, so I had better think about booking.

………………………………….

FACT FILE

t Where is it? The Wildebeest is at Stoke Holy Cross, a 10 minute drive from Norwich, and just through the village of Caistor St Edmund.

t Opening times: Every day, for lunch and dinner, call 01508 492497.

t Should I book?: Most definitely, particularly if you want a Saturday night table.

t Suitable for children: There is no separate menu, but our grandson, then 18 months old, was accommodated without fuss when we visited en famille.

t What about disabled access? The restaurant is all on one level, so it's not a problem.

t Parking: The pub has a large car park (which was full when we went!). But you can also park on side roads nearby.

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