It’s a special kind of place that has you smiling to yourself about the experience you’ve just had for quite some time afterwards. Socius is this. It may be the food. Perhaps it’s the music (up-to-date – no muzak here). Or the clear passion and enthusiasm that oozes from owners Dan and Natalie but also each of their members of staff as you watch them in the open kitchen. Or maybe it’s the whole lot. Whatever it is, it’s the best dining experience we’ve had in a while.
The name has meaning – explained on their website. As the Latin for ‘sharing’ or ‘partaking’, it’s the basis for the concept which is that of small plates – tapas in a loose sense of the word. The small plates thing is done quite a lot these days, but not necessarily always well. Socius is not one of those.
Like many places in Norfolk, Socius is dog-friendly, though only at lunchtimes. That’s fine by me, given that a long, lazy lunch allows you to digest your daytime feast. We may or may not have both had a slight wobble as we arrived in walking gear, Rottweiler in hand, in stark contrast to most of our fellow diners in their finery. But it’s testament to great front of house service that within seconds we were relaxed and ready to go.
At first glance, it’s a simple space. One open dining area complete with upstairs mezzanine floor. But spend a bit of time there and you’ll notice that plenty of thought has gone into it. Not just the open kitchen that allows you to watch each dish carefully assembled at the pass. But the fact that every table is angled towards it.
You don’t sit opposite your dining companion, but next to them so you can split your attention between them and the main event – the creativity that’s going on in the kitchen. No gimmicky theatre stuff, but the joyful spectacle of top-notch food being cooked and assembled.
I start with a Copper House Pear & Elderflower Fizz while Mr M opts for a trusty Peroni as we try to decide how many of the courses we can order without being too ridiculous. The menu offers a few ‘drinking snacks’ then a list of ‘plates’ priced between £6.50 and £10, with a few slightly larger dishes between £15 and £20.
Much like the free and easy space, the menu allows you plenty of freedom – order whichever dishes you want, in any combination, any order, to share or to selfishly keep to yourself. This is food prepared for the pleasure of the diner, not the ego of the chef.
We started with a drinking snack of crispy pickled mushrooms. Bites of savoury, meaty mushroom coated in a crisp crumb. Combined with the soy aioli, they should be too much of an umami overload yet somehow are just right.
Burrata with roasted squash two ways – chunks and a sweet, silky puree – is dressed with a basil puree and topped with crispy leeks. A simple but well-thought-out combination of flavours and textures guaranteed to produce a dish that keeps you coming back for more.
Sticky pork cheek, unsurprisingly (you have witnessed my love of slow-cooked pork previously on this blog), was fabulous. Dubbed ‘food of the gods’ by Jamie, the hunk of meat yielded at the lightest touch and smothered in a sticky, rich sauce that mixed sweet, salt and piquancy with the same balance as a finely-honed gymnastic troupe.
The next course was the unexpected winner of the day. A substantial piece of hake, adorned with a crust of toasted coconut. Delicious on its own, but out of this world thanks to the addition of the ‘coconut curry’ – a fragrant Asian-inspired sauce laced with hefty slices of King Oyster mushrooms.
I don’t make many sauces – I can’t even cook a roast chicken for Christ’s sake – but this amateur could tell that this sauce was technically perfect. Added to which, it was refreshing to see the sauce as a support act for the main event of the fish, rather than a soup drowning it into oblivion.
If the hake was an example of amazing cooking, our next course of mini lamb racks with roasted carrots and salsa verde showed that sometimes great cooking is about letting the ingredients sing with limited interference.
The lamb was a delight. No surprises there. But it was the carrot that did for me, its herby crust emphasising the sweetness of the carrot and providing a welcome contrast that meant its bright hue really shone when cut into.
The advantage of eating ‘tapas-style’, tackling courses as and when they come, without a whole table full of food to intimidate you, is that there’s always room for pudding (who am I kidding, there’s ALWAYS room for pudding).
We decided to share a ‘Socius chocolate bar’, teamed with an obligatory espresso martini. The chocolate bar was everything I think a dessert should be – naughty indulgence that makes you covet it and refuse to share. Bitter chocolate, sickly sweet caramel punctuated with peanuts and topped with a spongey stick of nougat.
The martini, again unsurprisingly, was great. And so endeth our best meal of 2019. I’ve said a few times that recently I find myself swayed towards excellent restaurants that have a slightly more casual feel. They may not have stepped into Michelin star territory but they are the living proof that it really isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.
These restaurants are the ones that serve up food that is not just cooked with skill and technical brilliance, but packed with heart and soul. They know when to push the boat out when it comes to experimenting with flavours and when to leave them be and let them sing. They do it in an environment that welcomes us amateurs and our big dogs with open arms to enjoy great food in relaxing, welcoming setting.
Socius is this. And long may it last.
We paid in full at Socius.