It’s 6pm on the first day of our summer holiday. We’re meant to be in France. We’re not. Due to an administrative cock-up by yours truly, instead we’re in Norfolk. The silver lining is that while we’re not at a French brasserie swigging wine and eating moules marinieres and steak-frites, we’re at The Ingham Swan, dining on what turns out to be one of the highlights of the holiday.
Tucked inland near-ish to Cromer in Norfolk, you’d probably miss The Ingham Swan unless you were looking for it. I only knew about it because we stayed nearby at Christmas but they don’t allow dogs inside and it was a bit chilly to dine al fresco at that time. Never one to be defeated, when we found ourselves nearby again on the first night of the ‘UK leg’ of our now twin-centre holiday, I decided it was the perfect time to finally get there.
The Ingham Swan may sound like a country pub, but as you might have guessed it’s something far more than that. It calls itself a restaurant with rooms and while some places could be accused of having ideas above their station for adopting such a lofty title, I think here it’s a pretty justified description. So do Michelin, who have included it in their guide, and the AA who have awarded it three rosettes.
Chef proprieter Daniel Smith is Norfolk born, and started his journey in the world of food with a Saturday job at Great Yarmouth’s Pleasure Beach turning candy-floss and selling ice-cream. His journey since then has seen him work with Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche before moving back to Norfolk to work with Galton Blackiston at Morston Hall where he achieved his first Michelin Star as Head Chef at the age of 23. Add to that the titles of Norfolk Chef of the Year 2014 and Craft Guild of Chefs Restaurant Chef of the Year 2017, plus an appearance on the BBC’s Great British Menu in 2016 and I’m not sure I need to justify any further why we were fairly confident we were in good hands.
Our booking is on a Tuesday night, having phoned for a last-minute table to cheer ourselves up over ‘holiday-gate’. While they don’t allow dogs inside, you’re welcome to eat in their lovely courtyard with your four-legged friend which worked to our advantage since inside seemed almost fully booked. On a Tuesday. Never a bad sign.
There are a range of menus you can choose from, from an £85 a head tasting menu with £40 wine flight, through a la carte options, to a good value Menu du Jour offering two courses for £24 or three for £30. We go for a la carte, promising ourselves to return for ‘A Taste of the Ingham Swan’ for a special occasion.
Not that the a la carte option feels any less ‘special’, as we tuck into a trio of oysters with all the trimmings from the ‘to graze’ section of the menu – noticing that it’s somewhat of an upgrade from the usual offerings you might get to kick off a meal.
Just as a reminder that this is very much the next level up from a gastropub, and a far cry from a country boozer, we’re treated to a pre-starter of roasted red pepper and tomato veloute adorned with soy-roasted pumpkin seeds. Hidden in the already punchy liquid is a salsa verde that brings piquancy to the sweetness. As I hunt for words, Jamie describes it as, ‘a bit like Heinz tomato soup but on crack’. Perhaps not the words I’d choose, but not far wrong.
It’s served with their house bread and a homemade hummus whose savoury hit is the perfect playmate for the sweet veloute. One of those introductions that fills you with excitement for what’s to come.
The starters are a lesson in how to take simple, dare we say ‘standard’ ingredients and elevate them into something far beyond. My classic combination of pork belly and scallops may be a common pairing, but that’s the only common thing about it. The split pea salad they come with emphasises the sweetness of the tubby scallops.
The sea salt crackling has the satisfying crunch we all yearn for, but comes alongside a decent amount of moist porky meat. Yes, porky. Because how often have you been served pork belly that somehow just tastes of fat and nothing else? There’s no predictable pea puree. Instead a herb oil flirts with a red wine jus, cutting through the sweet fattiness already on the plate.
Jamie’s mushroom starter may be the first time I’ve ever seen him order a dish devoid of meat or fish. Probably because instead it’s draped in a snowdrift of shaved parmesan and shaved truffle. Not just that, but the mound of sauteed shiitake mushrooms hide a confit egg yolk inside them in the same way the veloute concealed the salsa verde.
It may not be meaty, but it’s everything Jamie dreams of in a dish. Indulgence, richness, a savoury thwack of umami and the comfort that comes with well planned, well executed food that doesn’t feel the need to be fussy.
That said, his happiness with a meat-free starter may also be something to do with the main course of beef fillet that he’s ordered. The beef is, quite frankly, heavenly. And this is from people who usually steer clear of fillet and opt for the fattier cuts.
Maybe it’s the quality, maybe it’s the cooking. Or maybe it’s the pile of spinach, salt-baked celeriac and pancetta that it’s sitting on, swimming in another generous helping of jus alongside even more mushrooms in case he hadn’t had enough in his starter. There’s a slab of dauphinoise potato too, served separately. Perhaps that’s to allow it to shine, or perhaps to make sure your plate doesn’t look too unwieldy. These are generous portions and neither of us are complaining.
I’ve gone for roast halibut. It seems right given our proximity to the seaside. It’s one of the prettiest fish dishes I’ve had in a while, tangled up with courgette and samphire with its lovely taste of the sea. It’s swimming (not literally) in a pool of brown shrimp and caper buerre blanc that’s a party of salt, sweet and savoury, punctuated by the zing of capers.
Like Jamie’s Dauphinose, my accompanying brown crab and asparagus risotto comes separately. It’s intense, and there’s a lot of it, but that’s what people sometimes say about me and I don’t think it’s such a bad thing.
It’s a feast. A good feast. And probably – dare we say – more memorable than the moules and steak-frites we had planned to be dining on. The desserts are tempting, especially the one that featured on Great British Menu. But our heads are turned, Love Island style, by the extensive selection of cheeses. You can choose three, five or seven, served alongside The Ingham Swan’s house chutney as well as truffled honey.
We finally choose, thanks to helpful input from the wonderful Gavin who isn’t just polite and helpful but incredibly knowledgeable, and wash down our closing course with a rather lovely glass of port.
By the time the bill comes, we’re already looking at dates to come back for a run at the Taster Menu, maybe leaving the dogs at home so we can take advantage of their ‘stay and dine’ option. It’s pretty much everything we want in a good meal. Good cooking, using good – mainly local – ingredients, and served by a team who both know and care about what they’re doing.
The Ingham Swan is another of those places that carefully bridges the gap between fine dining and more comforting food. The portions are generous, the combinations often classic, but with additions that show Smith’s calibre and desire to stand out from the crowd.
Is it cheap? No. Is it memorable? Yes. And don’t tell Jamie, but I’m kind of glad we didn’t make it to France that day if this was the consolation prize.
[Disclosure: We paid in full at The Ingham Swan. They didn’t know I was a blogger]