L’Hexagone, Norwich: “Simple things done very well” – restaurant review | Food

The Hexagon, 22 Lower Goat Lane, Norwich NR2 1EL (01603 926 886). Starters and small plates £7-£12, mains £14-£24, desserts £7, wines from £21

At the beginning of my happy adventures as a concert musician, putting my bag of borrowed tunes and my boundless, puppy-dog enthusiasm in front of a very kind audience, I had an epiphany. Whatever my ambitions, I didn’t have to completely master the piano before playing for people. The jazz world can be dotted with powerful saxophonists who show up to gigs bellowing “any tune, any key, any tempo.” For me, they are divine figures. But I didn’t have to be, in fact I could never be like them. Instead, I just had to be able to play the tunes I was performing at the time. At the time, audiences didn’t need to know that there wasn’t much else beyond the 10-song set they had just heard. I would always be, and indeed will remain, the finest jazz pianist of any British food critic.

There’s a lot to be said for being good at narrow bandwidth; to do a few things very well, rather than trying to prove your exhausting trapeze virtuosity. I thought of that while studying the brown paper menu at L’Hexagone in Norwich. It’s the little French restaurant that really can. It’s the kind of place where we could all do more, when money is tight and we have to take our pleasures with care.

“Thick coating of tapenade doped with garlic”: toast of tomatoes. Photography: The Observer

The decor of the small space, on a narrow cobblestone lane, is what I have just defined to me as refined Goth: the walls are painted black. Downstairs is a bar with seating for at least, ooh, six. Upstairs past the spray painted words”liberty, equality, fraternity”, is a dining room that can accommodate another 20 people. In keeping with the very small size of it all, this lunch menu is barely 50 French words long. Yet these are great French words: a summary of peasant cuisine from the south of France down to the essentials. The cook is the Frenchman Thomas Aubrit, son of a cook, nephew of a butcher. His English wife, Gemma, whom he met at the restaurant where he worked in France, runs the room.

Come early and they will make you very good coffee, pastries and a croque monsieur or madame. Come for lunch and it’s soup, salads and a whole lot of happy stuff involving beef. It’s really the sum of it all: to extend that jazz-food analogy until he submits a resignation letter, it’s a tight nightclub set that hits all the right notes, and most certainly in the right order. The £12 Salad Niçoise is a pleasantly dense, chopped affair, with a lovely arrangement of anchovies and tomatoes, topped with half a boiled egg, its yolk in perfect jammy condition. A tomato tartine is a piece of crispy grilled sourdough coated with a thick layer of garlic tapenade and layered with slices of beef tomato, tightly zigzag with stripes of thick tangy pesto, the French answer to pesto only with a bit of Gallic bluster. Eat the toast with your hands and you’ll feel your lunch on your fingertips for hours, in a joyous way.

“A well-dressed affair”: steak tartare.
“A well-dressed affair”: steak tartare. Photograph: Chris Ridley/The Observer

There is of course a steak and fries or a bavette with shallot sauce. Cheaper, gnarlier cuts get the only treatment they get: simmered until they break down into thready chunks, in a tomato stew with black olives, new potatoes, and the high insistence of fennel seeds. The dish of the day is steak tartare, a well-dressed affair, with a golden egg yolk in its center and a big pile of hand-cut fries, still topped with oily, wrinkled skin. It’s a generous pile for £24.

We could now play “guess the desserts”, but the game won’t last very long, will it? You know it will include chocolate mousse; a moist, slightly grainy milk chocolate version topped with chocolate shavings, all melting on the tongue. Yes, there’s a buttery-yellow crème brûlée, the burnt-sweet surface just begging for the crunch of the teaspoon. Have the vanilla panna cotta with the fruit puree if you like, but mine is always that creme brulee, eaten until I ran the edge of my spoon all the way around the earthenware bowl to remove all the crispy, sweet bits.

“A pleasantly dense and chopped affair”: niçoise salad.
“A pleasantly dense and chopped affair”: niçoise salad. Photography: The Observer

In the evening, a 14-course tasting menu is offered, each course evoking the deep landscape of Provence. Do not be dumb. Of course there isn’t. It would be exhausting. It’s exactly the same tight and mouth-watering proposition, perhaps with the addition of a fish dish. It’s just a bunch of simple things very well done and with a real seductive charm. To accompany it, drink something sweet and familiar from the short wine list that you haven’t heard of anywhere else but in France. Almost everything is available by the glass; almost everything is under £40. Don’t come to L’Hexagone expecting a drama that will change your life. Come here expecting to be fed. Incidentally, the name is a French nickname for the shape of their country. I didn’t know it and now I know it. Every day is a school day.

While I’m wandering around Norwich, I have to mention chef Jimmy Preston’s XO Kitchen, which in its own way also fits into a narrow setting, in this case cheeky pie-eating through Asian flavors. They knew I was coming, indeed allowed me to order ahead because otherwise I would have been too late for the last orders. Therefore, this can’t really be considered a review, but I loved the slapping flavors so much that they have to be mentioned. Come for the char sui pork belly, both charred and wonky under a jaw-dropping rust-colored sauce, with a heap of pickled cucumber and a dollop of Norwich-appropriate Coleman mustard.

“Begging for the crack of a teaspoon”: creme brulee.
“Begging for the crack of a teaspoon”: creme brulee. Photograph: Chris Ridley/The Observer

Soothe the mustard burn with watermelon salad, in a large soup dressing filled with mint, peanuts and fresh chili. Order the beef massaman, a lush coconut curry, with a piece of chopped bone, the well filled with wanky, hot bone marrow. Particular praise goes to their BBQ hispi cabbage, with a black bean vinaigrette and crispy golden rubble that Preston calls the XO seasoning. So what exactly is Jimmy? “Well,” he said slowly. “You need a pig element for XO, so it’s crushed Frazzles. And then you need dried seafood, so that’s Scampi Fries. He looks away. “Monster Munch may also have been involved.” If you are appalled by this, what are you doing reading this column? It’s pure genius. The others go to Norwich. Lunch at L’Hexagone. Dinner at XO Kitchen. Or the opposite. I do not care. Anyway, job done.

News

Want to have lunch at your local supermarket? Then you are in luck. Boparan Restaurant Group, which owns a host of top brands such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Slim Chickens and Caffè Carluccio, has opened its first ‘Restaurant Hub’ at a branch of Sainsbury’s in Sydenham, south London. Another is likely to follow in Wolverhampton, as part of plans to open 30 restaurants in the coming year, each offering food from various brands, eat-in and take-out.

The Hawksmoor group of steakhouses, which will soon open an outpost in Liverpool alongside those in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and New York, have become one of the few restaurant businesses in the UK to be certified as company B Corp. The certification, by the non-profit network B Lab, means that they have been evaluated to bring benefits not only to their shareholders, but also to their employees, customers and the environment. They will be reassessed every three years. Visit thehawksmoor.com.

Staff shortages are endemic across the economy, but it seems the hospitality sector is really suffering more than most. According to analysis of Office of National Statistics data by Koozai, a digital marketing agency, well over a third of catering and accommodation businesses are struggling to recruit the qualified staff they need. The other most affected sectors are construction and transport.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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