Norma, Ben Tish’s love letter to Sicilian food in Fitzrovia, reopened on May 17. This restaurant hosted the last meal I ate in London before lockdown. It was in the company of a dear friend and former colleague, Sarah Hughes, who died this April from the cancer she had endured for so long. We shared so many meals over the years. This review, which couldn’t appear at the time, is in tribute to a great writer. A charitable trust set up in her name has reached its £30,000 target.
They don’t appear to serve a Bellini at Norma, the restaurant that shares the name of that opera composer’s most famous heroine. I’m sure they’d rustle you one up, though this Venetian Prosecco creation is at odds with a cocktail list kicking off with a Saracen.
There’s a whole North Africa meets Sicily vibe going on here in both decor and menu – in synch with the chef’s last cookbook, Moorish. That he’s no swarthy son of backstreet Palermo but a clean-cut Lincolnshire lad adds to a sense of cultural appropriation about this latest arrival in London’s old boho haunt, Fitzrovia.
Yet there are precedents for English chefs falling in love with food styles from Milan via Malaga to Marrakesh and making them their own. Witness Sam and Sam Clark at Moro or Jacob Kenedy at Bocca di Lupo. In Manchester Yorkshireman Simon Shaw has conquered Spain with El Gato Negro and skirmished into Portugal (Canto) with a Levantine foray, Habas on Brown Street his latest offering.
By chance Ben, above, was due shortly to appear at our own Northern Restaurant Bar trade show, postponed because of Covid (the influential event is scheduled to return to Manchester Central in March 2022).
At the NRB there would have been a chance to quiz Signor Tish on how he became besotted with the food of Sicily and the culinary tendrils that bind it to Africa’s Barbary Coast – notably through ingredients such as citrus and saffron, pine nuts and almonds, nutmeg and cinnamon. All were in evidence at that Norma dinner.
Pasta alla Norma we had to try. Sicilian in origin, its sharp topping combines tomatoes, aubergine and salted ricotta. The pasta used is negotiable; it’s chunky rigatoni at Norma, which gets its name from this dish, not the tragic opera with its cast of druids in Ancient Gaul.
In concept the restaurant is a slightly oddball side project of the Stafford Hotel in St James’s. They hired Ben, once of Salt’s Yard, to cook at their exquisite in-house Game Larder and are now indulging his real food passions.
These were obvious from the first dishes that issued from Norma’s downstairs raw bar, central to the dining experience in this three-storey Georgian townhouse (the top floor is for private dining).
We were already nibbling crisp yet fluffy focaccia (£2 apiece) and chickpea panelle (£4.50) – similar to Nice’s socca but with salsa verde – when the wild sea bream crudo (£10) arrived, freshest of fillets doused in a peppery olive oil, a hint of saline bottarga in there, scattered with pomegranate arils.
Creamy saltmarsh lamb crudo (£12) was equally enticing, served with lamb fat crostini and toasted pine nuts. It’s the kind of food I’d yearned for around Palermo’s frenetic Ballarò Market and been disappointed. Instead in the old country we had tackled both Pani ca’ Meusa, a sandwich of lard-fried spleen and ricotta, and grilled skewers of tough cow spleen, lung, and trachea that stink of mortality. Thankfully the Tish Sicily fixation doesn’t go that nitty gritty.
The reputation of the red prawns meant they were a must-order. At £16 for four a substantial investment but worth it, dense-fleshed divas, singing of rosemary and orange. They partner surprisingly well a duo of violet artichokes (£12), halved and seared into a deep caramelisation. Alongside a scoop of pine-nut puree for dipping.
A pretty dish, as is Norma’s take on the ubiquitous burrata (£13) that comes in a tangle of red chicory, blood orange croutons and coriander seeds, dressed with fruity vinegar and olive oil. Somewhere along the way we also hoovered up a bowl of frittered spaghettini under a snowstorm of parmesan with more of the cheese and olive oil as a dip. Norma is big on dips.
It seems madness in retrospect that my guest Sarah and I ignored the cannoli option but no regrets about the house sundae for £8.50 – a homely homage to the in-season blood orange, gelato and caramelised, with whipped orange blossom ricotta and biscotta.
It perhaps needed a Negroni to partner it, but we’d shared a bottle of Cerasuolo di Vittoria red (£42) from high profile Sicilian producer Planeta. It’s blend of Nero d’Avola and the fruitier Frappato. The name comes from the local dialect word for cherry but there’s exotic pomegranate flavours too that so match the food menu.
Voluptuous is the word for the fit-out, all marble and tiles, rich fabrics and intimate lighting, but avoiding the harem look. Downstairs at least. We explored no further, so engrossed were we in the parade of small plates. They do some obvious mains but this is the better way to explore Sicily. If ultimately the food felt more moreish than truly Moorish who cares? I wish we had its like in Manchester.
Norma, 8 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2LS, 020 3995 6224. The prices are as of March 2020.