After a career closely associated with Norfolk's Morston Hall, Richard Bainbridge has gone it alone with his own restaurant in Norwich. Tom Vaughan reports
Richard Bainbridge has been working towards his own restaurant for a long time. "This has been in the pipeline ever since I walked into my very first kitchen aged 13," he says. "I don't want to be that chef who looks back aged 55 or 60 and has regrets."
Viewers of the Great British Menu, in which he competed for three years between 2010 and 2013, will be familiar with Bainbridge's modern, locally focused food, and much of what he learnt at Morston has made the trip across Norfolk. "What I learned at Morston was massive. It taught me how to be a manager and run a kitchen and to create my own style of food. And a lot of the relationships I built with suppliers have also come with me."
Whereas Morston Hall remains destination dining, Bainbridge wants Benedicts to have more of a bistro feel - albeit with his fine-dining twist, with Á la carte priced at a very reasonable £36 for three courses and a tasting menu at £50. "I want people to come and feel relaxed and informal - I wanted a bistro feel so felt like I had to have steak and chips on, for example. But it is my take on steak and chips."
Bainbridge and his two chefs strip down a rib of beef from nearby Blickling Hall Estate. "We use different muscles on the rib, strip it down and smoke it on a Big Green Egg with a few juniper berries thrown in so it gets this lovely smokey, berry flavour," he explains.
It is then served with diced potatoes - "blanched and frozen and deep fried so they are lovely and crispy" - girolles courtesy of a "strange guy who turned up on our doorstep last week wearing a mac" and a truffle mousse made from last year's truffles found in nearby Dereham. Not only is it a lovely, accessible plate of food, it is truly inspired by the locality.
"One thing I learnt from Galton and Tracy is to make the most of this beautiful county we live in," he says. With a small team front and back of house, customers can expect the same enthusiastic delivery from Bainbridge's two chefs, who will help serve the dishes: "No one is more passionate about the food than the chefs who have just cooked it," he explains.
Bainbridge's dish of guinea fowl, sliced truffle, pistachio pilaf rice, roasted carrots and roasted crackle onions with a lobster bisque that won him plaudits on the Great British Menu 2013 has made the transition from Morston, having become something of a signature dish, but Bainbridge is more excited to talk about a "beautiful, light summer starter" that has hit the menu recently.
King's Lynn brown shrimp - "the best in the world in my opinion" - are seasoned with some salt and lemon, then the kitchen strains some local buttermilk and makes an agar-set jelly out of the whey. Whole buttermilk is then put through a gun, and accompanied on the plate with some burnt onion powder - cooked in the oven for 12 hours then blended up to make a bitter, sweet salt flavour - and a lemon purée, made from lemons blanched in water then sugar syrup, then blitzed for a citrusy, sharp puree that goes underneath the dish.
King's Lynn brown shrimp
Asked about his favourite dessert on the menu, Bainbridge is especially effusive about a pick from his £20 set lunch menu: "It's an old-fashioned classic lemon tart. We cook it to order every lunch; it comes out the oven at 12.15pm, so we serve it when it's just set and warm. Simplest, cleanest dessert you can do. It's a good insight into who we are as a restaurant and who I am a chef, because I am quite classically trained but also have those modern touches."
From day one, Benedicts has pretty much hit the ground running. "The only night we're not fully booked this week is Wednesday. And Friday and Saturday lunches are booked up, too," says the chef, speaking in early July. "It's incredible how everyone is getting on board and enjoying what we're doing."
9 St Benedicts Street, Norwich, NR2 4PE 01603 926 080www.restaurantbenedicts.com
From the menu
Á la carte menu: two courses for £29, three courses for £36
Norfolk mussels, Morston samphire, spelt scraps, potato, chervil
Suckling pig, its own broth, broad beans, scorched baby gem, quark
Mains Four-hour slow roasted celeriac, fresh truffle, sorrel, coffee, lemon butter sauce
Sheringham-caught wild sea bass or grey mullet, new season turnip, yoghurt, lemon, Jersey Royals, passion fruit
Hay-baked panna cotta, Sharrington raspberries, elderflower, dill
Spiced roasted pineapple, compressed pineapple, lemongrass, ginger, almonds