In the footsteps of Depp, a near miss near Diss
Chameleon House, 3 Redenhall Rd, Harleston,
Norfolk IP20 9EN Three courses with wine and coffee, £35-£40
As passengers of that airline may agree, it says something about an airport experience when a journey with Ryanair qualifies as light relief. I tell this tale not merely to give this review its context, but to warn you about the danger of braving airport security, as I did at Stansted in July, in possession of three currencies.
Alarmed by the mixture of euros, pounds and dollars of which I emptied my pockets at the scanner, a security guy murmured something dark about money laundering, and ordered me to surrender passport and boarding card preparatory to an interview with “the BDO” (Behaviour Detection Officer). A bearded chap eventually pitched up, and a polite interrogation about my triple currency outrage ensued until he asked what I do for a living. “I see, sir, and what do you write about?” he inquired. “Oh, insanely officious airport security, restaurants, BDOs, that sort of thing.” The interview rapidly concluded with my release, to the undisguised disappointment of a travelling companion who had set his filial heart on seeing his father led away in cuffs.
Once aboard the Ryanair flight to Majorca, such was my joy at being a free man that I broke all known aviation etiquette, and in mad Jewish-uncle mode began mining the man in the next seat for familial data (in short order it was disclosed that he goes by the name of Peter Asken, his father is a retired urologist, one son is a fine cricketer, the other a talented swimmer, etc, etc).
Then he mentioned living in Norfolk, and in my unending quest for undiscovered treasure, I asked if he knew of a local restaurant worth reviewing. “Well,” he replied, “there’s always mine.”
So it was last week that I found myself at the Chameleon House in Harleston, a delightfully old-fashioned market town, with a couple of friends who live nearby in Diss (and had heard good reports about said restaurant).
This, as Mr Asken had told me during the safety drill we all study so intently in the certainty that a life jacket will do the trick if you happen to plough into the sea at 550mph, is one of those rare joints at which punters are greeted less as paying customers than as old and valued friends. “How was your holiday?” Asken greeted the party which arrived after us. Given that none of them had been detained by a BDO – or flown with Ryanair – it appeared to have gone fine.
The restaurant’s name, he also explained during the flight, refers to its capacity for change. He and his wife, Ginni, opened it as a Japanese place some 15 years ago, and then flirted with fusion cuisine. They refurbished it a year ago, settling on an all-day menu ranging from sandwiches to the heartily eclectic; and on a stolid, modern-farmhousey look, with stained floorboards, distressed wooden doors, a large brick fireplace framing a wood-burning stove, and jolly abstracts on the walls. The room has enough warmth to do without piped music, though multiple repetitions of his breakthrough 1987 solo single Englishman in New York did prompt us to ask ourselves the age-old question, “O Sting, where is thy death?”
After outstanding bread and olives, we kicked off with a trio of fine starters. A soup of white beans with gruyère and lentils was comforting and well-textured, if underseasoned, while king prawn tempura was immaculately deep fried in a light batter, and served with elegantly shredded vegetables and a delicious dip of plum, soy and sesame oil. My mussels were not the plumpest, but they were unimpeachably fresh and enlivened by a garlicky sauce of tomato and chorizo.
Sitting at a mini-refectory table, we gazed through the windows on to the high street in the frustrated hope of catching sight of Johnny Depp, who lives nearby, and who my friends reported is always happy to stop and chat with locals. Asken delicately refused to confirm or deny whether he dines here, but it seems exactly the kind of unpretentious restaurant which this least pompous and selfaggrandising of megastars would like.
Possibly in homage to Depp’s maritime persona as Jack Sparrow – or possibly not – one of us had the fish cakes. These tasted powerfully of salmon, rather than the usual potato, and came with a watercress-flavoured crème fraîche. “Light and lemony, lovely and crunchy,” was the verdict. A steak in garlic butter came well done as requested – a culinary crime often perpetrated by those who grew up during or shortly after the war, when poor meat was routinely incinerated, though this sirloin was far too good to warrant such blasphemy. I had a curious but pleasing casserole in which thick slices of juicy chicken breast sat atop a medley of beans, spicy sausage and kale.
Puddings were impressive, particularly a heart-shaped mulberry parfait with a gigantic tuille. We lingered happily over coffee and the dregs of a very decently priced South African pinotage for just long enough for me to miss my train. Not everything that brings the Michael O’Leary travelling experience back to mind will be a delight, it occurred as I bought an exorbitant new ticket. But with that Ryanair flight to Majorca, thanks to this charming restaurant I was still well ahead of the game.