Keith Miller reviews Norma, London: 'A squidgalicious cake was grandmotherly rather than cheffy' 

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Norma, London
On a rainy night, a new restaurant from Ben Tish seduces our critic Credit: Milo Brown

The name, it turns out, is meant to signal an affiliation not to the wife of ex-Tory PM John Major, but the island of Sicily. Pasta alla Norma is a celebrated dish made with rigatoni (usually), aubergine, tomato and ricotta.

Around the turn of last century, a Sicilian writer, Nino Martoglio, compared it with Norma, a celebrated opera written 70-odd years earlier by a Sicilian composer, Vincenzo Bellini. (Schopenhauer thought Norma was so good that it made you lose the will to live, this being a good thing as far as Schopenhauer was concerned.)

Bellini spent most of his short adult life outside Sicily, between Genoa, Milan, Bergamo, Venice (though he wasn’t the Bellini that Giuseppe Cipriani named his famous cocktail after – that was the Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini) and London.

But he was lavishly honoured at home – statues, a slightly mangy park, an opera house, a pizzeria, the works. Having his own pasta dish was a logical next move.

Pleasingly for our purposes, the soprano who sang the title role in the original production of Norma was called Giuditta Pasta. I’d like to think Nino Martoglio knew this.

The chef at Norma isn’t Sicilian: he’s one Ben Tish, whose name sounds like one of those little drum fills that herald the landing of a punchline in a Catskills comedy routine.

"The tagliolini with sardines was presented with a little less hearty simplicity, and a little more urbanity and flair" Credit: Kris Kirkham Photography

Tish’s shtick is contemporary European cuisine with a touch of Latin flair – he’s cooked at various outposts of the Salt Yard empire, including the sporadically excellent Opera Tavern, and at the underrated Blanchette.

We arrived at 8.30 on a Tuesday evening and were swiftly ratified at the maître d’s lectern – in fact, it’s a laptop on a sort of dresser – just inside the door opposite the raw bar, where a heap of cherrystone clams the size of cowbells slurped a Disney welcome, and an enormous monkfish slumped disconsolately. (Why the wide face? Kerching!)

Given the drizzly state of affairs outside, anywhere with a roof would have been inviting. But Norma, two longish, narrowish floors below a small hotel, somewhat crepuscular, with a sort of ombré effect on the walls and on-trend geometrical tiling underfoot, immediately struck us as a beguilingly grown-up space.

A round of cocktails, each winsomely accessorised by an olive dangling over the edge like Dick Whittington’s hankie, confirmed our positive impressions as, with one caveat,  did the food.

Some claim it’s only by the merest accident of Italy’s chaotic history that the nation’s literary canon came to be built on the Tuscan dialect of Dante and Petrarch rather than the more flowery language associated with the Sicilian court of Frederick II. This column could not possibly comment on something so recondite.

But it’s undeniably true that Sicily’s many different residents down the centuries – Albanians, Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Lombards, Phoenicians, you name it – have bequeathed to the island a more eclectic and exotic cuisine than you’ll find elsewhere in Italy.

Alongside quintessential Mediterranean flavours of fennel and citrus, there’s a perfumed sweetness, a fondness for pistachio (the best pistachios come from Bronte, where Nelson was made a duke in 1799), a tangible North African influence.

"A Sicilian classic; strozzapreti (“priest-stranglers” – shortish and Twizzler-like) with pork and anchovy in a mellow, orange-scented ragù" Credit: Kris Kirkham Photography

A simpler way to put it might be that it’s the sort of Italian food Yotam Ottolenghi might make – and that’s how a less charitable soul might characterise dinner at Norma. But on the whole, we felt the talented Mr Tish had taken traditional regional archetypes and ramped them up a notch, beefing up the flavours and sharpening the presentation, rather than just chucking pomegranate seeds over everything.

Crispy snacks were frivolous and fun: flaky panelle (chickpea pancakes) and little fritters made from wiggles of spaghettini, served with a gooey parmesan sauce. Violet artichokes with a pine nut purée were crisp but still meaty at the heart; veal with eel was an alliterative take on vitello tonnato.

Our only out-and-out misfire, a crudo of monkfish, was exquisite to look at, studded with peas, sprinkled with an Ottolenghish spice mix and jewelled with flowers, but savagely over-salted. (No wonder the beastie in the raw bar had looked so glum.)

The mains promised greatness but were quite expensive, and we were a Table for Three this time, so we contented ourselves with three pasta dishes: tagliolini with sardines, a Sicilian classic; strozzapreti (“priest-stranglers” – shortish and Twizzler-like) with pork and anchovy in a mellow, orange-scented ragù; and ravioli with sheep’s cheese and pistachio pesto. (They do pasta alla Norma, too.)

All were priced at about the same level as Pastaio or a couple of quid north of Padella, but presented with a little less hearty simplicity, and a little more urbanity and flair, than you’d find at such places.

A squidgalicious cake (grandmotherly rather than cheffy) made with plums and rosewater, a bliss-inducing panna cotta with sour cherries, a chunk of peppery pecorino with fennel crackers and sweetish pickled tomatoes – and that was that. We girded up our umbrellas and gathered our thoughts.

We’d loved the design – the mysterious pools of light, the nooks and crannies, the plush play of textures – and, apart from Maudlin Mickey the Melancholy Monkfish, we’d loved the food, too: anchored in a sense of place but not overly weighed down by authentocratic pieties – free to play around, to delight, to seduce.