Caribbean food is virtually non-existent in Norfolk. Fact.
Beyond the excellent but tiny Chez Denis in Norwich, there hasn’t been anywhere to get good jerk chicken in this fine city. Until now.
I recently attended the launch event at Turtle Bay on Swan Lane and it was a most impressive experience.
While I’m not normally a fan of chain restaurants, the quality of both the food and drink on offer has made me question my thinking and I’m keen to give it a try on a normal night, once it’s open to the public.
But let me start from the beginning…
The Chap and I were invited to attend the press launch night a little while ago, where we could sample the menu and get a feel for the place. How could we possibly say no?
The first thing that hit us was the decor. There’s not a hint of the curtain warehouse that previously occupied the unit.
Now it’s covered with strings of fairy lights, bright furnishings, expertly executed graffiti, neon signs, an open kitchen (or jerk pit), a spacious bar area and a camper van in the middle of the dining area. There’s also reggae music playing in the background, adding to the holiday atmosphere.
Although I haven’t been to Barbados, where the idea for the concept for the restaurant was first hit upon, I have been to the Caribbean and Turtle Bay has got the relaxed, beach bar vibe down to a tee.
A holiday in a glass (or two)
Unsurprisingly, the bar was pretty rammed when we arrived because rum punch was being expertly mixed for the hordes of reviewers, but it gave me a chance to examine what’s behind the bar (for research purposes only, you understand!).
If you like to mix it up, it’s definitely for you; there’s Red Stripe on tap, a huge variety of different rums, absinthe and a range of brightly coloured liqueurs, which could make for a interesting evening.
The Reggae Rum Punch itself was sweet and fruity, with strawberry and lime juices mixed with Wray & Nephew rum. Be warned: it may taste like sweets, but it’s deceptively alcoholic.
And while the punch was amazing, it wasn’t a patch on the Koko Colada. I normally avoid pina colada in the UK because it’s watery and too strong, but this was like the ones I had in Cuba. It was a holiday in a glass; combining creamy, rich coconut with just the right amount of sweet pineapple juice and Koko Kanu rum, I was in heaven.
But if rich and creamy cocktails aren’t for you then Bahama Mama is delicious too. Bringing together Koko Kanu rum, banana liqueur, grenadine and pineapple juice, it’s tropical, fruity and very refreshing.
Spice up your life
The food was similarly impressive (and very filling), so it’s best I move on to the main event.
It’s worth noting that we managed to have a quick chat with the training chef before things really got underway and he had some fascinating insights into life in the kitchen.
He explained that the meat is cooked over lava stones and flames to achieve the smoky barbecue flavours we associate with Caribbean cuisine – and we could certainly smell it in the air. He also revealed that the jerk chicken is cooked for at least 24 hours and coated with a sticky jerk glaze before cooking, which was enough to make me ravenous just thinking about it!
We were initially presented with a Beach Food Platter, which featured a selection of starters. There were spicy jerk chicken wings, sweetcorn fritters, pepper roti and garlic flatbreads to whet our appetites.
Because I’m reviewing a Caribbean restaurant I’ll start by describing the wings: the outer meat was sticky, sweet, smoky and very spicy but incredibly moreish; the meat inside fell off the bone. It was so moist and tender, that don’t think I’ve never had wings like them.
The pepper roti was a revelation to me because I’ve never had it before. It’s a type of bread stuffed with cheese, carrots, potatoes and onions and I would very much like to try them again. Again, they were spicy, but not unbearably so – building up to a most pleasant temperature, which was perfect with a cocktail.
The sweetcorn fritters were crisp and sweet on the outside, but light on the inside, which worked well to counter the spiciness of the other dishes, while the garlic flatbread was ideal for mopping up left-over sauce.
Our starters were swiftly followed by the Our Curry Goat One Pot and I will confess that I was apprehensive. I’ve never eaten goat before and imagined it to be tough and taste of lamb, so was not expecting to enjoy it. Boy was I wrong.
The meat was incredibly tender and tasted more like beef than lamb. It’s a rich, red meat and I would recommend anyone it to anyone who likes beef. It was stewed with a complex mix of spices, onions and potatoes, with a side of rice and peas and Caribbean dumplings (think savoury doughnuts).
I tried to find out what was in the spice mix, but the chef wasn’t giving away any of his intel. My guess was that it included ginger and cinnamon alongside coconut and a hint of chilli. Either way, it was delicious I’m looking forward to stew weather so I can justify eating such a warming meal again and again.
Just when we thought we couldn’t eat anymore, a 1/4 jerk chicken with slaw and fries appeared at the table. While you might think we passed it up, you would be wrong. We ate the whole thing. After the experience with the wings, how could I turn it down?
Again, the meat was moist and tender but charred and spicy on the outside – I wish I could make chicken like that at home. It reminded us both of the ropa vieja we tried in Cuba, where there’s a complex but perfect balance of spice and sweetness, and you can’t pick out one flavour over another.
And finally: pudding. Or, to be more accurate, a platter of puddings. Featuring Caymanas rum cake, dark chocolate brownie, zesty lime and lemon tart, banana and toffee cheesecake and rum and raisin bread and butter pudding, it nearly broke me.
The highlight for me was definitely the rum cake; served warm, it was light and delicate, but moist, with a rich, almost-caramel flavour. Only the spices gave away that it was rum cake. The lemon and lime tart, on the other hand, was sharp and tangy, cutting through the richness of the meal and cleansing the palate, while the bread and butter pudding was moist, dark and heavily spiced and the brownie was dense and speckled with chocolate chunks.
The only pudding that didn’t do anything for me was the banana and toffee cheesecake, but that’s only because I’m not a banoffee fan – The Chap thoroughly enjoyed it and polished off my portion as well!
By this point, I think it’s fair to say that we were fit to burst. The volume of chatter had ramped up a notch and I could see how an evening meal could easily turn into a night of drinks and dancing, as if we were on holiday.
The vibe is very relaxed and the waiting staff aren’t in any hurry to move you on. In fact, they’re open from 11.30 to 11.30 in the week and 1.30am at the weekend, so lunch could turn into a night on the tiles!
I will most definitely be returning to try Turtle Bay once it’s been open for a few weeks to check out how it fares against opening night. Watch this space!