The golden autumn leaves leap lemming-like from trees, overzealous weatherman excitedly warn of snow, and you start thinking yes, you could fancy a mince pie, actually. And just like that, it’s cuffing season. That time of the year when single people settle down with someone who’s definitely not perfect, absolutely and obviously not The One, but will do for now. They’ll do, because you want to curl up on the sofa hoovering Lindt balls and watching Celebrity X Factor rather than battle horizontal sleet to meet that Hinge date in Clapham. They’ll do because you want to gain four kilos of pigs-in-blankets wearing a Slanket, rather than slink around parties in that dress which makes you nine months pregnant if you eat an olive, like a delicatessen version of the Annunciation. They’ll do: the cuffing partner ticks enough boxes, they’re a bit more than fine.
Norma is the culinary equivalent of cuffing. It’s not amazing or brilliant or fabulous or anything, but it’s good enough, and I like it more than enough to hunker down there this winter, insulating myself with arancini. Norma is the new Sicilian-Moroccan restaurant from Ben Tish, who used to be at the Salt Yard Group (those jolly tapas restaurants Dehesa and Ember Yard in Soho and Fitzrovia) before joining The Stafford Hotel in St James’s. This restaurant is a sort of off-shoot of the hotel, except in Fitzrovia. It’s a cosy little corridor of a room, all comfy copper-hued booths and soft lighting and glossy Moroccan tiles and friendly staff. Tick, tick, that’ll do.
Remember, ‘tis the season for overlooking flaws, so ignore the slightly bedraggled raw bar as you walk in, with its gloomy hake and bank holiday fishmonger vibe. And ignore the strange ‘Verde’ cocktail of pisco and bay liqueur, which tastes like Um Bongo and comes with a little pot of pear and limoncello jam on the side, which the waiter suggests adding to the drink (don’t).
Forget all that. You’re here to hunker down in a booth with a bottle of red and Nigella-naughty spaghettini fritters: fried patties of leftover pasta, frosted in Parmesan, with an extremely extra Parmesan dipping goo which shamelessly presses all your most basic buttons. You’re here for the bronze Christmas bauble of arancini, buried in a snowfall of more Parmesan, filled with sticky saffron rice and rich mushroom ragu. You’re here, if you like orange, for the pork strozzapreti, which has scurvy-preventing levels of citrus in it but kind of reminded me of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange? In a good way? Anyway, don’t think too hard: this is about the uncomplicated carnal pleasure of cheese and tomato on carbs, reliable and comforting as Graham Norton, who’s eating the namesake pasta alla Norma on the next table.
And like our Graham, Norma is maybe a little too cheesy, a little too formulaic and a little too expensive for what you get: £19 for a slice of aubergine parmigiana, deliciously smoky and covered in Parmesan and sat in another puddle of that parmesan sauce; £6 for a bowl of salty fried potatoes, covered in yep, more Parmesan, sitting in yep, more cheesy goo. But sometimes, a bit of cheesy Graham is what you need. This isn’t the time for flirting with the chilly vagaries elsewhere in the menu of rose veal, smoked eel mayonnaise and pickled carrots, or sea bream crudo with pomegranate and bottarga. It’s a time to snuggle up on the sofa in pink slipper socks, chomping Terry’s finest with your cuffed one.
Meal for two, approx. £120
More cheese? You’re insatiable. Squeeze into Bradleys’s Spanish Bar, the tiny mad dive bar behind Tottenham Court Road for an Estrella or six and a riffle through the jukebox.