Farmyard, Norwich: ‘For the most part, it works’ – restaurant review – The Guardian

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Farmyard, 23 St Benedicts Street, Norwich NR2 4PF (01603 733 188). Snacks £3.50, starters £7-£9, mains £13-£26, desserts £7, wines from £19.50

Farmyard in Norwich is the kind of restaurant that brings out the maternal in me. Reading the menu makes me feel like one of those parents standing in the wings during the auditions for Britain’s Got Talent, watching my kids, Ant and Dec’s hands lightly on my shoulders for moral support. I am desperate for the kitchen to succeed. I want to hug them all to my bosom and tell them everything will be OK. I’m also terrified they’ll drop the catch.

This is a grossly patronising thing to say to a crew of experienced chefs. But the menu is so ambitiously all over the place, is such a random, swooping collection of dishes, I can’t quite help myself. It’s not so much restless as on the run. Say hello to cooking which draws its inspiration from Mexico or Japan, north Africa or Spain, and a bunch of places in-between. It demands so many skills, so much understanding of how various techniques, spices and dishes sit within a culture, that misfires seem almost guaranteed.

Some of it is simply down to the language used. On the menu they describe what they do as “Bistronomy”, a venerable word first coined in Paris in the early 90s by skilled chefs tired of the puckered and stiff atmosphere in the city’s grandest garlanded gastro palaces. They wanted to continue being creative, adventurous cooks, but within the frame of a relaxed bistro, with the encouraging pricing that implies. This bright and comfortable space with its industrial ducted ceiling, strand board flooring, and partially open white tiled kitchen, certainly cannot be accused of pretension. For the proctologically challenged, be aware: there are padded banquettes.

‘The chips keep much of their bite’: ham, egg and chips.

The menu language is a little more trying. A wonton as served here is surely just a dumpling or folded piece of pasta by another misused name? A beetroot “wine gum” is simply a piece of partially dehydrated beetroot. You can decide to be profoundly irritated by this mangling of the lexicon, or you can judge the food on the plate. I’m going with the latter because, for the most part, it works. There are misfires. The batter of salt and pepper squid, from the part of the menu headed “snacks”, doesn’t seem especially interested in staying attached to its host. But it only costs £3.50 so it’s hard to roll your eyes for long.

Those beetroot “wine gums”, sweet and chewy, are served with a dollop of horseradish cream to pull them through. They leave strawberry-coloured ribbons through the Dulux whiteness, and are much better. Some dish names are a gentle joke built around understatement. Ham, egg and chips are lumps of smoky, salty, collapsing ham hock, with a cured egg yolk and a big knot of deep-fried, spiralised potato. The latter seems at first a little hard and under cooked, but there is a limpid hammy broth at the bottom of the bowl. The “chips” keep much of their bite as they shatter into it with a whack of the fork.

“Spicy carrot wonton” are, as I suggested, just another word for folded-over ravioli, and not especially spicy. But there is a thick celeriac purée here, and a few roasted carrots to maintain the interest. It may not quite match up to its billing, but it’s a solid and reliable bit of cooking. As is a £16 main course of a roasted chicken leg, with a boneless, breaded and deep-fried wing, on a thick truffle purée and chicken jus. Half a roasted leek, singed in various places, slumps across it, languorously. It’s a roast chicken dinner that has polished its shoes and combed its hair. To go alongside we have a bowl of shredded brassicas, through which both toasted almonds and a pokey salsa verde have been spooned. It’s a cheery act of attention to detail. A potato “terrine” is another version of spuds sliced and pressed and cooked, then cut into rectangles and deep fried, which, at Bubala a few months back, were described erroneously as latkes. Whatever the name, they are always welcome.

‘Not especially spicy’: spicy carrot wonton.

A vegetable ramen is a dish I find myself nodding at admiringly, rather than adoring. There is a powerful depth to the broth, and the handfuls of toasted barley buried in its steaming depths alongside a load of other veg, make sure nobody will go hungry. But the noodles are replaced by spiralised carrot. It’s an odd call. This is partly because the use of noodles would not have impacted the meat-free nature of the dish. They would have added a little extra starch to the broth and would also have justified calling it a ramen. But mostly it’s an odd call because it makes it seem as if owning a spiralizer is an entirely reasonable life choice, when of course they are implements that deserve to be pointed and laughed at with such malice that they eventually throw themselves into the bin out of embarrassment.

Even allowing for the unevenness of that dish I could imagine myself back here trying their version of a multi-layered mole poblano with BBQ lamb and blue corn tacos, just to see whether they could actually pull it off, or the roast hake with paprika chickpea stew. This Farmyard is determined to fatten up its residents.

Desserts flip between the outrageous and the outrageously comforting. The former is described as a “white chocolate bar”. It’s a sizable block of soft, sticky white chocolate ganache. It would be tooth-achingly sweet were it not for the bold saltiness of the miso caramel slathered across the top, the scattering of peanuts and the intense dark chocolate sorbet. It’s a re-engineered Snickers Bar, perhaps by someone who recently kicked a major crystal meth habit and is now looking for a socially acceptable way by which to get off their face. By comparison a steamed ginger pudding, perched on rings of lightly spiced pineapple with a coconut sorbet is a gentle all-in-one hug and back rub.

‘Re-engineered Snickers’: white chocolate-miso bar.

Here at Farmyard they may not always achieve every one of their ambitions. Some of those catches really are dropped. But walking back along the Norwich lane it calls home, passed unremarkable pizzerias and reliable looking bistros and cocktail bars designed for a Friday night, the niche it fills became obvious. It is for restaurant goers who are happy to give the kitchen permission to try just a little harder and attempt just a little more. And really, couldn’t we all do with a restaurant like that?

News bites

Right now you may not be considering visiting restaurants, but you will do so again. In the spirit of support for the restaurant sector, this column will continue making recommendations.

Just over on the Norfolk coast from Farmyard is No 1 Cromer, which belongs to chef Galton Blackiston of Morston Hall. Downstairs it’s a fine chippie and ice cream bar. Upstairs, there’s a globe-trotting bistro which takes in everything from fish tacos to hoisin duck pancakes, tandoori chicken naan and a massaman vegan curry. It’s ambitious but, generally it works (

Until the end of April Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin star Fat Duck in Bray is reducing the price of its menu by £75. It’s still a stonking £250 with the discount. At time of writing there are some lunchtime tables available in the sparsely spaced dining room. This may be the moment to try it (

Oisin Rogers, who is the closest thing London has to a celebrity publican, is to take a second boozer under his wing, alongside the Guinea Grill in Mayfair, famed for its beefy menu of steaks and claret. He’s revamping the nearby Windmill, and bringing in dishes including beef cheek and oyster pie, and quality fish and chips.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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