Although the term is not as widely used, bistronomy is what most savvy restaurants are into these days. No longer is it practical to maintain exclusive, table cloth and silver garnished, chandelier lit, extortionately expensive shrines to culinary extravagance. If one wants to have a decent business and cook great food, then things need to be more relaxed, affordable and accessible.
But the concept is not very new at all. It was Yves Camdeborde in 1992 who kick-started this so-called bistro revolution. One day he decided that he was fed up with extorting his clientele at the elite Hotel de Crillon and began his humbler La Regalade in Paris. He took simple and recognisable dishes that read simply on a menu, and elevated them with his vast knowledge classical gourmet cuisine. Prices were slashed, silverware taken away and a more friendly and personal approach was made to customer service. And thus bistronomy, as we know it, was born.
Everything depends on the sourcing of ingredients that are not exotic and imported, but are fresh and local and tasty. Eating them harnesses a sort of patriotism and emphasis on homegrown that people really appreciate. Only after that do we consider how they are cooked. The traditional, avant-garde, foreign and indigenous techniques are all conscripted in turn, depending on the cuisine, to bring something new and delicious to the dining table. Sometimes the quality of the ingredients makes it so they require very little embellishment at all. Just ask Noma’s Rene Redzepi; his cooking amazes me. The experience at his restaurant is the essence of nouveau fine dining.
After visiting a series of fantastic bistro/small plate places like Freakscene, Brat and the Westerns Laundry, some of London’s foremost ambassadors of modern bistronomy, I could not help but hold Farmyard to a higher standard. This seemed unfair at first. Norwich is different from London, smaller, with fewer good restaurants. But then I realised this argument was flimsy at best. Good cooking is good cooking no matter where you are. It is slightly worse in bad places and bad times, and that much better when everything is perfect, but if the food is tasty then you could eat it on the bog and still nod appreciatively mid-chew.
Things have been so utterly perfect recently. I have not had much at all to complain about. So, I would be lying if I said I was not even a little nervous about breaking my streak in Norwich. But I entered Farmyard feeling quite optimistic on the whole, whimsical even, considering the prospect of this Norwich bistro rising to the occasion.
Farmyard is refreshingly decorated with a distinctly bright amalgam of pinks, greens, whites and browns. A white, brick-tiled wall at the far end bears the busy pass, a window into a kitchen where Andrew Jones and his chefs are moving zealously to get plates out. An abstract piece of wall art portrays lashings of colour, lazy lines and languid women. Potted plants are spread sporadically throughout and wall-lined banquettes provide the rich greens. And of course, as is customary by now, the light browns of wooden furniture and flooring. There are hanging lights caged in copper, that shine with a sombre warmth. Not to blaspheme, but it reminded me a little of the Zizzi’s in Derby where I did my undergrad. I have fond memories there, so I would not say it is an unfavourable resemblance.
We were sat just opposite the kitchen, on a table for four. Maddy felt a little nervous because she was worried the chefs might watch us for reaction. I was not worried in the slightest. I have been to enough places such as this, sitting even closer at restaurant bars, to know that chefs are too busy to care about watching their customers. When food needs cooking, and to a particular standard, the blinders are on and nothing outside their workspace matters. To them we are just numbers and letters on a piece of paper.
I have not had much need to comment on service in the last few weeks. Each place has been absolutely stellar, seamless machines of hospitality, well drilled and smiling. Farmyard was unfortunately a tale of two waitresses: one moody and sarcastic, and the other an effervescent, jolly lady that brightened up the place. We had arrived at half five, the start of the evening shift, so it was a little surprising to be greeted by a member of staff that looked and spoke like she wanted to be elsewhere. She chose our table, cleared out cutlery with a sigh and left after mumbling something about the set lunch. I had actually forgotten how easily service can dampen a diner’s enthusiasm. A glum look, an off comment, can unsettle what might have otherwise been a smooth performance. People underestimate how important lively and meticulous waiting staff are.
We were saved by another waitress, a joyful rosy cheeked woman, who explained that we could avail of the set meals if we wanted and offered to explain the menu if we so required. Pleased by her intervention and the friendly banter that ensued, we proceeded to order a large number of dishes to sate our hungry selves. The lady nodded her approval cheerfully and left to put our order through. She returned, not long after, with our small plates.
Two fish croquettes beside a pool of dainty chilli mayonnaise, arrived with a plate of simple charcuterie. Quick and easy. The croquettes, though piping hot and freshly fishy, were slightly boring. They were delightfully crisp, yes, and had all the makings of a great croquette, but I felt like they could have added a taste of the herbaceous or some subtle spice to liven things up a bit. The weakly spicy richness of the mayo was not enough to give me the completeness I was looking for. After eating the croquetas at Barrafina, the pig’s head ones at Westerns Laundry, the multitudes I dispatched in pastelarias all over Lisbon recently, this iteration was largely unexceptional.
The charcuterie was forgettable, simple salami festooned with capers and sliced gherkin. It is the one dish I did regret asking for simply because it did not tell me much about the cooking.
But then came the rest of the meal, a progressive demonstration of exquisite culinary flare. After pushing away the salami, the dishes that followed were slapping reminders that the chefs behind Farmyard meant business.
A bowl of heritage tomatoes, soft, sweet, ripe tomatoes, sliced and piled on top of each other with crushed ice, mixed in with flecks and scraps of goat curd, were surrounded by a shallow moat of fresh, oil inflected, cool tomato consommé. It is a dish that gives you temporary reprieve from the humid weather, and feels like a cold breeze going through your system. Outrageously good.
The next dish, similarly vegetarian, was just as brilliant. Soft chunks of yellow courgette and courgette flowers, adorn a cloud of ricotta wrought with chopped nuts and what I imagine is a drizzle of sweet balsamic glaze. Fresh basil is cleverly used as a proactive garnish, finding its place in the balance of things.
Though unquestionably delicious, I was a little disappointed by my main, more so because of how flavoursome Maddy’s was. The roast hake, flaky and pearlescent, perfectly cooked, was rather inconveniently placed in a bowl of luxurious bacon cream, clams and samphire. Each component was appetising in their own right, and sang well together in most respects, but losing bits of fish in the liquid and having to get stuck into clams that required displacing was bothersome. Unless in a kind of bouillabaisse, I do not fancy eating clams with my fish.
Maddy’s gnocchi was an intense marshland of crisp yet soft black truffle and hazelnut gnocchi, nestled atop blobs of smooth mushroom puree, and swarmed by umami saturated dehydrated mushrooms. Each bite of this dish was a treat, each morsel worthy of being mopped off the plate by the bread we ordered in addition. Great bread, I might add, made fresh in their own oven, and served with a puck of rich handmade butter.
There was room enough for dessert and so we obliged. Maddy availed of some exquisitely wobbly Norfolk lavender honey custard with sweet peaches and poignant bits of nutty hibiscus. I, on the other hand, devoured the Farmyard chocolate bar, which was an ingot of flawlessly scrumptious chocolate delice, ladden with gooey miso caramel and crunchy peanuts, christened by a globe of ice-cream. Since I am not much a fan of sticky nuts getting wedged into my deep molars, I scraped the nuts off after a couple of spoonfuls. The Colombian chocolate with the ice-cream were more than enough to gratify me.
Feeling great and ready to leave, it was unfortunately the mean waitress to whom we paid our bill. She looked at the bill, then at us, and with a sassy sniff remarked on how we had almost eaten all of their menu. So what if we did (we did not, Farmyard have a decently sized menu)? You lady do not get to snigger at how much we’ve eaten. I mean, we just spent over seventy quid at your restaurant, surely you’d want us to leave thinking it was all money well spent. Maddy was not happy with her in the slightest.
But in the end, the meal was too good for the service to put much of a dent into the overall experience. Despite the mugginess outside and a rather disgruntled waitress, we left Farmyard feeling pretty great and well-satisfied. The restaurant is a great example of delectable bistronomy, cooking that is cleverly construed, served with care and finesse. Their food that is right up there with the best examples of British cooking I have experienced, and Norwich is lucky to have them.
Location: 23 St Benedicts St, Norwich NR2 4PF