When I first went to Bar Normandy, I thought I was giving myself a night off. I’d heard nothing but nice things about the operation, which nightly inhabits Broad Street’s Normandy Farm Bakery in the fashion of a hermit crab burrowing into a sea snail shell. And considering head chef Alex Lira’s record at The Lot, the quality of its food was very nearly a given.
But for a restaurant to qualify as review-worthy, it first has to qualify as a restaurant. The Bar Normandy set-up challenges almost every element of that convention. Even the food trucks and roving pizzerias I’ve reviewed offer something like a standard menu, along with active social media sites and occasional press releases. Bar Normandy, by contrast, could vanish in a poof of bread oven steam, and nobody but its devotees (a healthy crop of industry folks) would know it had ever existed.
To turn Normandy Farm Bakery into Bar Normandy, Lira and service ace Philip Michael Cohen dim the lights and turn on a pair of induction burners and a panini press that Lira ironically calls his plancha. Other than affixing the names of the evening’s three available dishes and two available oyster varieties to a wall-hung plastic-pin letterboard, those electrical adjustments are about the extent of the changeover. There’s no attempt to obscure the fact you’re eating in a workaday bakery.
So what to make of a place like this? No doubt many diners would make a beeline for the exit: If you’re seeking tablecloths, servers, cocktails or a comprehensive and consistent lineup of dishes, Oak Steakhouse is just a few doors down. Neither model is better or worse.
Yet Bar Normandy’s way of doing things is so removed from tradition that it demands to be interpreted differently than almost every other restaurant. It’s certainly deserving of review, though. The experience at Bar Normandy is low-key, but fantastic. Here are six ways of looking at the operation:
1. Bar Normandy is a cure-all for the rent crisis.
The Charleston rental market is instructive if you’re an Econ 101 student, and maddening if you’re an entrepreneur. Supply is low, demand is high, and the square foot price of downtown food service space is unapproachable for all but the wealthiest restaurateurs. What Bar Normandy demonstrates so brilliantly is there’s a workaround.
And the sharing arrangement that Bakery and Bar have hammered out doesn’t just make good financial sense for the owners (and customers who benefit from the cost savings). It gives the ad hoc dining room a cozy organic feel that’s missing from restaurants that stay cold and dark all day. Stepping into Bar Normandy is part “Night at the Museum” thrill and part granny’s kitchen comfort. It shouldn’t be the last such collaboration on the peninsula.
2. Bar Normandy ought to be the belle of Broad Street.
Once the heart of Charleston’s dining district, the area surrounding Broad Street has been somewhat abandoned by locals who have to worry about things like parking. What Bar Normandy makes clear, though, is it’s a mistake to cede the city’s most historic neighborhoods to visitors. While all of the new restaurant construction further north is exciting, there’s no reason culinary creativity can’t coexist with 19th-century architecture. It’s possible I’m slightly biased on this score, since Bar Normandy’s building housed The News and Courier from 1861-1902, but the enterprise has a soul that seems older than its six months in business.
3. Bar Normandy should scare the pants off publicists.
As has been reported on the newsier pages of this paper, the Charleston restaurant scene is frighteningly short on servers, runners, line cooks and dishwashers. But it has a nice glut of publicists, eager to squeeze stories out of every kitchen exploit. Recently, a press release went out with the single shred of information that a local chef planned to bestow his first name upon his new restaurant. At Normandy, all of that’s just needless noise: Cohen and Lira would rather focus on providing their customers with a glass of palate-bending sherry and a dish of cleanly shucked New England oysters, briny as a lobsterman’s chest waders.
4. Bar Normandy has fired the opening shot in a bread revolution.
The local bread situation has improved tremendously with the arrival of Root Baking Co., but it’s still an overlooked element of too many restaurant meals. At Bar Normandy, bread is understandably central, since there’s always a stellar loaf in the display case. (The case comes in handy again when it’s time for dessert: Customers have their pick of the day’s pastries, accompanied by an espresso from Normandy Farms’ machine, provided the one or two people working aren’t too busy to run it.) That goes a long way toward making Bar Normandy companionable, an adjective derived from the Latin for “with bread.”
5. Bar Normandy gets the joke.
A restaurant meal can be powerful or profound, but in the end, it’s just a meal away from home: A little levity isn’t going to hurt anyone. Bar Normandy’s natural grasp of good humor is evident from Cohen’s smartly assembled wine list, with descriptions and prices that seem equally ridiculous. At Bar Normandy, the $32 Chenin Blanc is “like a swimsuit model that bites when she kisses” and the $36 Primitivo is “like an overweight Italian farmer with really dirty hands.” In both cases, the wines lived up to their billing.
6. Bar Normandy is serving superlative food. (That’s what you really wanted to know, right?)
Perhaps it takes a restaurant with comic leanings and great bread to make a star of cauliflower soup, but it’s hard to imagine Lira’s slinky take on the current it-brassica wouldn’t wow anywhere. Rich and satiny, with a grounding whack of black pepper and dose of garlic, the soup gets its creaminess from potatoes and ricotta cheese. It’s simultaneously more elaborate and more humble than 99 out of 100 “cream of” soups (and it’s highly unlikely that hundredth soup is selling for a mere $6.)
After soup, there is often more soup, because ramen is another Bar Normandy staple. Furnished with stretchy homemade noodles, the ramen is a full-bodied standout in a suddenly ramen-saturated world. At the base of the bowl, beneath the shaved carrots and chopped-up greens, there’s a sumptuously fatty broth that begins as roasted Keegan-Filion rib meat, braised in Keegan-Filion chicken stock with all of the right Japanese umami boosters.
Local products are a constant at Bar Normandy, and not for the usual ostentatious reasons. Lira has learned he can keep prices down by buying farmers’ surpluses, which means sometimes the broth isn’t made with rib meat, and sometimes there isn’t any broth at all. When that happened on one of my visits, the ramen transmogrified into tender fried rice, complete with pickled Storey Farms eggs. The rice was crowned with vibrant tatsoi leaves and crisp bits of broccoli from Rooting Down Farms, Spade and Clover Gardens and Lowland Farms.
The dreamiest dishes at Bar Normandy may well be the casually controlled salads, in which salty cheese and spicy radishes punctuate greens that force you to ponder the excellence of South Carolina soil.
Surfing is a main motif of the artwork at Normandy Farms Bakery, and it’s tempting to think of Bar Normandy as an undiscovered wave. I’m not sure how it will fare once the hordes find it. But I suspect it will still be a place I want to patronize on my nights off.