Wednesday, 16 July 2014


So it's a warm, drizzly Saturday afternoon in Fitzrovia and I'm just off to Michelin's hottest star Ollie Dabbous's restaurant. No, not that one - I mean Barnyard, his newest venture round the corner, where I'm reliably informed the wait is mere hours rather than months thanks to a 'no reservations' policy.

The first surprise; we appear to have fortuitously turned up between busy periods and are shown to a table immediately - nice. The second surprise; that the famously precise Ollie Dabbous, whose endive salad contains endive to orange to mint in an exact 3:3:4 ratio and who reputedly once roundly berated staff for leaving a ragged edge on the toilet paper instead of a clean line, has chosen to open a restaurant that looks like - well, like the inside of a ramshackle old barn. 

To be fair to Dabbous though, nobody gets that good without a fierce eye for detail and a relentless drive for perfection. (Actually, in Dabbous's case, hardly anybody gets THAT good at all.) Barnyard, then, feels almost like an alter-ego: reclaimed fixtures, sunflowers, mottled corrugated iron walls, manly staff in checked shirts who look like they've just finished pitchforking hay, white enamel plates and cocktails in half-pint dimpled beer mugs. It's very Of Mice and Men, but in a good way. It's fun. I'm already looking forward to good things.

Dabbous himself is still somewhat busy running his aforementioned eponymous joint so the food at Barnyard comes courtesy of Joseph Woodland (The Square, Launceston Place) and has been described by Dabbous's business partner Oskar Kinberg as 'home cooking, done well and without the washing-up'. At first glance, the menu - divided, with suitably agricultural unsentimentality, into sections headed 'cow', 'pig' and so on - contains the usual suspects for a retro Americana vibe, along with some British classics: beef, eggs, fries, chicken wings, sausage rolls, milkshakes. More of which later.

In keeping with the informal feel (you are very likely to end up squished elbow-to-elbow with other diners, it's really not the place for a private chat) the dishes are designed for sharing. I love this, as in my experience meal envy can test the strength of any relationship, but it can be tricky to gauge portions on a first visit; also the tables are quite small, so expect mild juggling and balancing to be involved. We went with our waiter's advice of 5-6 dishes plus sides and plumped for the chicken in a bun, duck egg with asparagus, fries, roast beef with watercress salad, crispy chicken wings, and broken eggs with mushrooms, garlic and parsley.

Restaurants mixing high-end dining with low-end classics can face the Bubbledogs conundrum; how much can you polish up a classic dish before it loses what makes it a classic in the first place? Barnyard has balanced this well. The chicken in a bun was moist and flavoursome, in a light brioche-style bun and served with delicately-seasoned mayonnaise. The duck egg and asparagus was delicious and beautifully presented, although given that it is a sharing plate, getting both halves of the egg would have been nice. The fries were, well, classic fries; crispy and just right.

Opinion was divided on the broken eggs - basically barely-cooked egg swirled with earthy mushrooms, spiked with garlic and balanced out with parsley. The texture was a little strange, but it was somehow comforting and I couldn't help thinking that, accompanied with some sourdough toast perhaps, it would make a perfect hangover breakfast. The wings, much hyped, were actually not my favourite; there was a quite strong herby note (fennel?) that whilst not unpleasant, I just hadn't expected from the description.

The beef, on the other hand, was outstanding. Supple slices of intensely-flavoured rare roast beef, the lightest crisp of toast, fresh peppery watercress and a warm buttermilk dressing that blends nursery comfort with the bite of horseradish. I loved this. Do not, on any account, visit Barnyard without having this dish; visually, texturally, the blend of flavours - it is fabulous in every way.

My other personal must-have - although this could be just me - is the acorn flour waffle with chocolate and malt. Totally undersold on the menu, this is delicious; a perfect dense waffle (completely unlike the plasticky fast food versions), a rich, nutty chocolate sauce and a divine malted cream that tasted exactly like the inside of Maltesers. What's not to like? 

Which brings me, neatly but not really, on to the drinks. Trust me and beware, these are the archetypal wolves in sheep's clothing. Shandies? I think not. They may well contain beer or cider plus lemonade, but these are basically cocktails in a swigging glass. Extras include gin, bourbon, whisky and tequila, with not a warning umbrella, sparkler or decorative pineapple quarter in sight - and in a half pint glass. They are intriguing, delicious, and incognito. I am absolutely serving a version of these at every BBQ I host this summer. Form an orderly queue, please. (Oh, and don't think you can escape with a milkshake - even they come with an optional tot of something stronger.)

My one regret is the absence from the menu of the popcorn ice cream with smoked fudge sauce; I had heard good things and was keen to try it. During a quick chat with the utterly charming, laid-back manager he explained that their ice cream maker had broken the day before but that the dish would be back on the menu very soon. Hey ho - I guess at least I got to experience the waffle with malted cream. Ollie, Oskar and Joseph Woodland, I salute you.

Yours, in virtual gingham and petticoats,

Girl About Town xx

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