19 Broad St.
Mon-Sat., 4-10 p.m.
PHOTO: Night Shift - Philip Michael Cohen (left) and chef Alex Lira convert Normandy Farm bakery into Bar Normandy; (right) Pristine oysters, curated wines, and national acclaim: if it sounds like a white-tablecloth affair, Bar Normandy begs to differ.
It’s late afternoon on Broad Street, a relatively quiet time of day when palm trees outnumber pedestrians. Behind the stately façade of Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery, a transformation is underway. The café’s ordinarily mellow soundtrack fades into edgy French rap as chef Alex Lira preps behind a small L-shaped counter, which doubles as coffee and sandwich bar by day and a makeshift kitchen by night. Nearby, beverage manager Philip Michael Cohen breaks down cases of Old World wines and stocks the cabinet.
Each evening, Lira and Cohen usher the petite bakery space into its livelier alter ego, Bar Normandy. Their “pop-up,” if you can call it that, has been “popping up” consistently for well over a year now, like a madly popular Off Broadway show with an indefinite run.
As Cohen jumps onto a rustic wooden table to renew the letterboard menu, a couple pauses on the sidewalk outside, peering quizzically, their noses pressed to the glass. They seem lost in debate. “Just come in, already!” laughs Lira from behind the counter. But the pair walks on. Little do they know they’ve just passed up what Bon Appetit named one of this year’s 50 best new restaurants in America.
The accolade is not without irony, considering that Bar Normandy is something of an “anti-restaurant.” True, Cohen’s wine list is tightly curated, brilliantly funny (one white is described as “clean, lean, mineral driven...has been in a healthy relationship with oysters for years”), and affordable. True, Lira’s daily changing menu, though short, is sublime in taste. But otherwise, the eatery’s approach is brazenly atypical—no obvious signage, reservations, hostesses, tablecloths, or stuffiness.
The concept grew organically among friends. Lira and Normandy Farm owner Mike Ray surf together. In fact, pretty much the entire staff surfs (thus the artwork glorifying longboards and sunsets). Shuttering the bakery each day at cocktail hour was a missed business opportunity, so after some talk, Ray decided to let Lira and Cohen commandeer the space nightly. On a handshake and a leap of faith, Bar Normandy was born.
I’m assuming business was slow at first, given Instagram videos of Cohen and Lira playing baseball on Broad Street with buns and baguettes. But now a mishmash of regulars, from attorneys to industry vets, settles into the 25-seater nightly for fare and fun.
Lira’s menu, though cryptic in its descriptions, attests to the fact that real romance lies in the dish itself, not in its wording. “Toast” might mean charred semolina bread piled high with local peaches, whipped ricotta, and seared pork belly flecked with fresh thyme. Or it could mean potato focaccia slathered with ricotta, John’s Island peppers, beluga lentils, and shaved bottarga. The incredible house breads, drizzled with olive oil and flake salt, serve as edible plates—backbones for heaping velvety smooth pâté or sautéed chanterelles, harvested by Lira himself.
Salads are carefully balanced smorgasbords of fresh, local flavors with a rotating chorus line of textures and aromatics. A tossed mix of English cucumbers, sliced pears, almonds, kalamata olives, crumbled feta, shredded herbs, and tiny white field peas is enveloped in a rich, bacon-y vinaigrette. Depending on the season, an accompanying soup may be a steaming bowl of ramen or a creamy purée of roasted cauliflower, served in delicate bowls with cheerful patterns.
While Lira mans the kitchen, Cohen flits from table to table, topping off glasses and scribbling orders by hand on white subway tile for the chef to see. As the evening goes on, the general volume of music and boisterous conversation increases. All around, delicious aromas fill the room with an intoxicating haze.
Amidst the controlled chaos, dishes trickle out at somewhat of an uneven pace. On one visit, my “meatball” dish inexplicably takes 45 minutes to arrive. Luckily, I’m content to wait, savoring a glass of musky sparkling orange wine sourced from a small grower in Greece. I’m also kept company by scrapple, a petite but insanely good wedge of savory pork mush. The dish comes christened with two meaty, almost lobster-like royal red shrimp caught by local fisherman Mark Marhefka, with a side of shrimp-butter-glazed indigo popcorn from Greg Johnsman of Edisto Island’s Geechie Boy Mill. When the slow-braised, house-ground meatballs finally arrive, I clobber the dish in no time flat, pleasantly stung by the sweet heat of shishito peppers folded into a bed of eggplant and cannellini beans.
When this review prints, of course, Lira will be riffing with entirely different ingredients. As the cooler weather sets in, he’ll be dishing up fresh-made pastas, steaming oysters, and savory charred octopus and stone crabs. You’ll find me seated at the window bar, sipping a glass of Cohen’s funky sherry, and chuckling at anyone who chooses not to come in.
The Draw: Hole-in-the-wall wine bar with killer food and no pretensions
The Drawback: Small space means limited seating. Be patient.
Don’t Miss: Anything. Bring a date, order it all, and share.