Imagine you've sat near a stranger on the bus every morning for the past couple of years and never really given them a second look. And then, one day, you fall into conversation and realise they're delightful; good-looking, funny, possibly a new friend.
That's how I feel about Jimmy's Farm. How many times have I driven past the rural visitor attraction of TV's go-to farmer, Jimmy Doherty, since it opened years ago, without feeling the slightest desire to turn off and eat there? Probably getting on for a hundred. Can't be any good, I thought. He's always on telly with his old school pal, Jamie Oliver, building toaster ovens out of scooter helmets. It'll just be touristy nonsense.
But then two things happened. I was lured to the farm to watch a woodland production by the admirable local theatre company Red Rose Chain. And while there and hungry, I pressed my nose against the glass of the restaurant, housed in a 200-year-old barn, and thought it looked rather appealing. As did the shop, run by local food heroes Adnams, and the butcher's counter, and the petting zoo (though I wasn't that hungry).
By the time I got around to returning, the seasonal attractions at Jimmy's Farm had changed from open-air theatre to Burns Night supper. Freezing fog obscured the farm's various attractions, the rare-breed animals, butterfly house and woodland walk. But the restaurant was going like gangbusters.
Walking in, past a kitsch cow statue, to a huge and airy barn conversion, its gnarly beams wrapped in twinkling lights, its refectory tables packed with happy families, I began to realise I may have been overlooking something special. A suspicion confirmed by the super-smiley greeting from a manager apparently unfazed by us rocking up at 3pm on the last service of the last day of the Christmas holidays. "This is table 11," she told us, tucking us into high-backed settles. "If you like it, you can ask for it next time you book." When does that ever happen?
The menu, from newish head chef Jon Gay, is meaty, as you'd expect from a working farm with an on-site butchery school and shop. Sunday roasts, burgers, and – of course – Jimmy's famous sausages, served with mustard mash and gravy. There's Adnams-battered haddock, and pumpkin pearl barley risotto for those who'd rather not eat anything they've recently been introduced to.
Both our starters came from the specials board, and were hearty enough to work as brunch dishes on their own. A cocotte of baked egg with hot-smoked salmon came with good sourdough to mop up the yolk-laced cream. House-cured salt beef, spiced with a whiff of aniseed, fell in warm folds over a mild remoulade, with fried baby potatoes substituting for the promised hash.
From the day's 'rare-breed roasts', pork shoulder with all the trimmings should have been the star of the show – this whole empire was built on Jimmy's pigs. But it wasn't great. Shoulder is best cooked slow, until it falls apart. Here, it was served in uptight slices, neat and dry as school dinners. The giant puff of airy Yorkshire pud, crisp roasties and feathery strip of blistered crackling softened the blow. More characterful was the roast topside, which came with the same trimmings.
'Jimmy's beefburger' – one of the few bits of Jamie-style personalisation on the otherwise restrained menu – was loose-textured and juicy, if rather lost in a gob-stopping tower of fixings, including a 'Suffolk cheese rarebit'. Skinny fries were suspiciously uniform, from a campaigner who is currently trying to persuade us to eat more misshapen veg.
Apart from the menu's passing mentions of rare breeds, it isn't conspicuously coloured by Jimmy's TV persona. No-nonsense Telly Jimmy wouldn't serve food on slate tiles, as they like to do here; he'd use them to knock up a rudimentary smokehouse. And he certainly wouldn't put a cheese rarebit on his burger. His signature look, though, does seem to have infected his clientele; the place was awash with Doherty-alike dads in tight flannel shirts and beards. Maybe he's being cloned in some hidden lab behind the guinea-pig village.
Desserts confirm that this is a proper restaurant, rather than a farm café; slippery, dark chocolate tart with toasted Earl Grey meringue and a sharp-sweet bite of caramelised clementine. And, channelling C4 stablemate Heston, a 'Snickers Bar' sundae, a devilish concoction of peanut butter ice-cream, chocolate biscuit and whipped cream.
Jimmy's current campaign against food waste would be redundant here. This is good, honest, two-fisted food, served by cheery staff, in the kind of tasteful surroundings you just don't expect to find in the Ipswich area. (I can say that, I'm from Ipswich.) Jimmy, I'm sorry I've been ignoring you. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Wherstead, Ipswich, Suffolk (01473 604206). Around £25 a head for three courses, before wineReuse content