What's the only thing more maddening than falling behind a big trend? Being the iconoclast who wakes up one day to find out your longtime passion is suddenly now all the rage.
"Farm-to-table? Don't get me started!" says Brian Shaw of the Fair Hill Inn in Elkton, Md. Predictably, he was just getting started. "Wasn't food always grown on a farm and then put on your table?"
The buzz-phrase draws equal ire from Shaw's business partner and co-chef, Phil Pyle Jr.: "If people want to make believe they're 'farm-to-table,' they can. I've got more important things to do."
High among those chores is spending 60 hours a week in their own restaurant's organic gardens, which produce three seasons' worth of produce (plus winter boxes), with everything from fennel and myriad dark berries to obscure herbs (like lovage and borage), squash, okra, creamer potatoes, favas, sorrel, and white wine grapes for their own verjus.
No, this is not a case of two chefs hating on the now ubiquitous locavore movement so much as a pair of dedicated practitioners who, from their 18th-century inn just south of the Delaware and Pennsylvania borders, see a wave of opportunistic marketers slapping the "farmer" label on everything from bars to food trucks along the city horizons to their north and south.
But Shaw has had his share of bee stings - 30 of them around his ankles after one ill-advised August visit to their restaurant's hives - to earn his agri-chef cred.
"Bees are a blast!" he says, with no lingering resentment. And no wonder: The little buzzers produce up to 40 pounds of honey for them each year, adding a glow of ethereal sweetness, for example, to the roasted white peaches that polished off a recent meal.
"We just cook for ourselves," said Pyle, "and hope that the guests like it."
Given the Cecil County setting - a 1764 clapboard and fieldstone house that once hosted Gen. George Washington and his pal, Marquis de Lafayette - it's hard not to settle into the bucolic charm. Old wine bottles and artfully piled corks line the back rooms as souvenirs from favorite meals past - and an emblem of Fair Hill's enthusiastic embrace of good drink, presented on a manageable-yet-excellent list that ranges from quirky international values (with many options by the glass) to pricier blue-chip labels. Our pleasant young servers did a fine job presenting them, and the menu, but did not hesitate to ask the kitchen if there were questions they couldn't answer.
The four dining rooms on the ground floor are fitted with classic details - gold linens, comfy leather-backed chairs, an ancient open hearth, and a back dining room built from a salvaged barn with hand-forged nails and rough-hewn planks. Yet the space is spared too much of the Ye Olde Country Inn kitsch.
And so are the menus, which change drastically each month as they feature the season's bounty in vibrant combinations that opt for fresh over flashy.
That meant lots of cauliflower at our spring visit for one of Fair Hill's Sunday Suppers, a four-course bargain for $30. Florets came roasted alongside brussels sprouts and agnolotti stuffed with sweetbreads. Pureed into a silky seafood sauce with curry, cauliflower's earthy cream heightened the sweetness of seared scallops. Fresh spring ramps and tart sorrel, as well, were creamed into soup beneath a claw of tender poached lobster.
While the menus differ significantly at every visit, a sense of handcraft is the common thread in the meals - especially with the house-cured salumi, of which there are 20-some rotating varieties, from excellent Tuscan fennel salami to air-dried bresaola, and a citrusy "agrumi" made with peppercorns and goose.
That salumi plate, often served with something pickled from the field (okra, fennel, ramps, garlic) is certainly the best place here to begin. The chefs, though, also begin every meal with a complimentary amuse-bouche spoonful of some fresh-grown inspiration. At our late-summer meal, it was a bite of tender poached rock shrimp dabbed with creamy guacamole, and a snappy fava bean lit with mint from the garden.
Appetizers followed the late-summer mood. There were red and yellow tomatoes tumbling around a creamy flan infused with sweet corn and truffles. A creamy seafood chowder thickened lightly with potato puree was infused with corn cobs, bay, and shellfish, with tiny clams and chunks of lobster meat. A warm souffleed puck of Maryland crabmeat tinged with salty Old Bay was heightened by a juicy diced salad of Fair Hill's casaba and "moons and stars" melons tossed in minted oil. Snappy batons of summer squash, meanwhile, lightened up a rich carbonara starter of hand-pinched pasta quills tossed with crumbled sweetbreads and salty nuggets of house-cured guanciale.
The Sunday Suppers are a great value for the first-time visitor, even if the menus are limited. Among the entree highlights were a beautiful veal loin with grilled royal trumpet mushrooms, carrot risotto, and rosemary cream. A rib-eye, meanwhile, came with Fair Hill's own asparagus with herb-whipped fingerlings.
On the standard menu, entrees priced in the upper-$20s are on the high side for portions that might seem modest to a hungry equestrian fresh from exercising her racehorse at the training center across the street.
But there's no denying the quality of flavors and ingredients, and compositions that are a little more complex than Sunday's fare. I loved those three tender medallions of duck breast sauced in Shaw's mole-esque barbecue gravy, with a crepe on the side stuffed with confit leg meat tossed in more of the nutty chocolate and chile pepper sauce. A crispy-skinned rockfish posed over a vibrant succotash from the summer garden, the favas, peas, and corn popping through basil broth against pillowy little gnocchi. Veal wrapped in house-cured pancetta sat over cubanelle peppers stuffed with Birchrun Hills blue cheese, splashed in a lemony green parsley sauce not unlike chimichurri.
Cheese is yet another of this kitchen's passions. But of all the products Shaw makes (including blown glass for the table), cheese is not his strongest pursuit. A house-made assortment I tasted in spring was a bit redundant and off-target for some styles. But a collection of cheeses drawn from other nearby dairies on Visit 2 was a genuine hit, my favorite being the Robiola-esque Hummingbird from Doe Run.
For dessert, the various pastries on the Sunday sampler were disappointingly dry. The best choices here instead tapped Fair Hill's garden bounty - like the clafouti jeweled with late-summer raspberries.
And, of course, that wonderful roasted peach, which in fact was grown five miles down the road at Milburn Orchards. With a warm buckwheat waffle and a halolike shine courtesy of Shaw's honeybees, it might have been the most intense bite of peach I've ever had. That's called "hive-to-table" at its best.