Mainland Inn: Direct from the farm, with flair and flavor
Little surprised me by the end of my second spectacular meal at this beautifully revived 19th-century inn in Harleysville.
I ate my peas at the Mainland Inn, both in the ways I expected - scattered like spring green confetti over handmade agnolotti stuffed with sweet local polenta - and also in ways I didn't. As in dessert.
But there was no mistaking the garden glow of the soufflé that arrived at our table, puffing high above its locally made earthenware cup like a shamrock-colored top hat. Drizzled with a warm sauce of sweet-tart spiced apricot jam, it was as delicious as it was improbable.
Then again, little surprised me by the end of my second spectacular meal at this beautifully revived 19th-century inn in Harleysville.
If I thought for a moment that the farm-to-table movement had become tangled up in its clichés, leaning on overused poses of pickled ramp everything and "meet the farmer" menu tributes, chef Ezra Duker has given it an exciting new jolt of clarity and purpose on the plate.
Matchstick shreds of butternut squash, still tart from their fall sauerkraut pickling, snapped against sheer ribbons of prosciutto and the toasty crunch of hazelnuts. Sunchokes pureed into hot liquid silk were poured tableside over warm croquettes of salt cod, preserved lemon, and shaved bottarga that lent the earthy soup a subtle marine tang.
The extraordinary lamb dish, meanwhile, was a snapshot of two farmyard generations on one plate. A roulade made from a yearling, its braised neck meat shaped into a disk glazed coal-black with olive puree, anchored one end, while the long bones of two amazingly tender chops from a milk-fed baby arced over a spring montage of new onions, favas, and a salsa verde piquant with sorrel and boquerones.
That delicately flavored grass-fed lamb, like most of the restaurant's all-organic ingredients, come directly from Quarry Hill Farm, the 110-acre farm two miles away that is owned by the Mainland's latest proprietor, Sloane Six. She bought the farm in 2007, just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and credits her restored health (and remission) since then to the foods she grows and eats. The Mainland was conceived as an extension of that mission to showcase the farm's bounty, now with more than 400 kinds of heirloom vegetables, pastured chickens, ducks, guinea hens, sheep, and goats.
An odd backstory that starkly contrasts with this idyllic setting hovers behind the scenes. Hazleton Oil & Environmental, the used-oil recycling business that Six owns with her now-estranged husband, Scott Clemens, is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office amid allegations of illegal dumping and fraud. The Attorney General would not comment further on the case. Six said she is unable to comment on the allegations at the moment. However, she said in a statement that she is "not involved in the day-to-day operations," and added that she has stepped aside as chief operating officer, and that, "I've been an environmentalist my entire life."
Whatever the outcome of that case, she has certainly committed a fortune to Quarry Hill and giving a healthy makeover to the Mainland, which is among the more impressive suburban restaurants I've experienced in years. The handsome fieldstone inn (circa 1890) has been smartly updated with a casual bar in the basement, an antique mirrored breakfront in the main wood-trimmed dining room that dates to its old saloon days, a chef's tasting room with a window into the gleaming state-of-the-art kitchen, and a splendid terrace whose rolling hill view would be inspiring if it weren't rudely chopped off at the horizon by the turnpike's Northeast Extension.
The service is earnest and informative. The handsomely crafted plates and bowls come from local potters. The drink list is all organic, too, though it lacks a coherent identity as a collection (hardly any local beers?!), making it the Mainland's weakest link.
The real coup here, though, was snagging the superbly talented Duker, 32, a Bala Cynwyd native whose gold-plated pedigree (the French Laundry under Corey Lee, Morimoto Napa, the Orrery in London) has given him the tools to translate rustic whole animal cookery and his seasonal treasure with modern elegance.
Fermentation, with its emphasis on probiotics, adds frequent sparks across the menu, from a clove-scented "relish" of honey-pickled green tomatoes with ham salad in lush house mayo, to a lemongrass kombucha mignonette splashed over briny Beau Soleil oysters, and Japanese sunomono-cured shrimp dabbed with black sesame tahini. Smoke adds a velvety texture to both the Alaskan king salmon (with potato blini) and a deeply wood-scented mackerel paired with tart white kimchi cabbage and rice crackers threaded with spring onions.
The pungency of fresh spring garlic lends its swagger to the creamy potato puree of vichysoisse soup, poured over slices of poached razor clam. Grilled octopus basks in a bold Mediterranean stew of chickpeas, tomatoes, juicy orange bursts, and house-made merguez lamb sausage lifted with aromatic Moroccan spice.
Duker shows an impressive light touch with the sous-vide poached halibut, luxuriously moist in a buttery green pool of pea essence showered with shaved truffles and morels. But the primal draw of those big wooden sharing board "roasts" laden with multiple cuts of various animals is a worthy signature.
The platter of grass-fed beef from Bucks County's Tussock Sedge Farm, a huge marrow bone towering over an exceptional sirloin, braised short rib, garlicky grilled brisket, a skillet of cottage pie, and a carpaccio fan of corned beef heart, took the prize for dramatics. But we also loved the ode to Lancaster pork divided into a juicy chop, smoked shoulder, honey-glazed ham, and a crispy puck of head cheese that ate like an unctuous, coarse-ground scrapple. The side of charred onions glazed in bourbon and maple was so good, but borderline sweet, that it could have been dessert.
Talented pastry wiz Sandy Tran, also a Morimoto Napa alum, rode that same cheffy savory-sweet divide. But she landed elegantly in the realm of desserts, with inventive takes on the inevitable carrot cake, ginger granita, and an exquisite affogato that brewed chicory coffee tableside through a Vietnamese-style steel filter posed over a glass of whiskey fudge, chocolate mousse, and frozen cubes of condensed milk ice cream.
And then, there was that pea soufflé. Its cinnamon-sugared chicharrones (for dipping) were a bit much. But good chefs aren't afraid to take chances. And whoa . . . who knew peas could be transformed into such ethereal garden goodness? The new Mainland Inn delivered.