The typical measures of a restaurant's commitment to the farm-to-table movement have long been most commonly calibrated by the pedigree of its carrots, the depth of its all-star farmer roster, and the province of its sustainably raised heritage-breed meats. But as the tables have begun moving so close to the source these days that they're actually on the farms, the new breed of "gastro-farm" can easily go several steps further.
For example, I doubt many restaurants go through nearly as much hay as the Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell. That's right, hay – carefully washed, dried, and roasted. Chef and co-owner Greg Vassos can use up to two 100-pound bales each week to whirl and weave into the clever nests he uses to cradle his elaborate egg dish, or to use it on one dish three ways, infusing its distinctively barny, nutty savor into a toasted oil, steeping it in cream, and turning it into ash. All three graced the Red Ranger chickens and Pekin ducks that come off the wood-fired grill in the show kitchen.
And all of it, of course, is grown right there on the 800 or so acres of Jersey farmland that Jon and Robin McConaughy either own or lease around the expanded 1820s farmhouse they've converted into this splendidly ambitious and beautiful restaurant.
With an annual production of 15,000 free-range chickens, 2,000 ducks, 500 Berkshire pigs, and 500 sheep, as well as goats and turkeys, not to mention the Devon beef cattle they own that are grazing on the grassy acres at Thistle Creek in Central Pennsylvania, this restaurant (and its sibling market-bakery-butcher-shop in downtown Hopewell) is one of the most self-sustaining, closed-loop food projects in the region. Almost 100 percent of the proteins are grown on site (as they've recently done away with seafood), as are most of the vegetables, the cherry and hickory wood for the grill, and some hops and grain that will be used at the new brewery (Troon) and distillery (Sourland Mountain Spirits) just opening on site.
If this sounds a bit like Wyebrook Farms in Chester County, there's an ironic coincidence. Jon McConaughy and Wyebrook's Dean Carlson were both colleagues in the money business at Susquehanna before independently finding sustainable food religion through author Michael Pollan - and then investing fortunes to create their own farms.
Brick Farm clearly has greater aspirations as a gourmet destination than casual Wyebrook (at least currently), with a serious wine cellar and a series of rambling farmhouse rooms with original wood and stonework that have been beautifully refurbished as a dining destination. But McConaughy owes Carlson for the introduction to Vassos, the serious talent who translates all the prime ingredients into a culinary adventure.
Thick cubes of pork belly, perfectly rendered and juicy from an 18-hour sous-vide session, arrive over a silky orange puree of Honey Crisp apples and brown butter and are striped with a sweet, amber ribbon – jelled maple syrup "veil." Sugar Pie pumpkins become a creamy soup braced with cognac, then poured tableside into a bowl ringed with colorful fall leaves and filled with the textural sparks of pickled enokis, crispy sage chips, a tart compote of foraged cranberries, and charred late-summer corn.
Vassos, 37, a Massachusetts native who worked under great chefs in various Ritz-Carlton properties (Eric Ripert, Bruno Ménard) before opening his short-lived Racine in Pottstown, is a modernist who loves elaborate, whimsical presentations - sometimes to a fault.
The inedible mushroom log that arrived dusted with porcini "soil" and stuck with spruce boughs like a Christmas centerpiece was only a small distraction from the edible bits poking out of it on skewers - hunks of pom-pom mushrooms confit in pork fat - which were too wet and spongy to taste like anything reminiscent of "foie gras," as touted. I was fine with the elaborate slow-cooked egg preparation until the server instructed us, with a wince, to "crack the egg open and return it to the nest!"
The best dishes were ultimately classic French ideas reimagined with a contemporary flair that highlighted the prime ingredients. A spectacular tartare of grass-fed beef crackled with bits of lacy tuile, edible shards of caramelized onion "glass," a green pixie dust of dehydrated spruce powder, carrot meringues, and a custard of lightly cooked yolk to keep it moist.
A flavorful duck confit set over creamy leek-and-garlic fondue was brightened by the sweet-tart snap of Honey Crisp apples. The delicate crunch of radishes and tiny flowers made an unctuous mash of pork rillettes irresistible. A plate of fluffy gnocchi tossed in a Bolognese stewed from spare bits of the whole animals that come into this kitchen - beef, lamb, and pork - was pure trattoria soul.
The entrées were especially satisfying, like the smoky, wood-grilled pork over cranberry beans, butter-roasted maitake mushrooms, carrot sauce, and baby hakkurei turnips. Or the rib eye basted in garlic, butter, and herbs with celery root puree and black garlic puree. The tender medallions of Katadhin lamb also cast a memorable Mediterranean mood alongside the snap of king oyster mushrooms, peppers, and a black puree of charred eggplant.
The intense umami of that thick eggplant puree returned to assist one of Vassos' most unusual offerings, huge paddles of bright orange chicken of the woods fungus foraged on the property. Unfortunately, despite a daylong confit, they were still so dense and dry it was like eating a piece of mushroom-flavored drywall.
It was a rare misstep over the course of two meals that were otherwise fantastic, bolstered by a front house staff led by partner Mike Lykens that was outgoing, enthusiastic, and informed. This was particularly true when exploring the wines, including 25 good choices by the glass featuring food-friendly options, from a great-value Dão by DAC to an elegant biodynamic pinot from New Zealand's Millton, and prestige pours from Bolgheri's Le Serre Nuove and Napa's Shafer.
Ana Musial's desserts are just as evocative of season and place as the savory courses, from a festive pumpkin cake layered with white chocolate mousse to a snifter of butternut squash panna cotta. The crust of an elegant brown butter apple tart is made from wheat milled at Castle Valley in Doylestown. The Rocky Hill Road profiteroles, in a nod to the street address, are stuffed with chocolate chip ice cream and topped with dulce de leche, marshmallows, and candied pecans.
There are plenty of worldly after-dinner drinks to wash them down (perhaps with some local cheese), whether an ice cider from Vermont, a Hungarian Tokaji, Madeira, or sherry. But soon enough, there will be spirits and beers made right on the premises flowing forth. In the self-sufficient world of the new gastro-farm, the opportunity to drink from the land, as well as eat from it, only seems right.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Autograph Brasserie in Wayne.
BRICK FARM TAVERN
130 Hopewell Rocky Hill Rd., Hopewell, N.J., 609-333-9200; brickfarmtavern.com
The gastro-farm movement has grown a major new player in New Jersey with this spectacular Hopewell project, a beautifully converted 1800s farmhouse where chef and co-owner Greg Vassos creates inspired modern American plates from sustainable meats and vegetables (and hay) grown on 500-plus adjacent acres owned by visionary partners Jon and Robin McConaughy. Vassos, formerly at Racine, has a knack for fun, avant-garde presentations that sometimes outdo a dish's overall success. But ultimately, great ingredients, exceptional service, and a strong drink program (with an on-site brewery and distillery just launched) make Brick Farm a must-visit destination on the farm-to-table circuit.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Sugar pie velouté; beef tartare; pork and duck rillettes; duck confit; gnocchi Bolognese; Double Brook lamb; Thistle Creek beef; Berkshire pork; duck with hay; ash-dusted chicken; butternut squash panna cotta; Rocky Hill Road profiteroles; apple tart; local cheese.
DRINKS The substantial wine program has hundreds of bottles in the cellar, largely acid-driven, small production Euro wines that pair well with the food. Highlights from the wines by the glass include an aromatic white Kerner from Abbazia di Novacella in Alto Adige, a crispy Bründlemeyer Grüner Veltliner, a great-value Portuguese red Dão blend by DAC, as well as an elegant biodynamic pinot from Millton in New Zealand. There are excellent cocktails - both classics and kitchen-inspired creations – as well as a host of offerings just coming onto the list from the new brewery (Troon) and distillery (Sourland Mountain Spirits) on the property.
WEEKEND NOISE A very reasonable 83 decibels, depending on which room you're in. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Saturday and Sunday (beginning Nov. 12), 11:30-2:30 p.m. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $24-$44.
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.