BYO Philadelphians long trained to bring their own accoutrements to dinner might be tempted by the latest fad to show up for their reservations on a tractor with a pitchfork.
This is the spring of the "Farmer" restaurant, or, at least, restaurants with "farm" or "garden" in the name. At least four sprouted in quick succession, as a long-growing movement rooted in enthusiasm for local produce has finally reached its heirloom peak of cornball obvious-ity.
I used to get suspicious anytime a restaurant felt obliged to call itself "gourmet." Invoking the Farmer now is cultivating the same effect. So, which of these new agrarian kitchens actually deliver a bumper crop of close-grown goodness? And which deliver something more worthy of the compost heap?
First up in my Farmer Suite this June is the Farmer's Daughter in Blue Bell. This handsome revamp of the former Coleman at Normandy Farm (a wedding factory if there ever was one) has been given the full rustic makeover - including bleached-pine tables for the old dairy-barn dining room, a cow mannequin in the lobby - to drive the theme home like a fence post.
Our waitress, though, didn't quite get it, hemming on the standard provenance questions diners are asking these days, such as what kind of beef is served: "It's definitely cage-free," she assured us.
A closer look at the menu had me confused, too. I'm all for giving artisan growers their public due, but paying menu homage to pork chops and veal from regional food-service titans like Hatfield and Catelli doesn't conjure images of Farmer Stolzfus. They could at least spell the chef's name right: Mtele (not Mtete)Abubakar. My personal fave is the section prominently titled "Nosh" - a farm-themed deli? Schmear it on! - but alas, it featured random appetizers such as charred octopus, seared tuna, and little mason jars of tapenade and white bean hummus.
Which only emphasized the obvious disconnect here. The main goal of Normandy's makeover was to expand and revive its bar, a message thoroughly cougar-ized on the website by the silhouette of a busty Blue Bell hillbilly sandwiched between a pink martini and a lipstick print labeled "Flirt."
In the dining room, meanwhile, there is nothing especially more farm-to-table-focused about this venture than any other restaurant these days - in some cases less, if one considers the fair number of featured ingredients that are either not local (Australian barramundi) or out of season (hearty braised meats; chunky brussels sprouts).
Not that this is an ultimate dinger. In fact, these were hands-down some of the tastiest dishes Abubakar cooked, the crispy-skinned Aussie white fish fillets perched over butter-poached artichokes and sea-flavored foam; a fork-tender roulade of slow-cooked short rib over creamy grits and roasted root veggies.
The Kenyan-born Abu-bakar, 30, is one of the more intriguing chefs I've encountered in recent months. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, with time in kitchens from England to Dubai, Romania, and Northern California, he has an artistic sensibility, at least in the composition of his plates.
The salads look like still lifes of microgreens and shaved heirloom radishes tumbling across black slates. He can streak and smear and foam his sauces with the best. The strongest efforts tap the slow-braising techniques and tropical flavors of his youth on the isle of Mombasa: a tender lamb shank rubbed with cardamom, clove, and coffee, for example, that arrived over a most surprising risotto filled with bits of mango, enriched with the tartness of minted Seven Stars yogurt.
But pretty plates too often did not add up to great flavors when the cooks didn't follow through on execution. That Hatfield pork chop was overbrined to the texture and taste of salty corned meat. My sweet-pea soup was poured tableside, but it was unintentionally still lukewarm. A gorgeous hunk of wild striped bass was so overcooked in sous-vide before its finishing sear that it was dry and chewy by the time it landed on our table. Some beautiful scallops were undercooked, but I was more distracted by the mushy brussels sprouts and dollops of foam. (Foam on the farm - who knew?)
The charred baby octopus, meanwhile, was also so undercooked - Abubakar uses a "simmer and dip" technique rather than a slow poach - that it was like biting into rare little rubber plugs. Even more startling, though, was the sudden appearance of a blowtorch over my guest's shoulder as a server tried to flame-crisp a slice of raw house-cured bacon stuck to the plate's rim. It was a feeble attempt at theatrics, and I nibbled the half-sizzled strip with trepidation.
It wasn't the only time hapless service chipped away at the ambitions of the meal. The manager on duty absolutely butchered the names of the featured charcuterie and cheese - "saws-on sick" (saucisson sec), "Mad Tommy" (Keswick's Mad Tomme). The nicety of a palate-cleansing intermezzo was squashed when the blackberry sorbet (the pre-scoops covered in frost) was delivered simultaneously with the entrees.
And don't even bother asking for insight on the restaurant's substantial beer, whiskey, and wine list, with well-organized flights. There are some fantastic options, from Bavarian Barbarian ale to house-infused cocktails, and Mer Soleil's unoaked "Silver" chard (one of my favorites), among many other great American bottles. But the wine "expert" in the dining room, hands folded behind his back, could only bow toward the list and suggest, "I've been hearing good things about that one."
There were enough good things, despite its many flaws, that the Farmer's Daughter could build on with more focus. The good old crab cakes (a recipe from the owner's wife) were outstanding, full of sweet lump meat bound with creamy béchamel alongside a root-veggie slaw. Tender lobster meat came in a bright tropical salad with mangos and avocados.
Some meats were worthwhile - a big $34 veal rib-eye seared in a skillet, served with baby leeks and chimichurri butter; that wonderful roulade of "cage-free" short rib, which I'd return here for.
There were moments when the kitchen got carried away with the garnish greens - the raw carrot tops over my striped bass were more fit for a hamster than a human - but Abubakar is doing his best to feature the local produce of growers such as Killian and Living Hope Farm.
Our most fun flavor moments, though, came with pastry chef Tia Bennett's desserts. There was a luscious chocolate ganache tart topped with fleur de sel and espresso foam. There was a darling birch beer float with strawberry ice cream and odd-but-tasty strawberry pretzel bits. My favorite, though, would have been the cardamom-scented pancakes topped with bananas, nuts, and smoked maple syrup. My problem: The cakes were so undercooked, I mistook the oozing batter for sauce.
It's a good thing those eggs are fresh down on the "farm" at Normandy Farm.