Great Farm-to-Table Restaurants
We wouldn’t want every restaurant to be in the farm-to-table category. We’d have to fly to Hawaii to eat a pineapple. But the ever-growing trend toward locally sourced meals is heartening for anyone who values eating well, not to mention saving the planet. The eating-local idea began in the 1970s as a cult centered on Berkeley’s Chez Panisse (founded by “slow food” legend Alice Waters), eventually becoming a movement that inspired pilgrimages to militantly locavore destinations such as the Herbfarm, near Seattle, and Ontario’s Eigensinn Farms. Now eating local is a full-fledged genre: nearly every major North American city—and plenty of college towns and enlightened suburbs and exurbs—can boast of restaurants that rely on area purveyors.
This allows a few bold chefs and proprietors to take the concept a step or two further, with stronger ties to farms and more evolved restaurant concepts. “It’s incredibly easy to market farm-to-table” to potential diners, says Ryan Hardy, the executive chef at Montagna, in Aspen’s Little Nell Hotel. “But the important part is that it makes the food better, no matter what you’re trying to do.” Hardy operates a 25-acre farm in nearby Crawford, where he raises livestock and grows everything from figs to squash and cherries. He even makes his own cheese. The Little Nell dinner menu changes nightly and often includes pastas made with Hardy’s own farm-raised eggs.
At Manresa, in Los Gatos, CA, David Kinch creates daring postmodern food—flash-fried ravioli stuffed with beet greens and coriander ice in a soup of barely cooked tomatoes—that wows eaters on its own merits. The fact that he sources his ingredients from a nearby farm that sells almost exclusively to him becomes relevant only when you try to divine why his ravioli is so delicious. “We don’t really talk about the farm unless someone asks,” Kinch says. “Its impact shows up on the plate.”
And Cinque Terre, in Portland, ME, proves that locavores don’t have to limit themselves to night after night of indigenous cuisine. Chef/owner Lee Skawinski travels to Genoa every year to source recipes. Then he grows the ingredients on a nearby farm and replicates authentically Ligurian dishes an ocean away from where they originated, using Maine’s own meat and produce (naturally, lobster appears in the trenette pasta with summer squash).
These establishments own or control their own farms, but each exists as a restaurant first and a sociological statement only afterward. Their meals are their messages.
Cinque Terre, Maine
When chef Lee Skawinski travels around Italy each year, he′s not just sourcing recipes. Strains of beans, squash, and lettuce from the area wind up on a five-acre farm in Greene, Maine, then at his Italian restaurant 45 miles from there, in downtown Portland—proving that farm-to-table cooking can have geographic underpinnings an ocean away. Dinner for two $110.
What to Eat: Trenette pasta with local lobster and summer squash, a harmonic convergence of flavors.
What to Drink: Bruno Giacosa’s steely 2006 Arneis, one of nearly two dozen Italian wines by the glass.
Farm 255, Georgia
The staff at this Southern-accented restaurant in Athens not only source the ingredients they cook and serve from their own Full Moon Farms, they also till the soil. That means a menu based less on chef Matt Palmerlee’s creative fancy than on what he saw in the ground that morning. “To cook for us,” says partner Olivia Sargeant, “you’ve got to be able to Iron Chef fifty pounds of rutabagas when you thought you were getting blueberries.” Dinner for two $65.
What to Eat: A burger made from staff-raised beef is a constant on the ever-changing menu.
What to Drink: Farm-fresh cocktails, such as a Bloody Mary made with heirloom tomatoes.
Tucked beneath Ajax Mountain in the Little Nell hotel, Montagna has served Aspen’s best meals for years. But with the recent addition of chef Hardy’s 25-acre farm in nearby Crawford, where he raises lamb, pigs, and chickens, and grows everything from figs to sour cherries, things are different. The dinner menu changes nightly (rather than twice a year, as before), house-cured salumi is a standard, and pastas made with Hardy’s own farm-raised eggs approach transcendence. Dinner for two $180.
What to Eat: The grilled T-boned lamb.
What to Drink: Gems such as Napa’s 1991 Dominus ($375) cost less than elsewhere and are worth the indulgence.
David Kinch has one of the great creative minds in American cooking, and for the past three years he’s had vegetables as fresh as his ideas. He doesn’t own Love Apple Farm, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but controls its production from seed to harvest. That gives him ingredients worthy of his hyper-precise technique, as demonstrated by unique dishes such as flash-fried ravioli stuffed with beet greens and coriander ice in a soup of barely cooked tomatoes. Dinner for two $310.
What to Eat: The $155 tasting menu—one of the country’s most exciting dining experiences.
What to Drink: A grassy but tense 2005 Pouilly-Fumé Pur Sang from Didier Dageneau.
Brian Scheehser, the executive chef at this informal restaurant in Kirkland’s Heathman Hotel, loves to personally present a dish with its exact provenance—as in, “Those beans were in the ground forty-six minutes ago.” Scheehser’s three-acre farm in neighboring Woodinville—where the harvest includes strawberries, purple-passion asparagus, viola artichokes, a panoply of root vegetables, and 19 kinds of tomatoes—makes such a rapid earth-to-mouth transition possible. He buys meat and poultry from organic producers, then turns out rustic meals with a Pacific Northwest touch. Dinner for two $80.
What to Eat: A field-greens salad is sure to bring Scheehser tableside with details. Continue with pan-roasted trout alongside his own sautéed zucchini and oven-dried Italian plum tomatoes.
What to Drink: Columbia Crest’s polished 2004 Reserve Syrah, made right up the road.
Blackberry Farm, Tennessee
The 4,200-acre estate surrounding this Smoky Mountains compound provides bacon, eggs, cheese, and those eponymous brambles. Dinner for two $250.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, New York
This Westchester County satellite of Dan Barber’s Greenwich Village restaurant has no menus, just a list of farm-fresh ingredients from which meals are constructed. Dinner for two $190.
The Herbfarm, Washington
Last year’s arrival of chef Keith Luce reinvigorated this 23-year-old restaurant, with its nine-course prix fixe of seasonal offerings from its gardens outside Seattle. Dinner for two $390.
Sooke Harbour House, British Columbia
A quirky restaurant and inn with a vast kitchen garden and a unique vision: co-owner Sinclair Philip places emphasis on foods that Vancouver Island’s indigenous peoples once ate. Dinner for two $200.