Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Restaurant review: Down on the farm

Bradenton's monthly Table to Farm experience puts diners as close to the dishes' origins as possible.

Posted By on Wed, May 14, 2014 at 3:09 PM

Fresh peaches wrapped in ham. - JON PALMER CLARIDGE
  • Jon Palmer Claridge
  • Fresh peaches wrapped in ham.

My older brother visits in the spring each year. I love introducing him to new things; we’re very different, you see. The city mouse and the country mouse. I spent decades in DC while he was in the mountains outside Asheville. It’s Broadway versus bluegrass, Julia Child versus Cracker Barrel.

He’s simultaneously shocked and giddy as we pull into King Family Farm, where a huge shed has been decked out with two long tables for a dinner in the Table to Farm series. Unfortunately, the wind has scuttled the planned orchard setting. No problem. The scene is still a movie set, with flowing tablecloths, an eclectic mix of china and fresh-cut wildflowers bursting from mason jars that dot the tables.

We make our way past the shed to join fellow diners under an enormous tree that towers over the proceedings. It’s like a multi-limbed Hindu goddess draped with Spanish moss, all crooked arms with multiple, craggy elbows. Bales of hay encircle the trunk and a red velvet-tufted Victorian camelback sofa sits in the shade atop the dirt and decaying leaves.

In this outdoor parlor we help ourselves to the “welcome drink” from a two-gallon vintage Nantucket glass beverage jar. A twist of the wrist at the silver spigot and cooling nectar fills the clear plastic cups. A refreshing vodka cocktail, it's infused with chunks of watermelon and cucumber and flavored with fresh mint. Two quick glasses and my brother is buzzing, and ready for the hayride that tours the farm.

We miss the spinach and kale bites which are quickly gobbled up by ravenous patrons, but we do manage to grab toothpicks of succulent ripe peaches wrapped with ham before jumping aboard. Shelby King, the statuesque blonde farm queen, guides the group past the pond and horse barn while she expounds on the virtues of sustainable farming and organic practices. We stop by a flock of grazing sheep to meet a cute little black-and-white lamb, and then bounce back to the shed.
click to enlarge JON PALMER CLARIDGE
  • Jon Palmer Claridge

As we make our way to the table, we realize that insiders who have attended previous dinners have already staked out most of the places. After some juggling and the addition of extra seats, we find our bench just in time to sample the “just-picked veggies with lemon honey aioli.” Farm fresh has never been so accurate (or delicious). All the fresh radishes are gone, but I manage to taste the accompanying anchovy butter, which is a nice touch.

It is BYOB. Somehow we miss that memo and arrive sans vino. Luckily, there’s plenty of cold-infused water, but the staff seems overwhelmed. So I make several trips to the trough for my table and play host, as I fill our pitcher and the many glasses surrounding me.

Our first course, “in your cup,” serves ladles full of King Farm sweet onion and thyme soup into assorted china mugs and tea cups. The soup is wonderful. The onions are beautifully caramelized, and the broth is rich and fragrant with thyme. I wish I encountered more onion soup this good. The problem is portion control. I get a mug with plenty of soup, but my sister’s cup is essentially just wet croutons.

Next, “from the field” is a tasty mixed-green salad dotted with bits of bacon and sunflower seeds, and topped with slices of tomato, boiled egg and Spanish Manchego wedges, in a lovely homemade pomegranate vinaigrette.

Unfortunately, the “main event” entrée is the evening’s underachiever. The plate is crowded with a tangle of the freshest greens: swiss chard, kale, arugula and spinach, wilted and fragrant with garlic, plus orzo tossed with baby mozzarella balls and heirloom tomatoes. Then, slices of roasted eggplant and a small square of rosemary focaccia. Squeezed next to this is a gloppy pile of picadillo, a spicy Latin ground beef hash with green bell pepper, tomatoes and green olives. Too much is going on, with no connection to the components other than the farm of origin.

The “sweet finish” showcases fresh farm blueberries over toasted poundcake with a subtle vanilla-lavender cream. It’s delish, but portion control is again an issue when you’re serving 110 in a hurry. My sister gets 15 blueberries, and I get three. Luckily, there’s an easy fix. I grab six to make us even, and the Case of the Purloined Blueberries ends happily.

So, while this is a unique, fun experience, with much to offer, the evening is understaffed, and the uneven portions and fragmented service undermine all that is fresh and local. I trust they’ll keep tweaking the details until the whole event is worthy of the farm’s precious bounty. 

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