Two reviewers. Two wildly different opinions.
We’ve heard it from friends and industry insiders for weeks: wildly contrasting stories about Farmers’ Cabinet, one of the latest in the farm-to-table movement (trend? gimmick?) to have opened in Philly these past few months. Some had thoroughly enjoyable meals. Others, not so much. Even the few times we’ve been there ourselves, the place struggled to find consistency, hitting impressive high notes and some truly sour ones just a few days apart. So when we sent out our writer-reviewers Brian Freedman and Tim McGinnis to give the place a try, it was little surprise the guys had completely different dining experiences there.
Tim McGinnis, for the most part, hated Farmers’ Cabinet. Well, hated might be strong, but he felt it severely underperformed in most areas. The decor, the underseasoned food, the “flaccid-as-a-dead-dog’s-dick” root chips. Freedman loved the place, and thinks it’s an exciting addition to the city, and has excellent service. So let’s get into their differences, shall we?
McGinnis is unimpressed: “Every angle of the restaurant is covered with old-timey decor, and although interesting and fun, there is something very Deadwood meets Epcot Center about the piled-on kitsch. I kept expecting the walls to open up and have animatronic cowboys slide out and burst into a mechanized showdown.”
Freedman, on the other hand, thinks the feel of the place heightens the mood and matches the food: “The crepuscular country feel of the space is one of its selling points. There’s something deeply satisfying about tucking into a Flintstone-sized buffalo short rib beneath the faraway gaze of a deer head and the faces of the old-timey sepia photos of people long gone hanging on the walls.”
McGinnis was unimpressed by the crab and lobster ceviche soup: “Rubbery seafood bobbing in a drab and dish watery ginger, lemongrass and coconut milk broth,” he writes. “It took me back to my freshman year of culinary school and the uninspired dishes that were ubiquitous that year.”
Freedman found the whipped fat-back so damn good, he will gladly risk future heart surgery: “I was powerless to fight its pull. It glistened in the candlelight, translucent and shimmering like some sort of piggy opal, and the occasional snap of salt hiding in its depths, the tang of thyme, absolutely required a second tiny jar, and then a third, and then, inevitably one day as a result, years down the road, a nice set of defib-paddles.”
Freedman also loved the simply named egg in a jar, which looked unappealing, but tasted amazing, calling it “an explosive study in umami that finds its footing both in the rustic and the higher-falutin’. It’s an innocent-looking jam jar filled with a relatively unattractive, vaguely jiggly gray mass. Get past the aesthetics, ignore the spoon it’s presented with, and dig into it with a hunk of homemade bread. It emerges caked with a holy-sounding combination of poached foie gras, black trumpets, creme fraiche and duck egg. It’s almost too rich for more than a few bites, but balanced enough that you’ll likely be jiggly legged in the face of its lustiness. You will, inevitably, finish the entire thing.”
McGinnis found the sandwich menu “ambitious but a bit lacking in flavor. While the good-but-not-great Ground Short Rib Burger was enhanced by aged cheddar and an A-1-like (in a good way) bacon jam, the Peekytoe Crab Roll with heirloom tomatoes and lettuce could have been better with the help of a strong herb presence and more salt. At $13 and $14 respectively, and served alongside flaccid-as-a-dead-dog’s-dick root chips, they are both not at all worth the price of admission.”
Tim's Main Beef
Underseasoned food was a theme in McGinnis’ visits. “The overall feeling [of the food],” he writes, “was best summed up by a friend when he said, ‘These guys need to sell some of these decorations and buy some salt.’ The Rustic Caesar Salad needed salt; the duck egg in a jar with black trumpet ’shrooms and foie gras needed salt; braised duck sandwich with frisee, brie and a blackberry gastric, salt; rabbit two ways, salt.”
Freedman didn’t have the same issues, and among his favorites were the aforementioned buffalo short rib and an elk dish. “As for that short rib, it ain’t so short,” he writes. “But for all its forearm-length heft, there is a tenderness to it that too much ‘big meat’ so often lacks. This one glistened from its braise, and despite its significant stores of fat, grown gelatinous from cooking, there is enough meat on it for two to share, each bite slippery on the tongue, sticky on the teeth and a joy to eat. The fibrous heft of sunchoke mashed potatoes is an ingenious accompaniment.
“Elk is another success with the game meats this kitchen veers toward,” Freedman says. “Burgundy-toned at the center, perfectly seasoned, and dragged through a tongue-coating housemade demi-glace, this was another example of Chef Ricky Heinrichs’ confidence with his menu and ability to make the unfamiliar somehow both non-threatening and even, often, deeply comforting.”
“This is a serious place for serious cocktails,” Freedman writes. “Cockaigne is a cognac- and strawberry shrub-spiked ringer for lambic, but packs infinitely more punch. The ‘kipling’ cocktail mimicks a classic IPA with its unexpectedly complex interaction of cynar, grapefruit soda, and more. Berwick Fizz, a play on another classic, struts its stuff on a runway of food-friendly acidity.”
McGinnis agrees with Freedman here, and wonders why someone with money hasn’t “pulled their head out of their ass” and invested in opening a bar with drink duo Christian Gaal and Phoebe Esmon, the two responsible for the “interesting” cocktail list at Farmers’. “The Contrarian is made up of Philly’s own bluecoat gin and vieux carre absinthe with sugar, fresh lemon juice, peychaud’s bitters, soda and is garnished with a lemon wheel and is surprisingly light and refreshing.”
PW's Taste of Philly 2014