A marvelous BYOB opens in Philly.
The wines that guests bring to a BYO give an indication of the sort of food to expect, and an idea of how people perceive the level of experience provided there. It’s an inexact science, but a telling one.
Bibou is the classic Philadelphia example right now: For all its casual ambience and hearty, rustic food, it’s a serious place for serious eaters and drinkers, and a quick glance around the space is likely to reveal any number of wines you’ve only ever read about ... and that cost as much as your rent or mortgage. Fond, Matyson and Cochon are also members of this hoity club, destinations with excellent food that offer the perfect context (and excuse) for digging deep into the cellar and unearthing something special.
From the looks of it, the Farm and Fisherman is the city’s newest member of this group. On a recent Saturday night, I spotted not just a handful of springtime-standard dry rosés, but also a Chateauneuf-du-Pape with a time-worn label, a half-bottle of good Sauternes, and a mystery red in a decanter, its edges the burnished color of brick and its owners swooning with each sip.
It makes sense: The food at this elegant Pine Street newcomer is perfect to accompany good grape juice, and, in this chef-obsessed city, the pedigree of returned prodigal son Joshua Lawler would have been impetus enough. (The Drexel alum’s resume includes Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Telepan and more.)
The depth of his experience and way he seems to have internalized the lessons of seasonal, local eating, means he applies the farm-to-table ethos lightly. Like a classically trained pianist, his riffs are always rooted in great technique and rock-solid ideas at this elegant, tailored space.
Like so many other spots around town (or, for that matter, around the country), seasonality and freshness are the buzzwords here. But there’s no preachiness on the Farm, no listing of every ingredient’s pedigree to muddle up the menu, no overly baroque description of each dish to throw otherwise straightforward (and utterly beautiful) food into a tailspin of confusion. Instead, Lawler’s menu follows what has become a fairly standard listing system: Main ingredient, followed by three or four comma-separated components. It’s as elegant as his food, as relaxed as the dining room Lawler’s wife Colleen runs.
Lawler’s dishes are straightforward, his focus always on the ingredients. The menu is stuffed with the familiar, but there are plenty of surprises to be found.
Chilled carrot soup, for example, is listed with chocolate mint, local ginger and buttermilk—the latter a gently gelatinized panna cotta-like mound around which the high-toned soup was poured. It provided heft to an otherwise well-executed classic, smoothing the edges of the local ginger and highlighting the chocolate mint syrup in it.
Bloody beet steak has turned into one of Lawler’s most popular creations, a vegetable’s perfect mimicking of rare beef in both color and texture. The center of the smoky root practically bleeds out when cut into, and stains its accompanying homemade yogurt like a candy cane. Beautiful, and far better than any seitan meat-fakery that vegans and vegetarians too often have to resort to. (It is shown a bit of meat-stock love, but vegetarians can request it without.)
That beet steak is a handy example of Lawler’s philosophy, which is restrained, and anchored in solid, supremely well-honed technique. Confident but never flashy. Farmer’s cheese spaetzle, for example, is what I imagine kids in some mythic Germany eat for Saturday-afternoon lunch instead of the macaroni and cheese of so many of our childhoods. Its smoky heft is an excellent accompaniment to an otherwise simple, fennel pollen-dusted Berkshire pork chop.
The subtle, snow-colored meat at the center of a brick of Carolina wreakfish is protected by a shattering layer of pan-crisped crust—a neat trick, considering the difficulty of keeping this fish moist. Tempura-fried soft shell crab anchors one end of an unexpected and whimsical riff on surf and turf: Its counterpart, a deep wheatgrass-toned creamed escarole is like a shot of chlorophyll, as perfectly evocative of the land as the crab was of the sea. No need for any four-legged creature here.
Only the quail was a letdown, its skin neither as crisp nor as taut against the meat as it should have been, the pine nut and raisin stuffing missing much of the sweetness you’d expect. That sense of restrained sweetness, however, is a key to the success of Lawler’s take on strawberry shortcake, a simple plating of good whipped cream and mint syrup-macerated local strawberries from this far-too-short season, sandwiched between halves of a honey-kissed semolina poundcake.
The table next to us, perhaps having called ahead, or simply the beneficiaries of some kind of good wine karma, had the local honey panna cotta—perfect, I imagine, with their Sauternes. It must have been: The table got awfully quiet when they took their first bites alongside the honey-toned wine. Their faith in the Farm, it seems, had been amply rewarded, as was mine.
1120 Pine St.
Cuisine: Farm to table in the best sense of the idea.
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 5-10pm.
Price range: $10-$28.
Atmosphere: Elegant, but not stuffy. The Philly BYOB all grown up.
Food: Delicious; clean flavors backed by stellar technique.
Give us this weekend our daily bread