As one or two of the links on my blogroll might suggest, I tend to support the local food movement, or at least parts of it; I have a membership at my local food co-op, I’ve read Crunchy Cons and The Oldways Table, and even subscribed to The American Conservative just to make sure I could read the Rod Dreher/Michael Pollan interview. (I simultaneously subscribed to The Progressive for purposes of balance.)
So, when a restaurant opened up here in Bloomington which was touted as “local, seasonal and simple, while still original” and claimed “to reach out to local growers and utilize their products,” naturally I was interested — definitely the kind of thing locally-minded foodies should want to support, yes?
Well, after months of hearing that it was good but expensive, Megan and I went to FARMbloomington Tuesday night. We were looking to celebrate the beginning of the new school year, and it seemed like as good of an opportunity as any to give it a shot.
Bottom line, in case you don’t want to bother with the gory details: it’s good, but expensive.
The problem is this — it’s okay for a restaurant to be expensive, as long as the customer isn’t thinking after paying, “Wow, that was expensive.” Ideally, the quality of any restaurant should be proportionate to what it costs to eat there; in other words, one should look at the check and always think, “Yep, about right.” Paying through the nose is fine — I just don’t want to feel like I’m paying through the nose. So, if I’m thinking on my way back to the car, “That was good, but expensive,” what that really means is that it wasn’t good enough, not by half.
Walking in, the place has a country-style restaurant feel; some have called it a “high-end Cracker Barrel” and that’s not too far off, but the postmodern twist sneaks up on you when you’re looking at the west wall of the dining room and you realize — that’s a wall covered with bedpans. Evan, our server, was pretty upfront when we asked him about it — “Those are bedpans, all different styles,” he told us. Evidently that’s what says “local” to chef Daniel Orr.
The other problem is that it seems like nothing can just be “local” or “normal”; it’s gotta have a gimmick, as the song goes. Sometimes it works, as in the case of the pineapple vodka which is spiced on-site; that stuff is tasty (many thanks to David, who brought them to us unprompted). Sometimes, however, it just leaves you scratching your head — my wife’s cocktail, a house concoction called “Sweet Lucy in the Rye” made from Sweet Lucy bourbon, Wild Turkey rye, orange juice, and… a ginger cube. A ginger cube? Speaking as an aficionado of Manhattan cocktails, I found this drink to be bizarre. That said, when they do something straightforward, it works very well — my mojito was quite refreshing and very much appreciated, it having been hot and muggy all day.
For appetizers, we went with a plate of sea scallops (as Megan pointed out, not exactly a local selection, unless there’s something about Lake Monroe I don’t know), thinly-sliced and served raw, topped with lime, chilies, dill, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and sea salt. Not bad, worth trying, the plate size is simply too big for two people. After a couple of them you realize it’s more interesting than good, but you’ve still got a whole platter left. Some of the chunks of sea salt were a little too big, but that bothered die Frau more than it bothered me. I also had a caesar salad, which was good but the gimmicky touch here was the shredded seaweed on top. I guess it worked okay, but only because it combined with the taste of the caesar dressing and was effectively blended out. Since it didn’t add anything in terms of flavor or texture, why bother?
My entrée was the Coffee Rubbed Buffalo Nickel Farms Bison Ribeye, served with truffle, mushroom grits, and soubise (a kind of onion white sauce). The mushroom grits and the truffle were fantastic. The meat was… not bad, not great. I asked for medium rare, but danged if I could find a millimeter of pink on the thing. It wasn’t horrible despite being overcooked, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I ordered it, either. Megan ordered an off-the-menu Fielder pork chop with potatoes and a reduction sauce; again, the potatoes were terrific, and the meat was, well, fine.
Dessert was coffee an espresso parfait — like the mojito, quite tasty and refreshing on this particular day. The problem here was Megan asking for cream for the coffee and being given nonfat milk; I guarantee you, she doesn’t have an ounce to lose, so it wasn’t that they were trying to send a message, they just weren’t paying attention. Had that been the only thing questionable about the evening, it would have been a minor quibble, but it contributed to an overall sense that FARMbloomington is still figuring some things out.
Pre-tip, the tab came to $108.07; had everything been wonderful from — if you’ll excuse the expression — soup to nuts, I don’t think I would have blinked at that, but it sure felt expensive. Had it been about two-thirds of the price (or less), it would have felt a lot closer to reality.
Now, all of this is not to say that it was terrible and I don’t ever want to go back. Seattle’s Cafe Flora* it ain’t, at least not yet, but as I said, it’s the kind of place I’d like to be able to support, it wasn’t absolutely terrible, there were definitely things that were really good, it’s just that they clearly do not yet have the ship sailing as smoothly as it hopefully will be eventually. I plan to go back after the menu rolls over for fall or winter and see how things change. If they’ve improved some things, I look forward to being able to report that.
* Home of the best cheese grits in the universe. Check out their cookbook.