The recent run of star Philly chefs across the Ben Franklin Bridge to South Jersey has brought along a trunkful of expectations. But does the arrival of these indie operators amount to an instant upgrade over the corporate restaurants that have dominated the mall-corridor wedge between Routes 70 and 38?
For Marc Vetri's Osteria in Moorestown, the case was a resounding three-bell "Sì!" because it faithfully duplicated a proven concept.
The result is not so clear-cut at the Farm & Fisherman Tavern + Market in Cherry Hill, where chef-partners Josh Lawler and Todd Fuller are plowing relatively new turf. Their sprawling 140-plus-seat space in the former Andreotti's Viennese Cafe is a hybrid project - part restaurant, part neighborhood bar, part prepared-foods take-out market.
We've seen successful variations of this before, the Talula's market-cafes being the most polished. But the casual, all-purpose setup is quite far in style and concept from the soignée 30-seat BYOB where Lawler, a chef I admire, made his name as one of Philly's best practitioners of farm-to-table gastronomy.
The Tavern is moved by the same go-local hands-on spirit, obvious from the shelves of Collingswood-roasted coffee, multihued eggs, and fridge cases of house-made sausages and terrines in the market.
But the end goal of the Tavern involves a bigger challenge: to break down its whole animals, devotion to seasonality, and dedication to scratch cooking at a neighborhood-friendly price point that might actually pry someone away from their frozen Happy Hour BahamaRitas at the mall.
I'm guessing the bitter sorrel-spiked cocktails and extensive craft beer list, with special attention to Jersey brews such as Flying Fish, Cape May, and Kane, will lure a slightly different, more thoughtful drinking demographic.
The menus do their best to please all tastes, from sandwiches with house-roasted meats to more ambitious entrees ranging into the high $20s. It's not nearly fast food, but it isn't fine dining, either. And finding the perfect middle frequency of style, price, and value here is still clearly a work in progress.
Either way, it's going to be a hard sell. The excellent dry-aged LaFrieda brisket patty on the Industrial burger with onion jam and Cabot cheddar is a seriously savory and juicy step up from Bobby's Burger Palace. But at $14, vs. $6.75 at Bobby's, will enough people really get it?
The Farm & Fisherman's team must do its best convincing on the plate. And there are certainly more than a few where its case is clear.
The veggie-centric starters are among the most appealing signals of the restaurant's determined seasonality - especially the tasting board with crispy chickpea fries and romesco sauce, the tangy mince of braised winter greens lightly enriched with sour cream, and a picnic-worthy broccoli salad that's addictive pinched between the warm pita folds of a big house-baked flatbread. The minestrone is simple but soulful, the tomato broth bursting with fresh veggies, toothy pasta tubes, and the piquant tang of steeped Parmesan rinds.
The "bloody beet" salad is a less intense rendition of Lawler's signature app at the BYO, the roasted root caramelized with honeyed vinegar and beef stock then served over yogurt and simple salad with pistachio praline. The chopped salad, a layered mound of finely shaved cauliflower, radishes, turnips, greens, and multihued carrots tossed in bright oregano vinaigrette, was an irresistible tribute to the evocative crunch of winter's roots.
A love of offbeat grains anchored my favorite seafood entree, a thick slice of crispy-skinned red snapper over a flavorful farro-escarole salad. It was also room temperature, an odd but deliberate choice, more appealing in summer than in the dead of winter.
The pizza-esque "bar pie" with sweet slivers of golden squash and crispy sage layered beneath tangy flows of Taleggio cheese will remind locals that Fuller, with whom Lawler worked years ago at Buddakan, was also the menu master behind the pizzas at Treno in nearby Westmont.
Then again, a surprising number of F&F's best bites are similar to what's offered on Treno's menu, from the wonderfully crisp and tender calamari tossed with tangy pickled giardiniera, to the creamy burrata paired with roasted brussels sprouts. The similarities are a turnoff, in general, but more specifically show a lapse in the necessary imagination needed to create something compellingly new here. The big meatball app in bright tomato sauce, here dolloped with ricotta, is a good one. But South Jersey already has plenty of those.
The Farm & Fisherman sits a solid tier above a P.J. Whelihan's-run place like Treno in terms of service, a common suburban weak point, with mature servers who exude enthusiasm and sufficient knowledge of the menu without a hint of pretense.
But the Tavern's mission to persuade locals to spend a bit more for quality sustainable ingredients isn't helped by either the inconsistent cooking or prices on some entrees that seem a shade steep to compete.
The grilled chicken wings were scorched. The simple crabcake was lusciously meaty but blandly underseasoned. The flavorful short-rib "Bolgonese" rigatoni was swimming with too much cream. The hay-baked local chicken was moist in the wonderful "pot pie" croquettes sold in the take-out market. But the breast, aromatic from espelette pepper and fennel pollen, was dry and overcooked as a $23 entree in the dining room, where the comfy tufted orange banquettes set the scene for an inviting brasserie vibe.
In some cases, the quality of the ingredients makes an obvious case for the value of higher prices. The heritage-breed pork chop from Rettland Farm was so good, its mid-rare meat fanned over gigante beans braised in rich tomato sauce and stock, that it was fair at $27.
But to convince me a plate of rutabaga carpaccio is worth $23, I want this kitchen to exert more culinary horsepower than it took to pile rounds of the roasted root into a messy jumble with farro and greens and hardly a trace of sauce to moisten it all.
The flavors are often right there, as with the satisfying beef stew braised with Yards Love Stout over polenta. But again, for $23, I want a bit more refinement - milling the limp stewed veggies into sauce with a bonus of fresh ones for garnish, maybe? - so it doesn't look like it was just scooped from a block-party crockpot.
It isn't simply about making food pretty. An overly rustic approach can sometimes completely overwhelm a delicate ingredient, like the subtle brininess of pristine Jersey scallops that were squashed by the intensity of kabocha squash cut into clumsy large chunks.
Finding the right tone for the Farm & Fisherman Tavern is clearly just as delicate an equation. The good news is that, with adjustments, the right ingredients are already on site for it to happen soon.
FARM & FISHERMAN TAVERN + MARKET
1442 Marlton Pike E. (Rt. 70), Cherry Hill
Chef-partners Josh Lawler and Todd Fuller keep South Jersey’s recent indie-restaurant surge rolling with a multifaceted tavern-market that presents the local food ethos of Lawler’s upscale Farm and Fisherman in a larger, more casual setting. The broad menu ranges from great burgers and “bar pies” to high-end seafood, but is still refining both consistency and the right balance of quality ingredients and scratch cooking with accessible prices. Friendly service, a craft beer-stocked bar, and a worthy prepared-foods market gives this Andreotti’s successor a solid chance to become a local standby.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Bread and spreads; winter squash “bar pie”; calamari with giardiniera; minestone; giant meatball; crabcake; burrata; chopped salad; bloody beet; rigatoni Bolognese; pork chop; scallops; crème brulée cheesecake; chocolate cake.
DRINKS Local craft beers on draft (Kane, Neshaminy, Cape May) and 70-plus bottles make beer king of the Tavern. There is a small, eclectic list of wines at reasonable prices, though wines by the glass were forgettable. Stick with a good bottle (Ridge; Pabiot; Ratzenberger; Stolpman; Orin Swift) to accompany some of the more ambitious entrees.
WEEKEND NOISE A reasonable 84 decibels, aided by comfy well-spaced seating, makes conversation possible. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.; Sunday, until 9 p.m. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $11-$28.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, but not required.
Free parking lot.
Chef de cuisine Todd Fuller discusses Farm & Fisherman Tavern + Market at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.