"I only get two brains a week" is the kind of comment you'll hear from someone who is either really working his noggin, or an enthusiastic chef who knows his way around a whole animal.
Josh Lawler happens to be both, a superbly talented young cook who can channel the essence of his ingredients - be they beets, blossoms, or lamb brains - with the hands-on skill of a craftsman and the eye of an artist who paints plates with seasonal colors as vivid to taste as they are to behold. Golden chicken breast stuffed with wilted nettles and ground thigh meat arrives draped in a buttery green necklace of fiddlehead ferns. Lightly torched ribbons of hiramasa sashimi bask in a chilled pink broth steeped from tart rhubarb. Carrot soup as bright and pure as sunshine is poured tableside onto a dollop of thickened buttermilk sprouting tiny flowers.
Lawler, 31, a local boy from Conshohocken, is rightfully one of the most buzzed-about young chefs to hit our scene in awhile. He did, however, make at least one mistake since moving back to Philly with his wife and partner, Colleen (from Winslow Township, Camden County, also a chef), after several years in New York, where he was chef de cuisine at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. That was choosing to name his ambitious BYOB "The Farm and Fisherman" at the unfortunate moment when the farm-to-table movement is at risk of being co-opted by bandwagon pretenders.
This is the third consecutive week I've reviewed a restaurant with "farm" in the name. And after the disappointing first two (the Farmer's Daughter in Blue Bell and the Farmers' Cabinet on Walnut Street), I was beginning to wonder whether this noble concept was already withering on the vine. The Farm and Fisherman is different. This is a restaurant that should restore our faith in the possibilities of a philosophy that's far more than a fleeting trend. The notion that chefs should cook with ingredients that are as fresh and as carefully grown as possible, that reflect the moment and a sense of place, is becoming ensconced in the mainstream. And so it should.
Though the name has the subtlety of a bumper sticker, The Farm and Fisherman itself is largely void of the superficial affects at lesser restaurants that think simply naming farmers on the menu is sufficient organic cred - a practice Lawler doesn't bother with. There are no pitchforks on the wall, nor rustic barrels placed out front. This simple cappuccino-colored box of a Pine Street storefront, with its broad-paned window and noisy non-decor, is set to thrive in classic Philly BYO form, drawing life from a growing roster of wine-toting regulars who covet its 30 seats, and making its point on the plate.
The sweet butter is churned in back (from cream bought at the Clark Park market from the Hails family) to accompany the freshly baked Parker House rolls. There is no walk-in fridge or freezer, requiring that all ingredients be used quickly and efficiently. Whole animals arrive each week, soon to be broken down, cooked sous-vide or turned to stock, then dispersed into various parts of the meal, such as the midcourse of pork jowls and crispy snout cubes that arrive beneath a rich gloss of lamb-neck jus scattered with tiny purple pansies. The juicy loin, meanwhile, follows as an entrée chaser, dusted with fennel pollen over farmer's cheese spaetzle and crowned with a tender rib roasted with sumac and lemon. The lamb made cameos as a loin, a slow-cooked shoulder, and, of course, that brain - a smart indulgence for offal aficionados - lightly poached, then panfried to a delicate exterior crisp that melts inside like the richest creamy pudding. Some people will go for that.
But The Farm and Fisherman isn't simply for extreme eaters. Lawler cooks vegetables with as much feeling and finesse as anyone in town. His "beet steak" is a masterpiece root that should demolish any salad-bar beet preconceptions. Cooked down whole in a cast-iron pan beneath a brick until the skin splits its seams and crisps, it is served "medium rare," our waiter says with a wink. And indeed, with the help of a balsamic glaze, it oozes sweet-tart crimson juice into white smears of house-made yogurt that, in its deconstructed borscht moment, highlights a dense firmness and savor that is both beety and meaty. Exotic herbs steeped like tea into sauces add layers of subtle, unexpected flavors, such as the lemon balm and chocolate mint that infuse the hiramasa's rhubarb broth around the already complex contrasting textures of fish, chewy tapioca beads, and soft rhubarb.
Lawler, who graduated along with Colleen from Drexel University's Hospitality, Management and Culinary Arts program, honed his craft with the best - chef Dan Barber, whose farm-to-table paradise at Blue Hill at Stone Barns on the Rockefeller family's Westchester farm estate is a magnificent experiment in sustainable cooking, surrounded by 80 acres of gardens and fields that grow everything from cutting-edge produce to the corn that is ground into polenta daily.
But for a devoted Phillies fan like Lawler, who managed 20 home games one year while still in New York, the commute was getting to be a bit much. The arrival of twins, and the need to be closer to family, sealed their return. So now, instead of plucking produce from an estate's vast gardens, Lawler cruises the local farm-market circuit, supplemented with deliveries from a forager who brings bags of stinging nettles and wildflowers. Lawler just built a couple of henhouses for a contracted farmer in Medford to raise pastured birds that produce blue eggs with bright yellow yolks that should be showing soon.
Special seafood ingredients, meanwhile, come from family connections in Cape May, where he has resurrected a favorite childhood bycatch - sea robin - whose perchlike fillets pose atop airy gnocchi with morsels of poached lobster in a rich crustacean broth infused with lemon balm. The seared sea scallops were also gorgeous. But it was garnish that really knocked me out, a long rail of tiny pasta beads in lemon-lovage vinaigrette jeweled with so many tiny textures - shaved asparagus and breakfast radish, snappy pine nuts and tiny currants - that once I added a sweet-and-sour dab of reduced green tomatoes and verjus, the flavors made the plate spin.
Of course, in its early weeks, Lawler's kitchen has not been flawless. The hanger steak was chewy - even by hanger steak standards. The menu urges three savory courses before dessert, but does not always show enough distinction between the first and second to make that a convincing format. As a result, Lawler's effusive use of microgreens and tiny wildflowers can, by course three, feel more like munching through a garden to get to the plate. By my second visit, though, these issues seemed to have faded a bit.
The restaurant's biggest weakness remains dessert, which consists mostly of solid but simplistic chef creations - an inviting panna cotta with honey, a "snowfall" of chocolate shavings over puff pastry and fresh whipped cream.
Stick with the Jersey cheese plate for more intrigue. Unless, of course, Lawler can manage to find just one more brain for his kitchen - a real pastry chef's - that can do the rest of this fine dining experience justice.
Contact Craig LaBan at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CraigLaBan on Twitter.