Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The Farmers' Cabinet

Rare Euro brews shine, but the game-centric menu lacks execution and focus.

Beer casks on the wall are a prominent feature of the Farmers’ Cabinet dining room. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Beer casks on the wall are a prominent feature of the Farmers’ Cabinet dining room. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Beer casks on the wall are a prominent feature of the Farmers’ Cabinet dining room. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer) Gallery: The Farmers' Cabinet

What do you get when you mix a Boardwalk Empire-style speakeasy with a raucous beer hall featuring rare Scandinavian beers, a banjo-strumming ragtime band, and an overpriced menu specializing in wild game slathered with fruity glazes?

Our latest "farmer" restaurant, naturally: The Farmers' Cabinet.

I say this, of course, because June is the month I review a trio of new-crop restaurants with some variation of "farm" in their name. It's a coincidence, no doubt. But not really, as the farm-to-table movement is already in the throes of its jump-the-shark moment, at risk of becoming a gimmick of bandwagon parody.

As evidenced by the first movement of my Farmer Suite last week, the Farmer's Daughter in Blue Bell was proof that strict devotion to local ingredients and seasonality (or even good cooking) is not a prerequisite to join the club. This week's peek into the Farmers' Cabinet will be no different, at least in the most basic terms of dining satisfaction.

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  • Sure, there are plenty of farmers listed as sources on this menu, from Birchrun Hills (for cheese) to Liberty Gardens (organic produce), Lancaster meats, and Ponderosa Poultry (duck eggs).

    But this Walnut Street destination, ultimately, is far more about stylish drinking than about who grows the food or how it's prepared - dismally, and at a steep price - a sad tune I'll be playing shortly. (Blues trombone at the ready, please.) The name is actually a doff of the pre-Prohibition bowler to cocktail history: The original Farmers' Cabinet was a general-interest newspaper in Amherst, N.H., commonly credited with being the first to use the word cocktail in print in 1803.

    And this Cabinet certainly has the vintage vibes and liquid part down pat, with one of the most exciting drink and unusual live-music programs in town. With musician Drew Nugent giving the ivories a good stride-piano spanking, a tuba oomping bass, and a banjo strumming a Dixieland strut, the inner flapper or secret bootlegger in you must be moved (although conversation is virtually impossible, since the band is so darn loud).

    On one side of the front room, decorated with barrels and sail-like curtains illuminated by dangling Mason jars-turned-lanterns, cocktail queen Phoebe Esmon spins pure alcoholic alchemy. She and her crew work from a repertoire of refined classics and inventive fancies, with multiple kinds of ice (some hacked from 250-pound blocks) and house-made mixers such as the strawberry-rhubarb ratafia, ginger tincture, celery syrup, and narcissus bitters used in her seven-drink ode to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

    Simply request a spirit and a mood - "good rum, summer breeze" - and you're likely to get an inspiration like my "rum smash," a minty snowball of booze-soaked ice that tastes like a tropical take on mint julep.

    On a wall of rough-hewn planks on the other side of the room, meanwhile, co-owner Matt Scheller has affixed 26 taps that gush with ambrosia for beer geeks: a constantly changing array of rare artisan brews from sought-after European producers such as Mikkeller (Denmark), Baladin (Italy), Christoffel Nobel (Netherlands), and Bayerischer Bahnhof (Germany), plus four nano-brewed house-beers still to come.

    Such beer riches are now to be expected from Scheller and his partners, Matt and Colleen Swartz, who operated - for barely six months - the memorable Fork & Barrel in East Falls before closing after a rent dispute with the landlord. The all-candlelight ambience there was unique, too, so it's no surprise they've conjured up an evocative space on Walnut Street, with its communal wood tables and jazz-age decor, that incites the imagination. It's as if the ghosts of A.C.'s Prohibition boss "Nucky" Johnson and legendary beer writer Michael Jackson have been summoned to the bar for a drink.

    If they had to eat, though, I think even they might protest - especially when they got the steep bill for game entrées that tasted like cooking-school experiments run amok in fruity jams and lambic beer glazes. Scrawny squab slathered in blackberry jam for $28? Or deep-fried quail, whose delicate crust was soggy with onion jam and drizzles of wild-cherry Kriek molasses? The maraschino cherry liqueur that lacquered the chewy $26 rabbit like a Peking duck was only half the problem. The sides of white chocolate-carrot puree and polenta creamed with Greek yogurt and cherries gave it an identity crisis - dinner? breakfast? dessert? - that was all-around disconcerting.

    It would be unfair to say that nothing here is worthy of dinner. The double-sided menu is too vast and too ambitious, with an array of house-baked, cured, or pickled items - for all of them to disappoint.

    Among the best bets were drink-friendly nibbles such as the excellent cheeses (Old Kentucky Tomme, Pleasant Ridge, Zamorano, Fiore Sardo), as well as house-cured charcuterie including the medium-rare duck ham and rustic, liverwursty goose pâté. Go for the pickled carrots tinged with cardamom, the caraway-scented turnips, and the smoky paprika pop of cherry tomatoes.

    The short-rib burger would have been fine had it not been topped with a chewy mince of honeyed "bacon relish." A seared skate special was spot-on, paired perfectly with creamed lentils and deep-fried green tomatoes. We loved the rustic herb-and-cheese dandelion green tart served in a cast-iron pan.

    The elk chop, though, was puny, boneless, and overcooked - plus, I want something more imaginative than smashed potatoes for $32. No such problems with the gargantuan and tender buffalo short rib, whose Jerusalem artichoke mash was the most interesting thing on the table.

    For the most part, though, this kitchen, run by a group of co-chefs under Swartz's "vision" since opening chef Peter Shelton left, needs some serious hands-on oversight to iron out its concept and execution.

    Why drown a lobster-crab "ceviche" in hot coconut broth that is essentially Thai tom ka gai soup? Why pan-fry oysters only to let them go soggy in a puddle of curried mayonnaise? The crispy sweetbreads with tuna crudo is a clever attempt to retool "vitello-tonnato" - but too many flavors (and too much aioli) cancel one another out.

    The grilled pork spare ribs were remarkably tasteless despite their "beer wort" glaze. Ditto for the cauliflower puree beneath the crispy trout, which had so much potato blended in, its cauliflower soul had blanched. A cast-iron pot brimming with plump escargots, meanwhile, was doused in something so vividly bitter we pretty much couldn't eat it - a splash of good bourbon, it turns out, that someone had neglected to burn off.

    Amazingly, this was not even the worst thing we were served. That was saved for the finish, when, after grimacing through some greasy dark brown banana fritters that tasted of dirty oil, we were presented the check along with some paper-wrapped bonbons.

    The $299 bill for four raised some eyebrows. But it was the surprise inside the paper - blackberry gin-soaked house-made marshmallows that looked and tasted like slimy brown slugs - that took the prize. That's one idea that should be locked away in this farmer's cabinet, never to be opened again.

     


    Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, claban@phillynews.com, or @CraigLaBan on Twitter.

     

    Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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