Reservations are nice. But many a new restaurant has depended on the kindness of "walk-ins," those unexpected spontaneous diners who appear on a hungry whim, usually while strolling a downtown district.
But what about Honey Brook, in the middle of rolling Chester County farmland? Hire a serious chef, cook from the farm, and cue the sunset.
"We got slammed tonight," a hostess at Wyebrook Farm shrugged at the reservation map on her iPad, explaining how a sparsely staffed service team suddenly found itself scrambling through the gravel courtyard to serve sustainably raised meats and handmade pastas to nearly triple the amount of expected diners.
With clear weather and mild summer breezes caressing the open-air terrace here dotted with picnic tables, a shiny caravan of guests in sundresses and prosperous tans had suddenly materialized with BYO wines in tow. And just in time for the golden dusk.
A squadron of purple martins loop-de-looped joyously through the pink sky overhead. Elton John crooned "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" over the stereo. And a mysterious mist drifted off the treetops to settle on the green fields beyond the terrace that sloped gently down toward the Brandywine Creek past a duck pond, nut-foraging Old Spot pigs, grazing Devon cows, and 1,000 brown chickens that call Wyebrook their happy free-range home.
At least until dinner.
That potent rustic-chic combo of postcard country beauty and New Age sustainable meat farming has been a compelling draw ever since owner Dean Carlson read The Omnivore's Dilemma, left his hedge-fund career, purchased 360 acres of Chester County paradise, and opened the beautifully renovated Wyebrook in 2012. He began with a retail butcher shop and casual cafe in the old stone barn, but quickly grasped this reality: "People wanted to participate in sustainable food; they just didn't want to cook it themselves."
And so Carlson, whose instinct was not to become a restaurateur, has increasingly become that, finally hiring an executive chef (and whole-animal specialist) in Russet's Andrew Wood this year to create an actual restaurant. Wood splits his time between city and country, with his longtime sous, Matthew Broeze, running the farm.
It's still clearly a work in progress, as evidenced by the huge covered pavilion that just debuted with sheepskin-lined benches next to the courtyard, which now allows Wyebrook to accept up to 100 reservations no matter the weather (not just the 50 seats its dramatic stone cafe dining room could absorb).
The service is still working out kinks, struggling to deliver bread baskets before the meals are half-done, issuing their five-minute-warning for guests to shop the closing market just as the hot entrées are delivered.
The menu is also ever-changing, and still finding its place on the spectrum between rustic and refined, especially considering entrées in the high $20s. For the moment, it leans sensibly toward unfussy compositions that serve the ingredients well.
A cool vichyssoise soup pops green with raw asparagus juice and salty pink slivers of cherry-smoked ham. Well-cured rounds of deep-red salami cured with garlic and bitter hops are perked with the sweet-tart-spice of a rhubarb and chile gastrique. The superbly rich farm eggs, lightly poached into white balloons and posed atop the crust of Wyebrook's vegetable potpie, became the ultimate sauce when mixed with the mushroom broth around shiitake caps, roasted broccoli, tender potatoes, and baby carrots.
When served as main-course proteins, grass-fed meats seem to shine best with techniques that are inverse to their usual mainstream presentations. The dark-toned pork is best seared like a mid-rare sirloin, the incredibly flavorful meat memorably juicy against a soft wedge of sweetly charred cabbage and earthy grains of toasted rye.
The beef is rarely served as steak, in part due to the inefficiency of slaughtering enough cows to keep filet mignon on the menu, but also due to grass-fed beef's gamy, mineral profile. As a slow-braised (and sometimes smoked) hunk of joint, however, the massive short rib with baby turnips and herbaceous salsa verde was one of most profoundly flavorful, melt-off-the-bone slabs of flesh I've savored in a while.
What the small-breasted chickens lack in natural plumpness was compensated for with great flavor in an entrée with herb-infused choux dumplings and sunchokes in fennel cream. But I loved the chicken even better with the thigh meat slow-cooked confit-style and scattered in shreds over toothy tubes of house-extruded rigatoni with rainbow chard and green garlic. And better still when the livers were rendered into an earthy gravy dotted with bright green peas over S-shaped casarecci tubes.
Wood's history as a pasta maestro is put to good use, but the minuscule portions are sometimes frustrating. I could've eaten twice the amount of his ethereal ravioli (just a handful for $14?!) - but only because they were so good, the delicate pasta bonbons filled one night with garlic-infused ricotta against tangy-sweet pickled strawberry gastrique, another night savory with garlicky nuggets of ground salami filling set beneath in wilted greens and cream.
The delicate pappardelle ribbons with stewed Romano beans were too thin and stuck together in a clumpy red pile by the time they arrived to our table. A panzanella salad was another flub - the underdressed croutons were stale and chewy. An unpleasantly dry, oversalted sausage was an unexpected charcuterie misstep, especially since the harder part of that entrée, the slow-cooked pork belly, was impressively meaty and tender.
At moments like this, the execution can feel just a bit too casual, too artlessly piled on the plate, to meet the full promise of this majestic setting. But it's a fine line that can easily swing the other way. A potentially mundane radicchio salad hit complex seasonal notes over a smear of whipped goat cheese scattered with pistachios, sweet cherries, and roasted cauliflower.
Ditto for the potentially ho-hum platter of local cheeses. With added accents from a sunflower brittle, jellied rhubarb cubes and local honey, it did such a fine job of showcasing an oozy Hummingbird from Doe Run and a startlingly good blue from Lancaster's Millwood, I found myself gazing across the valley beyond Wyebrook's terrace wall and subconsciously wondering if those gifted dairy cows at neighboring farms could be far away.
Though Wyebrook must continue to polish the fine points of its dinner experience before it achieves true destination status, the mere fact it can evoke those connections to its food sources so tangibly, so directly, already hints at a glimmer of magic that is only sure to grow.
Next week, LaBan reviews William Street Common.