I’ve been doing a lot of suburban dining this summer, which means I’ve pulled into my share of strip malls. And from first glance, there’s really nothing remarkable about the Horsham Corner, a recently revamped strip mall at the intersection of Horsham and Norristown Roads. The new Farm & Fisherman Tavern there won’t win any special design awards, either, as it’s basically a long box with a spacious bar at one end and a sunny dining room at the other filled with black tables and pumpkin-hued banquettes.
“Orange is our favorite color,” says co-owner and chef Josh Lawler, who designed it with his co-chef and partner Todd Fuller. His wife, Colleen Lawler, is also a partner.
But something special is definitely happening in this restaurant. As I sipped a cucumber-infused cocktail sparkling with house-made tonic and grazed from a menu that ranged from za’atar-dusted chicken wings to a fork-tender short rib smothered in smoked tomato barbecue sauce, followed by a dreamy local peach pie topped with house-churned vanilla ice cream, I wondered: Had these guys finally cracked the code of serving real food in the suburbs?
I’m not talking about two chefs with high-end pedigrees simply transplanting a fine-dining destination from the city, where Lawler, the farm-to-table master, made a name at his original Farm & Fisherman BYOB (a 32-seat gem that’s now closed), and Fuller worked the exotic nouveau North African flavors at Tangerine. No, what they’ve created together in Horsham with the second edition of their Farm & Fisherman Tavern, building on the first branch in Cherry Hill, is something far more elusive. They’ve taken the principles of an approach more common with modern fine-dining – scratch cooking, quality local ingredients, micro-seasonality – and creatively reapplied them for the masses with an everyday neighborhood tavern intended to compete in a landscape dominated by freezer-to-fryer national chains, pizzerias, and sports bars where the parking lot crowds can be directly correlated to the amount of TVs mounted inside.
Yes, the plates (and even the cocktails) brim with the heirloom produce of small farmers that Lawler says costs about 30 percent more than what he could get from a Sysco truck, with oddball tomatoes and other vegetables that lack standardization and require more skilled prep. But those multihued tomatoes also burst with the juicy payoff of a Berks County farm’s summer ripeness, scattered atop creamy burrata cheese streaked with aged balsamic. And for what it is, the Farm & Fisherman Tavern is still a remarkably affordable and flexible place, where you can get out of happy hour with a burger and beer for less than $10, a beautiful crab cake full of sweet lump crustacean for $15, or linger over a hearty plate of juicy Berkshire pork chops with creamed local sweet corn flecked with shishito peppers for $23. Most of the entrees are under $25. One can also feed a family of four for $40 with one of the nightly takeout comfort food “bundles” at both branches. The Monday night fried chicken extravaganza – a whole eight-piece bird, four flaky biscuits, a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet corn rubbed in lime butter, plus sugar-dusted doughnut holes with caramel for dessert – was one of the most stunning values of quality food I’ve devoured all year.
F&F followers know this tavern concept has been a work in progress in Cherry Hill for the last three years, as the team honed its focus on what suburban audiences really want. That included more family-friendly meals, a menu with broad choices (from “bloody beet” salads and garlicky roast pork sandwiches to the heartier suppers), shaving the opening prices by a few dollars, and abandoning the initial prepared-foods market annex – all the while continuing to add an extra cheffy touch to every dish. Yes, they serve a wedge salad here, but it’s the most beautiful wedge ever, garnished with Benton’s bacon, Rogue Creamery smoked blue cheese, and a curry-spiced granola that adds crunch to the green goddess dressing. And the menu is also built to challenge reluctant customers one step at a time, coaxing them from the safety of the excellent fish and chips on one visit, for example, to a daily special of luscious seared scallops nestled with sweet corn in a silky swoosh of pureed smoked eggplant. After the wedge salad? Try the fattoush of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes tossed with feta and crunchy pita chips dusted with tangy sumac. After the very good “Industrial” brisket burger with American cheese? Step up $1 to the “Colonial” with grass-fed beef and Vermont cheddar. Or try my favorite, the “Astoria,” a patty of ground lamb paired with feta and tahini-spiked ketchup.
That extends to the impressively well-rounded drink program, which features some unusual indie wines (pét-nat, unfiltered roussanne, charbono, wines on draft, and several Portuguese bargains) with fair markups and cocktails infused with local spirits and produce (from blueberry mojitos to peach margaritas). Like Cherry Hill, it’s also a showcase for local craft brews (including lesser-known names like Pizza Boy, Stickman, Double Nickel) that has actually been a turnoff for some mass-market devotees: “We’ve had customers refuse to eat here because we don’t sell Bud,” says general manager Ben Menk.
Either way, it’s clear the Horsham branch has benefited from the lessons learned in Cherry Hill. It feels more polished from the get-go, with refined recipes, outgoing and well-informed service, and a sharper focus on how to execute its mission with consistency and creativity. The fritters might change daily on the must-order “Breads & Spreads” starter platter (ours were filled with quinoa bound with moist eggplant), but you’ll always get the same fresh-baked pita ringed by smoked paprika hummus, tangy red pepper romesco dip, chickpea fries, and pickles. The onion dip is another can’t-miss standard starter, aided with sweet onions caramelized for 24 hours and abetted by the tawny snap of fresh-made chips. The tender ribs glazed in birch beer BBQ sauce, as well as the fresh-baked pretzel with bacon-onion jam and sriracha cheese sauce are hard-to-resist opening nibbles.
But I was most impressed in Horsham by the quality and consistency of the entrees. A thick slice of crispy-skinned salmon, a fish I rarely order out anymore, was given a fresh interest with a salad of summer beans, quinoa, and frisee studded with pistachios in tarragon vinaigrette. A moist chicken baked in a bed of hay, which lends a sweet, grassy note, came over crispy spaetzle. My pork chops were thin-cut homestyle, but still memorably juicy over that summer corn porridge with the sweet-tart tang of tomato compote. Huge sweet shrimp pinwheeled atop a mound of farro cooked like risotto in a minted green cream of pureed English peas. Of course, that early summer’s dream of a garnish has morphed into the late-summer corn and heirloom salsa medley of the menu’s “Tomato Town” season.
That sense of eating in the moment pervades dessert as well, where diners are presented once again with a choice between familiar comforts and a more adventurous option, like the sweet cornbread pudding topped with corn ice cream, shards of Benton’s bacon, and chili honey. It’s delicious. But then, so is the oozy crock of warm buttercake topped with buttermilk-berry ice cream, or the perfect mini-pie brimming with enough ripe August orchard fruit to satisfy a table. There really is no wrong choice, which is the beauty of farm-to-table cooking reimagined for a broader audience when it’s finally done right. The only question, I suppose, is whether that audience will see through its generic strip-mall setting, recognize the genuine value it presents, and embrace it for the long haul.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews CO-OP in University City.