Fare is the kind of restaurant that New Year's resolutions are made of. It's bursting with well-intentioned virtues, but dodgy when it comes to the kind of follow-through that bodes well for long-term satisfaction.
Almost all of us aspire to eat more healthfully, with as many organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients as possible, no genetically modified Frankenfoods (if we can avoid them), and even some revised dining habits to become a little leaner.
Fare was crafted with the "Clean Green" food movement in mind, from the organic liquor that goes into the martinis to the upholstery and carpets made from 100 percent recycled materials, to the kitchen's composting program, and, of course, the menu itself, which skews low-fat, with plenty of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. And it seems to be a hit with the Yoga Ladies Who Lunch, as well as a diverse group of Fairmounters who've flocked to this warm but contemporary space in part because the neighborhood is craving a place with a little modern style that can serve up that familiar Whole Foods feeling in a restaurant for less than $20 a plate.
For those who've been worked up into an extra froth by the media's cautionary tales against Big Food ("I'm afraid to eat out ever since I read The Omnivore's Dilemma and saw Food, Inc.," a reader wrote me just last week), Fare appears to be a garden of guilt-free possibilities.
But Fare also becomes a cautionary tale of its own: All those organic ingredients can't cook themselves.
When it's on its game - say, with a fillet of grilled bluefish dolloped with guacamole; or tasty chicken thighs marinated in the Indian-esque tang of yogurt, ginger, and chiles, served over sweet coconut rice - I can imagine Fare as a regular stop for a simple midweek meal. A duo of pan-fried cakes - an earthy mushroom patty topped with corn niblets, and cool green edamame hummus atop a "carrot" cake that was more like a veggie-laced falafel - showed chef Tim Bellew's capability of creating a vegetarian entree that was both inventive and satisfying.
But that satisfaction was all too rare. And if your duck-fat-cheatin' heart is concerned that health-conscious cooking is going to be a sentence to blandness, Fare is not going to allay your fears. My meals here were marred by careless cooking and a chronic case of underseasoning. (Here's a New Year's resolution: Use salt. Not too much. Mostly sea salt.)
Some potentially good dishes fell flat simply because the kitchen failed to build layers of seasoned flavor over the course of slow cooking, whether it was a braised pork shank special that was tender but dull (and for some reason charred black on top), or an undercured duck confit with cassoulet beans that was surprisingly indulgent (more fat on that thigh than the entire rest of the menu), but also unpleasantly elastic due to undercooking. I would have loved the apppetizer of melted leeks and fennel over goat cheese if they had been seasoned even a little.
But those were just the most minor offenses. Once confronted with a jaw-tiring bowl of raw kale salad, an undersweetened chocolate torte pasty with almond flour, or a plate of chicken meatballs (bouncy poultry balls dabbed with tomato paste goo that came atop a chard gratin welded to the plate with burnt cheese), I fear the Movement is in danger of losing a few healthy-eats hopefuls for good.
I saw a few drift away at my own table when I passed around the plate of vegan nut "cheese" made from pureed raw cashews fermented with probiotic powder. Sliced into a goat-cheeselike disk over a coconut-citrus salad, it had real potential - and a flavor far better than I expected - until a garnish of chewy pink peppercorns and basically undressed greens got in the way. The rift was completed by the spicy barbecued seitan. I happen to like seitan more than most carnivores, but this rendition was hard to defend. The shredded wheat gluten looked to have dried out beneath a heat lamp to a gristly wad of fibers, the smoky spice of a chipotle barbecue sauce evaporated and dry.
There were a few bright spots in my meals. An ancho-marinated grilled flank steak with chimichurri was a flavorful $17 option for the meat-and-potatoes crowd. The Asian-marinated tuna tartare with rice crackers was tiny and predictable but tasty nonetheless. A simple tuna melt over grainy bread at lunch was also mysteriously satisfying (must have been the vegenaise). The roasted cauliflower with chickpeas and dilled yogurt made for fun snacking, though it would have done better with a puff of smoked paprika rather than an avalanche of the rust-colored dust.
I had invited a pro athlete friend of mine to Fare because the burger here is made with bison (the only red meat he eats during the season) and it's served on an open-faced bun (another bonus for his carb-free diet). The feta-stuffed and cumin-scented patty would have been fantastic if (1) it had not been drenched in so much of that dilled yogurt sauce, and (2) it had not been both lukewarm and overcooked.
He was perfectly polite about sharing with me despite the spa-sized portion. But as his pregnant wife leaned against her 325-pound mountain of muscle, she remarked: "It's OK. We'll eat some cereal when we get home. We like cereal."
Overcooking, more than portions, remained an issue throughout our meals. It did in the fish tacos at lunch, with strips of bluefish (usually fairly forgiving) that were so dry, I wondered if they'd been precooked. The crostini served alongside both my leeks and the otherwise pleasant bowl of mussels in gingered carrot broth were so stale they must have been toasted hours (if not many workshifts) earlier. The crab cakes wasted a nice idea of avocado in the stuffing with too much bready filler, a treacly sweet chili sauce glaze, and a side of bok choy that was wilted, watery, and limp. The sweet potato "semi-freddo" for dessert was totally melted by the time it arrived at our table - it was, in fact, an "un-freddo" potato.
It's a shame, because there is such an appealing vibe to this space, with its soothing gray and red colors, eco-friendly quartz bar, waxed walnut wood tables, and comfy banquettes. The noise (only moderately softened by some acoustical ceiling tiles) remains a problem. The service is friendly. And I can easily see Fare thriving as a go-to neighborhood haunt for an affordable guilt-free meal - if only the kitchen can work out its kinks.
For now, though, I can't imagine that more than a small niche crowd of diners would perk up at a dessert like the one touted so enthusiastically by our waiter as a "gluten-free, dairy-free tofu pumpkin pie." Intrepid diner that I am, and hopeful as ever to improve my food ways, I eagerly dug into a slice on my second visit to discover the crushed pecan and maple crust was scorched. Plus, my allegedly vegan dessert was also dolloped (with no notice) with a spoonful of genuine whipped cream. Boy, was that good. Oh well, so much for New Year's resolutions.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, on Twitter @CraigLaBan or firstname.lastname@example.org.