June 26, 2011

Farmer's Cabinet Offers Mixed Reviews

Barrels used as tables out front
The Farmer's Cabinet is one of Philly's latest restaurants aiming to capitalize on the farm-to-table craze. It is in the former Joe Pesce location at 11th and Walnut and was started by the team behind the popular, but suddenly-closed, Fork & Barrel in East Falls.

We admire the ambition of The Farmer's Cabinet, as it definitely offers a unique atmosphere and menu. But, a decided mix of pros and cons means you're likely to find features there to both enjoy and forget.

The Farmer's Cabinet is a place we would regularly frequent with friends for drinks and appetizers at one of its two bars or sidewalk seating. The very rustic, candle-lit farmhouse vibe is a definite positive. On nice days the whole front is opened out to the street, too. The music was fun and upbeat, and from what I can tell is usually a blend of jazz, ragtime and swing. The band we saw was dressed for the part in period costumes and even had a dancer to entertain us in the bar area (or he was just a big fan!).

The beer selection was amazing and one of the rarest we've seen. You can find craft beers from around the world, with more than 20 of them on tap plus another 100 options in bottles. The Farmer's Cabinet is even planning to have some nano beers on tap, a bubbling trend you will hear more about.

Of course, with that selection you want to try them all. Conveniently, The Farmer's Cabinet allows you to choose from two sizes - 7oz or 11oz. Just be careful because ordering the smaller size gets expensive quickly. We ordered a lot of different 7oz beers so everyone could try them and then order the larger size of their favorite. The descriptions on the menu do a great job to guide you to many choices you'll like.

Here's what the 7oz beers look like and an example of the international beers on the menu:

The Farmer's Cabinet also has three $12 "beer-inspired" cocktails on the drink menu, designed to taste like beer without any actual beer mixed in. Kristy had to try one and picked the Cockaigne, a traditional Belgian sour lambic made with cognac, fresh strawberries, apple cider vinegar, orange bitters, sugar, and sparkling wine. It's bizarre but it really did taste like a lambic beer. Bit steep on price to drink more than one, but we've never seen drinks like these before so it was certainly fun to try.

Our mixed review of The Farmer's Cabinet comes down to the food. We were in a party of six and ordered an awful lot as you will see. Some of it was excellent, but too often the steep price of the entrees did not live up to expectation. Even at lower prices, the execution of a few dishes would have failed in our book.

Everyone agreed that the Artisan Cheese Fondue and Bavarian Pretzel apps were by far the best. The fondue mixes gouda, triple cream brie and grana padano (an Italian cheese). There's not much more to say than it was lick-the-bowl-clean amazing. Devouring it with really fresh, warm bread helped too.

The Bavarian Pretzel came out piping hot and with two mustards. Among six people, we each only got 2-3 bites, but savored every second. At only $5, order two if you're in a group. The rauchbier mustard has a smoked beer flavor that doesn't taste anything like mustard but really topped off each bite. Stick with that, maybe even ask for extra, and skip the lingon berry mustard which was just ok.

We also tried Duck Egg in a Jar with black trumpet mushrooms and foie gras. It literally comes in a little glass jar with the egg broken inside to form a gooey dip. We admire its novelty, but the duck egg mix was just weird. Everyone's reaction to the first bite was similarly contemplative... [oooo... not sure how I feel about this... it's a little gooey... um, yeah I don't think I want any more...] So, unless you know you like this kind of stuff, save the $8.

Root Chips were ordered for a nibble between courses. They are similar to, but fresher than, Terra Chips. Also tried a few of the pickled items. Cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans all tasted the same: not that good. If you are really in the mood, just get the marinated goat cheese and skip the rest.

Last app (I told you we ate a lot) was the Dry Cured Duck off the meat menu. The meat was very good on its own; it comes with several accouterments but they don't seem necessary.

Phew... full yet? Time for entrees. Among the group, we had the Roasted Squab, Buffalo Short Rib, Grilled Elk Strip Loin, Lamb T-Bones, and the Ground Short Rib Burger.

Roasted Squab
Kristy had never even heard of squab, but figured at the only place labeled "wild game" on OpenTable she may as well eat some pigeon. It was a little tough to pull apart because of its size (it looks like a whole small chicken), but the meat and skin were delicious.

The trick with the Roasted Squab is to mix each bite with the blackberry jam, charred baby leeks and creamed corn underneath to create a really unique and fantastic flavor. She highly recommends this dish ($28).

On the other hand, my Lamb T-Bones were more than disappointing and lacked any flavor. The sides seemed undercooked and and, much like the lamb, were bland. It was either a lack of seasoning, not enough sauce, or both. At $28, skip this dish and try something else.

We all enjoyed the generously portioned Buffalo Short-Rib ($28). It comes on a giant bone and everyone's face was priceless when they first saw it. The meat was tender and the sides were good, too. Two people ordered the Elk Strip Loin and both felt $32 was waaaay overpriced for the puny portion size and average flavor.

Lastly, the Ground Short Rib Burger went over well with my sister, in particular because of the bacon jam on top. The Farmer's Cabinet menu has six sandwiches that are more reasonably priced than the entrees (burger was $13) and from across the table the burger did look pretty good.

The dessert was actually the biggest disappointment, though, especially since a friend raved about it. Warning: the phyllo ice cream sandwich contains no chocolate. Ok, so they made their own interpretation. But it was literally phyllo dough with a really small dab of ice cream in the middle. It just did nothing for us.The waffle with fruit on top looked better and tasted ok, except the bottom of our waffle was burned and it ruined much of the flavor.

With such a mix of impressions on the food, we wondered if the menu is just too large to ensure every dish is done right.

We were also not sure what to make of the dining situation. The main room has one long communal table where several parties end up sitting right next to each other. That can be fun, but at the prices charged many might expect something more intimate. There are a handful of regular tables along one wall, and I think another smaller dining room, but we weren't asked if we wanted to sit there vs. the long table.

Also, the music and bar area make the place quite loud. Many would say obnoxiously loud if you're looking for a romantic dinner or any meaningful conversation. Be prepared or make an early reservation before the band or drinking crowd arrives.

The Farmer's Cabinet has something for everyone (or no one depending on what you order). We firmly believe the passion and ambition of the owners is in the right place and expect the execution to improve on some dishes, or to see a scaled down menu in the future. If not, the appeal of the atmosphere and beer list may not be enough to prevent The Farmer's Cabinet from swimming with the fishes like Joe Pesce.

(Post written by Bradd, even though it says Kristy below. Technical difficulty.)

Farmers' Cabinet on Urbanspoon


Ryan said...

It seems the major sticking point with Farmer's Cabinet is the food--we didn't have a very good experience with it, either. Most of the things we ordered were big disappointments, and with a group of 18 we ordered a LOT of food. For a beer destination, it's outstanding, but for now it should be used as just that.

Kristy said...

Hey Ryan - I actually read your review before going and that's how we learned of the duck egg in a jar! Shame that and some of the other food just wasn't up to par but you're right the beer selection is just incredible.

A and J said...

Seems astronomically expensive for the kind of food you're describing.. I think I just mentally can't get over any entree that is more than $30 unless I'm at a Vetri type place. And I'm still hung up about the owners' business practices.. great review though!

Anonymous said...

The beer is overpriced and just plain shart. Great music, just go to the real bar.