Monday, March 17, 2008

FARMBloomington: Paradox on a Plate

It's hard to sort out the reality about this quirky little cafe based on the publicity machine that's been hyping full blast since FARMBloomington opened a month or two ago (complete with a mention in Food and Wine.) It's been hard not to say "I was disappointed" or "Is this all there is?" since it was fine for what it was. It just wasn't what I'd expected. Even with some fine dining elements, FARM is really just a cute, local, country diner. You could take your parents or kids. But if you're looking for more, you may not find it.

At the root of my own expectations were Chef Daniel Orr's reputation in NYC, his passion for local and organic ingredients, his cookbooks and recipes about letting them shine, and even the restaurant's slick website. I was surprised the restaurant wasn't the bastion of local and organic dining that the press releases, resumes, and pictures of Orr riding around in farm trucks lead us to believe. My meals there were fine for what they were but I was left wishing that someone had opened the restaurant one finds on their webpages. Maybe he did, but the place is so overwhelmed by FARM kitsch that the focus -- what could be great food -- is lost. Chef Orr has achieved too many remarkable milestones in his career to lack talent. One hopes he's holding back.

In the cacophony of Bloomington's main square, FARM's storefront location makes them perfect for lunchers and dinner customers alike. Their sleek sign would be just as at home in NYC or DC's trendiest nabes, but the casual elegance stops there. Inside, one is confronted with a touristy country shop (the FARMmarket, get it?) selling everything from hand knitted pot handle covers, brooms, and soap to Chef Orr's line of spices, vinegars, and books. (A widely grinning Daniel Orr looking out from a book cover greets one right next to the hostess stand. It's a little disconcerting.)

With all the antiques mounted on walls, suspended from ceilings, and lining shelves, the place comes across an overdone country explosion. We're already in the country. We live in Indiana. One needn't try so hard. Antique bed pans line the wall by the restrooms, patchwork quilts hang as curtains, and wooden ladder chairs, mis-matched garage sale silverware, and dull pottery dishes round out the look. It looks like an interior designer's version of the small town cafe on Main Street that serves great pie. The wine list is "Jug Juice"; cocktails are "FARMshine"; servers are "FARMhands". It's great to see wine available by quartinos, but your order arrives at the table in a square glass milk bottle bearing the FARM logo. And you can't be fooled by wine list and the fine-dining prices. It's a paradox.

Opening a restaurant that focuses on local, seasonal, and organic ingredients isn't a challenge in Bloomington -- it's a requirement. However, at FARM, there seems to be an odd inconsistency. Some menu items list producers by name while others only reference "Hoosier" or "local." When we asked, we often received conflicting or hesitant answers from servers about the source. FARM carries Fischer Farms beef, Fiedler Farms heritage pork and a ham from Columbus (we were told), but so do many other restaurants these days. (It's unclear as to why the website touts "Brothers Beef".) And since menu descriptions are inconsistent, errors creep in. (The burger on their dinner menu touts "grass fed" beef but I never got a clear answer on whether or not this was Fischer beef. Fischer beef as many know is all natural, but grain finished, not 100% grass fed.) The menu was loaded with out-of-season and out-of-region dishes like a tomato-heavy salad, chicken with sweet chili paste, and prawns in a mango/chili sauce. All which contributes to paradox number 2: Is the restaurant theme local and seasonal food? If so, follow through. Why not train your staff to be knowledgeable about producers and ingredients? Why not let central Indiana producers shine?

Another paradox: The food was fine but only merely so, and certainly not what I expected from a chef as well known as Daniel Orr, former executive chef at La Grenouille in NYC. Garnering three-stars, a cookbook deal, and arguably a sizable crowd of regular diners, he now calls what he does now "real food", a blending and celebration of fresh flavors and ingredients. But I didn't see it. Aside from fresh and seasonal, I wanted it to *taste* great. Instead, dishes were somewhat ordinary and often overspiced. A special potato leek soup was oversalted with too strong a hit of jerk seasoning. The other, an odd banana-coconut milk-butternut squash concoction, ultimately proved too spicy to finish. At lunch, a ham sandwich with pineapple was fine (with an especially good spicy sweet chutney) as was a companion's "Cabo Wabo Taco Salad," but nothing special, only spinach, tomatoes, taco-seasoned beef and squeeze-bottled sour cream. The mahi-mahi special was an odd combination of greens, salsas, and tumeric-covered grilled fish on fry bread with lots of heat but no depth to make the flavor enjoyable. Dinner includes a variety of meat-heavy entrees, appetizers, bar snacks, and even pizza, but a fish cake was too loaded with peppers and topped with an unpleasantly spicy sauce -- all plopped inelegantly on a bed of plain spinach. The house-cured gravlax with fennel and peppers was fine but drenched in an oily vinaigrette that tasted nothing of the "honey-mustard" described. Where is Chef Daniel Orr's signature cooking and style? I wanted food that looked as good as the recipes in his cookbook and *tasted* good, not just dressed up island cuisine relying on heat-laden components.

Desserts had the potential to be the star here, but they're not made in house. (They come from a chef in Columbus, we were told.) Apple pie with a cakey crust satisfied. A rich chocolate ganache-like "pot" was good but incongruous, and an oddly-flavored bread pudding was fine minus the egg shell in my bite. All good, but I'd expected more.

It's a double edged sword when a chef involves a publicity machine. Will the hype and unrealistic expectations be overcome by the increased traffic and customer awareness? Will diners overcome their disappointments to return? Lunch was inexpensive ($6.50-7.50 for sandwiches in plastic baskets with chips and a pickle), but at night, the prices go up with starters from $7-16 and entrees in the $22-35 range). They change from paper napkins to cloth but much else is the same. One hears the food is much better when the chef is actually in the kitchen, and service still seems inexperienced and nervous. In the next two weeks, they'll be opening their "Root Cellar" downstairs with live music which will surely be popular.

To be fair, I've spoken to a lot of people who like FARM. They've had great meals, good service, like the space, and plan to return. Of course, Orr is a welcome member of the cheffing community and I suspect he will have a long and happy career with FARM at the center of it. But if you decide to drive to Bloomington (as many of you have asked me if you should), just know what you're getting into -- a casual eatery with good food but not anything extra special. It's great to try if you're already in town, but, in my opinion, not worth a special trip, certainly when Restaurant Tallent -- one of the best in the state -- is just a block away. Yes, it's completely unfair to compare FARM to Tallent, but if you're making the drive, there's no question where you should go especially in the $30 entree price range. If you do find yourself at FARM, just be careful of the hype, manage your expectations, and you'll probably be fine.


Laker said...

I haven't tried FARM yet. I thought the decor seemed overly kitschy and off-putting when I watched the video that was on the Indy Star site around the time that FARM opened. I do hope to try it in the next few months, but maybe just for lunch!

Anonymous said...

Hostess are horrible. We called ahead and told that we didn't need reservations if we got in before 5pm. We got there by 4:30 and were told they couldn't seat us, because too busy - place empty. We were told we could sit in bar area and order regular menu, but in bar they said we couldn't. We walked & won't be back. Tallent's is very good every time.

Beef Sup'Herb said...
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braingirl said...

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cotton77 said...

My husband and I have made 3 visits to Farm since it opened, hoping our experience would improve after they worked out their kinks. I would suggest to Mr. Orr to invest in some extra water pitchers, as I can only assume that a shortage of them is the reason no one ever refilled our water glasses--on all 3 occasions! A smile from the staff would have been welcome, perhaps that comes with an additional charge? All in all, You don't get what you pay for. You can pay less money for the same inattentive service and mediocre food at the establishment next door to Farm without feeling cheated.

Anonymous said...

Sounds a bit too much like a high-end Cracker Barrel, as described here. I like a bit of kitch, but a little goes a long way.

Anonymous said...

High End Cracker Barrel is the *perfect* description.

Hannah said...

I just returned from a road trip for my birthday and I have to report how horribly we were treated at FARMBloomington. I was so looking forward to another destination restaurant in a similar vein to Joseph Decuis or Bonge's Tavern. We ventured to Bloomington, from Indy, in a party of 12 for my 29th birthday. We were seated late, and with some unexplained hostility. We had to add a 13th to our party, and instead of that being welcomed, our hostess showed her obvious frustration. We ordered our salads and entrees, and the salads were served no less than 20 minutes apart, with everyone wondering why the service was so uneven. The endive Caesar salad was intriguing, and ordered by half our table, and it was inedible. It was horribly bitter, and everyone was terribly disappointed. We ordered a variety of entrees from salmon to burgers, and everyone was dissatisfied with both the quality and presentation. But to truly make matters worse, the service was pretentious and ambivalent. When we spoke to the manager about our feelings on the matter, we were insulted and falsely accused of making homophobic comments (which was ridiculous considering we had a gay male in our group and we would never make the comments we were accused of). I really feel that instead of recognizing its own shortcomings, the restaurant wanted to accuse its patrons (falsely) of inappropriate behavior (although I will readily admit we dropped the f-bomb frequently while dining in an adult atmosphere) rather than taking responsibility for an overpriced, underserved experience. The upshot was that we will never return, I have never had a worse dining experience in Bloomington, and I am terribly insulted by both the food, service, and pretentious nature of our experience. Stay away. I would typically encourage any local patronage of non-chain establishments, but this is a racket. Pure and simple.

Marica said...

Hannah, after reading the above reviews, you can be sure I will stay far, far away from FARM.

doreencarl said...

I can't believe this is the same restaurant that my husband and I have been to 4 times! We have been to brunch twice, dinner once, and tapas and dessert once. We can't wait to go again. Our food has always been wonderful, as was the service. doreencarl

Ed said...

It's terrible. I've been there several times to see if it will get better, and it never does. It's horribly overpriced for what you get, and to say that it is in love with itself would be a dramatic understatement.

They spent far too much time worrying about hanging the right trinkets on the walls and having "cool" everything. I wish they had spent half as much time worrying about the food they serve.

Overall, it's an overpriced Cracker Barrel. I'd much rather spend my money at (insert name of Bloomington's OTHER high-end restaurant, the one where the food is actually GOOD) and not have to put up with the Aren't We So Cool attitude.

The cellar bar, which the reviewer alludes to but did not see, is cloying beyond belief. It's like a hipster dress-up party with its "beer and bourbon" theme (all overpriced, of course) and antique shop decor.

The overall Farm experience is like being waterboarded with corn syrup - and charged $100 for the privilege. I will be stunned if it is still in business next summer.