For the past quarter century or so, American chefs and the dining public have increasingly embraced the concept of farm-to- table cooking. It makes great sense from an environmental and an economical standpoint and as the Smithsonian Magazine wrote, “the farm-to-table movement is at once hip and historic.” Its historical aspects are especially relevant in agrarian New Mexican villages where farm-to-table hasn’t always been a “movement,” “concept” or “trend.” It’s been a way of life, especially in the state’s frontier days when food wasn’t nearly as plentiful as it is today.
Enchanting as it may be, New Mexico is a land which can be harsh and unforgiving as Native American pueblos and early settlers found out when, for centuries, they eked out a meager subsistence from an austere terrain amidst the ravages of climatic extremes. To a great extent their ability to coax a stable crop supply from an often unyielding earth was a tribute to their perseverance, hard work and divine graces.
By the early 1800s, farmers made up about 90 percent of America’s workforce. Entering the 20th century, the percentage of Americans engaged in producing crops and livestock was down to 40 percent. Today, less than one percent of the population claim farming as their principal occupation. Largely because most of us have no personal experience in crop production, children–especially those growing up in urban areas–have no idea where their food comes from. Ask many of them where their food comes from and they’re apt to say “the grocery store.”
For decades, if you asked American chefs where their restaurants’ food comes from, they might well have bragged about importing ingredients from throughout the world. It was a very expensive proposition, one with a heavy-footed impact on the planet. Today, more and more chefs are “staying local” and “going back to basics” for their food sources. Their goals are not only to reduce the environmental impact on the planet (reduced fuel consumption, less driving and flying), but to introduce diners to fresher, better-tasting, more nutritious foods grown locally.
America’s farm to table renaissance was largely born in California during the ’60s and ’70s. Some sociologists consider it an extension of the same cultural revolution that spawned the “hippie movement” and brought into social consciousness such terms as “organic food,” “natural food,” “back-to-the-earth” and “support-the-local-farmer.” Alice Waters, considered one of the movement’s founders admits, however, that she wasn’t looking for organic, local food when starting her pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Chez Panise. She wanted to provide a venue in which guests could experience the type of freshness and flavor she found in France.
The wild success of restaurants such as Chez Panise proved that locally grown organic food could provide both exciting variety and utmost quality. Restaurants throughout California offering farm-to-table dining took root with effusive fervor. Among the movement’s practitioners, it hasn’t been uncommon for chefs to change their menus almost weekly depending on what’s available and fresh during growing seasons. Not even nay-sayers who dismissed farm-to-table as another faddish trend could argue against the freshness, deliciousness and inventiveness of the movement’s restaurants.
Though farm-to-table has had staunch devotees for decades among New Mexico’s restaurateurs, it’s only in recent years that they’ve really started to brand their culinary offerings as organic and locally grown. Coupled with the very illuminating presence and farm-to-table advocacy of Edible Santa Fe, a perfect storm has been created for restaurants showcasing the Land of Enchantment’s locally grown fare to succeed–and not just in Santa Fe which has been at the fore of New Mexico’s farm-to-table adoption.
On March 1, 2012, the culmination of that perfect storm hit Albuquerque with the launch of Farm & Table, a much anticipated opening fueled by food porn quality Facebook teases. Within weeks of its opening, local media–KOB Television’s Best Bites, Local Flavor Magazine, the Alibi, the Albuquerque Journal, and the New Mexico Business Weekly–all rhapsodized effusively about the exemplar farm-to-table restaurant. It’s usually my practice to let the hullabaloo die down before visiting a restaurant anointed by all the cognoscenti, but Franzi Moore, a faithful reader of this blog and a fellow epicure would hear none of that. As persuasive and charming a barrister as there is, when Franzi says she wants my opinion, its nolo contendere; I had to visit Farm & Table. We were joined by her husband Chris and their friend Beckett.
Farm & Table is located on a sprawling property on Fourth Street between Alameda and Paseo del Norte. It’s a veritable oasis of green amidst Albuquerque’s earth-tone and concrete modernity. The premises includes a working farm—nine acres of alfalfa and 1.5 acres for produce, including a greenhouse. The restaurant is a recent addition to a 200 year-old adobe edifice which houses La Parada (which translates from Spanish to “the stopping place” and indeed, the building was once a stagecoach stop), a bustling store showcasing the work of local artists in eclectic folk art, jewelry, vintage clothing and more.
The restaurant itself is comprised of two dining rooms and an expansive courtyard with views of the verdant fields in which many of the dinner or brunch ingredients are grown. The main dining rooms are festooned in an upscale Southwestern motif accented by sturdy blonde vigas and painted concrete floors. The smoothly hewn barn wood tables are burnished to a rustic glossy finish. One dining room offers a view to the heart and soul of the restaurant’s operations—not the kitchen, but the prep station in which the expediter (the person in charge of organizing orders by table, and garnishing the dishes before the server takes them out to the dining room) ensures everything runs smoothly. It’s a treat to see an efficiently run dining room operation and Farm & Table has become just that in a short time.
The dinner menu showcases locally grown produce, both from the farm but from some of the state’s agrarian epicenters such as Albuquerque’s South Valley (spinach, arugula and field greens), Santa Fe (beets and potatoes), Los Lunas (grass-fed beef), Lemitar (red and green chile), Tucumcari (cheese), Corrales (Heidi’s organic raspberry jam), Mesilla (pecans) and honey from throughout the state. Obviously the menu’s pescatarian fare isn’t caught on the Rio Grande, but you can bet it’s sustainable seafood. Dinner and brunch menus are distinctively different with few cross-over items from one menu to the other. Both menus are vibrant and sure to please the most discerning palates.
Bread is baked in-house and is sliced thick. It’s served with an olive oil and seasonings dip, but is thoroughly enjoyable on its own where you can luxuriate on its artisan-quality, pillowy softness. As with all great breads, it’s also an excellent vehicle with which to sop up any remaining sauces from your plate. You might think it’s tacky to use bread in this manner, especially at a fine dining establishment, but it’s a time-honored custom practiced at some very fine restaurants in France. Besides, it’s less tacky than licking your plate. It’s also not tacky to use your hands to pick up the thinly-shaved radishes (grown in the greenhouse) on the bread plate either. They’re fresh and invigorating.
As you might expect, soups and salads are paragons of freshness at Farm & Table. An orange tarragon roasted beet salad (marinated beets, mixed greens and pickled turnips with rosemary blue cheese yogurt and orange segments) honors its ingredients by letting them shine, not allowing them to be masked or overwhelmed by a dressing. The earthy sweetness of the roasted beets is a perfect foil for the tangy orange segments. The pickled turnips are not too tangy from the pickling process. The mixed greens are crisp, fresh and delicious. With most salads I ask the wait staff to bring me as much blue cheese as they can carry, mostly to obfuscate the flavors of stale, store-bought greens. At Farm & Table, a little bit goes a long way though the rosemary blue cheese yogurt is good enough to drink like a beverage.
Beethoven once said “only the pure of heart can make good soup.” The Farm & Table kitchen must then be staffed with a phalanx of pure-hearted cooks. The Italian soup is as good, if not better than most minestrone and pasta fagoli soups I’ve had in Italian restaurants. Aromatically enticing, it is replete with fresh vegetables and redolent with a coarse-blend sausage from Joe S. Sausage, the Duke City’s Scovie award-winning king of sausage. A vegan soup (beet root, kale, spinach and so much more) might be even better.
Among the appetizers, the one that’s as impossible to resist as a dinner invitation from Franzi is the pork belly with butterscotch miso sauce. At first glance, the three petite pieces of porcine perfection resemble chocolate truffles, the sheen from the butterscotch akin to a glossy chocolate frosting. Far from being heart healthy, pork belly layers pork and fat together to provide a textural and flavor experience few foods can hope to match. In terms of flavor, think pulled pork meats bacon only better. It’s no wonder Emeril Lagasse likes to say “port fat rules!” The accompanying apple slices provide both a decorative touch and a flavor-texture contrast.
What the dinner menu lacks in volume (only a handful of items plus specials), it more than makes up in the desirability of its entrees. You might think it would be relatively easy to pare down your one selection from the relatively small number of entrees, but you’ll be hard-pressed to do so. One safe bet is the grilled six-ounce beef tenderloin impregnated with a pungent blue cheese compound butter and served with horseradish mashed potatoes and roasted beets. If you’ve lamented the absence of a steak that will make your eyes roll back in sheer delight, you’ll love this tenderloin, emphasis on tender. At medium, it’s a foodgasm quality slab of beef. The horseradish mashed potatoes add a nice kick.
Seafood aficionados will react to the local fig wood cold-smoked and seared scallops the way a treasure-hunter reacts to finding a pirate’s plunder. There are only three scallops on the plate, but they’re large and brimming with the sweet, succulent flavor that hearkens back to the days when scallops were synonymous with dining elegance. The scallops are topped with Balsamic caviar to lend a tangy contrast. A 2008 survey by Heinz shows that Brussels sprouts now take the prize as America’s most-hated vegetable. Perhaps it’s because respondents have never had truly great Brussels sprouts. Some of the very best we’ve ever had are the bacon Brussels sprouts at Farm & Table and not only because the bacon flavor shines through. These Brussels sprouts are perfectly prepared. They sit atop a white bean puree. An apple foam on the plate is cute, but superfluous.
Not available on the dinner menu is a brunch entree that has supplanted my favorite of its kind in Albuquerque. That would be the Prince Edward Island Mussels with feta and green chile broth prepared with red onion and red bell pepper topped with cilantro. Forgive me P’Tit Louis Bistro, but the mussels at Farm & Table are even better than yours and yours are superb! The broth, especially the marriage of feta, green chile and red onion is absolutely glorious, better even than the restaurant’s wonderful soups. You’ll want several slices of the restaurant’s housemade bread to sop up each drop.
When you see diners order a burger for dinner at a fine dining restaurant there are only three conclusions you can draw: (1) other menu items are mediocre (see El Pinto); (2) the diners wouldn’t know good food if it bit them; or (3) that burger must be pretty darned good. The Farm To Table Burger (local grass fed beef, Tucumcari Cheddar cheese, New Mexico green chile on a green chile cornmeal bun and farm fries) is that darned good. It’s simply one of the very best burgers I’ve had in New Mexico, a worthy candidate for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. The green chile (from Lemitar) is redolent with roasted flavor and has a nice piquant bite. The Cheddar from Tucumcari is unctuous and sharp. The green chile cornmeal bun is the perfect canvas for this masterpiece.
While Franzi waxed eloquent about the entire menu, she was most enthusiastic about a dessert called Pastel Impossible (red chile chocolate cake with vanilla bean flan and spiced tortilla chip). Sometimes called chocoflan, it melds chocolate cake and flan both texturally and as an unbeatable taste combination. What is remarkable about this dish is that the chocolate cake and the flan are baked together, but are not mixed together. It’s kitchen alchemy of the most delicious kind, so utterly wonderful that it made an otherwise very good piloncillo bread pudding (housemade brioche custard with caramel and lime frozen yogurt) seem almost pedestrian in comparison (forgive me Larry McGoldrick).
Farm & Table is the type of restaurant rarity which promises and delivers a unique dining experience every time you visit. Service is first-rate and the food is outstanding with appeal sure to please more than just locavores.
Farm & Table
8917 4th Street NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 April 2012
1st VISIT: 25 April 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Pastel Impossible, Pork belly with butterscotch miso sauce, Local fig wood cold-smoked and seared scallops, Beef Tenderloin, PEI Mussels with Feta Cheese and Green Chile Broth, Farm to Table Burger, Orange Tarragon Roasted Beet Salad, Piloncillo Bread Pudding