There are simple reasons that clichés become cliché: They're true. They resonate. They just make sense. Too often, though, the original idea behind a cliché gets distorted into something less authentic — like aw-shucks, boot-and-hat-clad country crooners who don't know a horse from a hawg. Or country cooking that gets perverted into over-boiled canned vegetables.
Fortunately, The Farm House at Fontanel shares nothing with either of those abominations. The newly built restaurant sits on the sprawling Whites Creek property that was once the home of country legend Barbara Mandrell and delivers a menu of fresh Southern fare largely plucked from the surrounding landscape.
The project of Loveless operator Tom Morales of TomKats, in conjunction with entertainment entrepreneurs Dale Morris and Marc Oswald and developer Alex Marks, Fontanel Mansion comprises the 27,000-square-foot log home formerly owned by Mandrell; two miles of hiking trails; and The Woods, an outdoor amphitheater with box seats cut into the hillside above a winding creek.
On this sprawling 136-acre bucolic property, a relocated silo rises above the tin-roofed Farm House restaurant, and Belgian draught horses pull visitors down gravel roads in wooden wagons. Tomato plants and garden beds circle the sunny patio of the modern barn-style restaurant, where a musical trio — including stand-up bass, guitar and fiddle — can often be found plucking out a quiet soundtrack to a relaxing repertoire of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Make room for a new family breakfast tradition. Add a new stop to your showing-folks-around tour. Or just Mapquest the trip and see how close the serene countryside is to downtown. You'll be surprised.
You can almost taste the proximity of Middle Tennessee agriculture in the farm-to-fork menu of comfort food, which showcases bacon from nearby Hillview Farms, eggs from Willow Farms, and produce from "Farmer Dave" Hughes.
Bart Pickens, executive chef of TomKats — along with Matt Farley and Chris Mason — oversees the menu, which includes all-day breakfast, sandwiches, salads, entrees, steaks and daily features. Beer and wine are available, and a clever kids menu is served in upside-down Frisbees, which come in handy for a game of catch on the adjacent field after your meal.
The first clue that this was not your regular breakfast was the reassuringly irregular shape of the hand-formed sausage patty, made with ground pork form Hillview Farms.
French toast made with yeast bread dipped in vanilla-tinged batter arrived plump from the griddle, with a bronzed exterior and a custardy center, topped with fresh whipped cream and a tangy warm compote of strawberries. If you order sweet potato pancakes (and you'd be well-advised to order them), don't be surprised that they don't have a telltale orange hue, and don't be misled by what looks like a ramekin of baked beans on the side. That's actually house-made praline sauce bobbing with pecans.
On our next visit, we'll explore the omelets with fillings such as sweet corn succotash, tomatoes and goat cheese, or pulled pork, barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese. On one visit, the soup of the day was a bountiful tomato-based broth laced with leaves of collard greens and riddled with smoky Andouille sausage.
Fried catfish po'boy sandwiched a generous side of fried fish in a baguette. Slathered with a tangy chow-chow tartar sauce and topped with lettuce and tomato, the sandwich lacked crispness in the deep-fried coating and in the soft roll. The better sandwich was a daily feature with tender chicken breast on a grilled bun, topped with herbed mayonnaise and grilled vegetables.
On a return trip, the daily feature of shrimp with Creole sauce was another standout. Drawing on Pickens' affection for New Orleans-style cuisine, the half-dozen plump, de-veined shrimp arrived in a light tomato sauce with onions and celery, over lightly steamed florets of broccoli on a bed of creamy grits.
If your idea of dining in the country is synonymous with the Loveless' repertoire of fried chicken and biscuits, there are plenty of those at the sister restaurant, too. Fried chicken had an outstanding crust, with salty sheets of translucent golden skin that broke off and evaporated across the tongue. Unfortunately, the meat beneath was slightly dry, but at $4 for a side order of drumstick and breast, we simply picked the skin off, like happy, greedy vultures.
The meatloaf sandwich delivered a juicy medley of beef, pork and bacon, on a bun with caramelized strands of grilled onions and brown gravy. While the flavors of the sandwich were tempered, the bountiful portion and variety of textures made it stand out among its kind.
If there were one disappointment in our meals, it was the James Bros. sliders, named for the infamous gang of bank robbers who roamed the Whites Creek area. A trio of crumbly biscuits strewn with pulled pork (smoked out back) and thick barbecue sauce was overly dry on all counts of meat and bread, prompting us to wonder why the sibling restaurant of the Loveless, which is known internationally for its biscuits, can't just borrow the recipe for a sure thing.
But in that same question lies a secret to The Farm House's charm: Nothing about this country cooking is copied or cliché. It's simply true, it resonates, and it just makes sense.
The Farm House opens daily at 7:30 a.m. and serves until 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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