Man, I love that Porter Flea. This winter edition of the roving pop-up market at Track One was a dazzling medley of tradition and innovation, nostalgia and modernity, community and individualism. A simultaneous celebration of local talent and broad horizons. My shopping companion and I were spinning like tops, trying to take it all in as we roamed the colorful aisles of letterpress posters, handcrafted lamps, refurbished luggage and electronics, artisanal foods, screen-printed knitwear, laser-cut stationery, hand-dyed woolens and hand-hewn skateboards. I wanted it all. I wanted to stay forever.
That is, right up to the point when I wanted to get the hell out of there.
No offense to any particular artisan or item. It's just that after a while, I didn't care if I never saw another stick of reclaimed lumber, repurposed Mason jar or hand-thrown bowl as long as I lived. It was like bingeing on chocolate and needing an antidote of kale. Too much of a good thing. After the 95th booth of hand-felted owl-shaped retro cuteness, I sort of wanted to swaddle myself in GoreTex and decompress inside a T.J. Maxx HomeGoods.
That's kind of where I am in the life cycle of the farm-to-table restaurant trend. Don't misunderstand me: I love a locally butchered hog and a clever repurposing of agricultural equipment more than the next girl. Hell, I've got a flock of hens and a Yazoo placard in my backyard. But I am at the point where I'm not sure I can eat another Middle Tennessee pork belly in a reclaimed-barnwood-paneled dining room until I undergo some sort of imported-food cleanse in a refectory clad with non-indigenous tile.
It was at this peak of chess-pie-and-fried-green-tomato saturation that I encountered The Farm House and its farm-to-table menu in the gleaming district of the Music City Center, Omni Hotel, Schermerhorn Symphony Center and the expanded Country Music Hall of Fame.
Had chef-owner Trey Cioccia, an alumnus of Capitol Grille, unveiled this latest ode to regional ingredients before so many examples of its earthy ilk — Lockeland Table, Silo, Husk, Rolf and Daughters, Mason's and Capitol Grille among them — maybe this column would tell a different story. But as it is, the farm-to-table field is crowded, the bar is high, and, over three visits, The Farm House fell below many benchmarks of execution and ambiance.
Here's a snapshot: Barnwood, check. Deviled eggs with chowchow, check. Twelve-dollar bourbon-and-moonshine cocktails, check. Local beer, check. Biscuits, barbecue, beets, belly and Brussels sprouts, check. But while the ubiquitous trappings of Southern-inspired farm-to-fork fare are accounted for, there are shortcomings in consistency that undermine the dining experience.
Among the highlights: The lunchtime BLT with arugula and fried green tomato on toasty Provence brioche is an indulgent spin on a simple classic. The bologna sandwich, made with a muscular house-made meat medley, is both playful and surprisingly appetizing, with none of the creepy creaminess of the store-bought processed staple.
Buttermilk quail on a waffle with Tennessee honey was near perfect, with a brace of golden-battered and juicy birds nesting on a fluffy wide-gauge smoked sweet potato waffle and laced with traces of sticky-sweet amber. The appetizer was large enough to share and worth talking about after the fact.
In fact, the dish we heard most people talking about afterward was Springer Mountain chicken breast, which was stunningly juicy, with what might have been the holy grail of crisp bronzed skin. Plated with sautéed green beans and a grit fritter — a cornmeal-crusted globe like a cross between arancini and hush puppies — the $13 lunch was sturdy, comforting and well-executed.
Flaky cobia with wilted bok choy, mushrooms and tender turnips in an asiago citrus broth was a welcome and innovative Asian-influenced entry in the Southern repertoire. Trout with persimmon, kale and poached salsify was an imaginative medley of sweet and sour ingredients with crisp and creamy textures.
Now, the lowlights.
My vista from the dinner table was a fluorescent-lit corridor where the high chairs and the health department score sheets were stored. That's hardly the ambiance in which I wanted to spend a $100-plus date night, but at least the health score was a perfect 100.
Chicken livers on arugula-frisée salad with boiled peanuts were so overcooked that it was hard to tell if their bitterness came from the iron-rich offal or the fryer-singed batter. Duck with butternut squash purée and loose Brussels sprout leaves made an attractive and colorful dish, but the purple-red meat was so tough we had to chew it like bubblegum.
Many thanks to the conscientious server who returned to the table to ask if we'd like to start over with our beverages; she had just sampled the basil lemonade and apologized that it tasted like sugar water.
While service was easygoing and friendly, we can't say the same for the menu. There were so many cryptic bolded lowercase monograms, you'd think it was penned by the poet e.e. cummings. For example, the $14 burger contains both tfh sauce and kfh cheddar. wtf, you ask? That's sauce from The Farm House and cheese from Kenny's Farm House.
"What's a Norwood biscuit?" my dining companion asked.
Basically a cheese biscuit, the server explained. (Specifically, it's three rustic biscuits filled with pulled pork, white sauce and chowchow. The appetizer makes a generous meal.)
"What's Lola Rossa?" someone inquired about the medley of Lola Rossa, cranberry, clementine, pecan parsnip and Asher Blue.
Basically lettuce, the server explained. He knew a lot more about the local beer selection.
Pork belly agnolotti with mustards, peas, tfh jowl, sherry cream, kfh ted? Think pasta stuffed with pulled pork and tossed with cheesy cream sauce, bacon fat, black-eyed peas and wilted greens. It would be a perfect New Year's Eve dish, unless your resolution is to reduce your sodium intake.
Generally speaking, there was a lot of salt in the plates, and when we didn't finish a meal — such as the earth-toned still-life of cornmeal-coated trout, Carolina rice and black-eyed peas — it was often due to salt overload.
With few exceptions — such as the jewel-toned $13 salad of roasted beets — the compositions were as brown and beige as the room itself.
One brown dish struck a positive chord with our table. Chocolate tart with brûléed pumpkin spice marshmallow was a perfect blend of restraint and decadence, dense and fluffy, bitter and sweet. Even so, I doubt I'll get back around to it — or to The Farm House — anytime soon. I am temporarily overfed on Southern-flavored farm-to-table fare, just as I am momentarily saturated with the crafty creativity of Porter Flea.
However, by the time Porter Flea rolls around next summer, my appetite for handmade local goods will be strong as ever, and there's no better place to browse the inspiring output of Nashville's expanding creative class. As for The Farm House, when I'm ready for my next farm-to-fork feast, there are a lot of other options on the table.
The Farm House serves lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The bar opens at 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
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