If corporate mega-farms and fast food are the Empire, then 12 Farms in downtown Hightstown is part of the Resistance. Chef/owner Jason Metz, 39, and his intrepid crew turn out such fresh, savory and inventive plates that after three visits, I’m ready to join up. From bee pollen-crusted duck to rye sourdough cavatelli, there are both adventure and comfort to be found on the menu.
The restaurant, in Mercer County, is named for 12 local farms that supply much of the produce. (A mural depicting the supply chain is helpfully painted on the bathroom wall). Some of the farm products, as well as house-made pastries, granolas and take-out meals, are available for purchase up front by the open kitchen.
Appetizers are varied and farm fresh; a salad of just-picked kale featured a delicious and lemony pistachio gremolata. The flight of assorted deviled eggs seems to serve as a flavor-combination laboratory, resulting in a daily assortment of egg-yolk infusions such as black pepper fennel, wasabi-cured salmon with salmon roe, and matcha tea with red salt.
In my favorite of the small plates, grilled calamari was stuffed with seafood and quinoa, a little ruddy from a marinara braise. On another visit, quinoa was featured in an appetizer special of charred Sicilian octopus. Metz is a master of quinoa. After his multistage process (toast, boil, sauté, roast), it’s nutty, al dente and a little crunchy, as opposed to the wet gruel that results when I cook it at home.
Metz, born and raised in Central Jersey, knew he belonged in professional kitchens from an early age. “My mother was a single mom,” he explains, “and she was raising three boys. She brought me to the retirement homes where she worked her second job and asked if I could help in the kitchen so I wouldn’t have to stay home.”
From the first day, he loved the teamwork, the pace and the attention to detail in a working kitchen. He graduated from the Pennsylvania Institute for Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh in 2001 and cooked his way up and down the East Coast (including a three-year run at the upscale Augustine Grill in Jacksonville, Florida) before settling in Millstone and buying a 3-acre “farmette” with his wife, Cheryl. He cooked on and off at 12 Farms, which opened in 2015 under the ownership of Rennie DiLorenzo. When DiLorenzo retired, Jason bought the place, reopening in April 2019.
Despite the fine-dining prices, the room itself is simple and unassuming, with bare wooden tables and storefront windows. This is not a pretentious, or even trendy, restaurant; the vibe is casual, and all the expensive stuff is on the plates, not on the walls.
Metz and his former sous-chef, Erik Gonzales, seize on exotic seasonal ingredients whenever possible. Lion mane mushrooms, which grow on hardwood trees like oak or beech, have a distinct sea-anemone appearance and lobstery flavor. They are sautéed into something like a crab cake—herby and golden brown, with a crisp slaw of celeriac and poppy seeds on the side.
Ramps, the shy relative of onions and garlic, appear briefly at farm markets in April or May, where they are pounced upon by the 12 Farms crew and find their way into the charred-ramp pesto that accompanies a handful of purple-carrot gnudi dumplings. This is what spring tastes like.
Those gnudi, like the rest of the house-made pastas, are available in small or entrée portions. A small plate of black-garlic gnocchi made a nice appetizer, with the wild earthiness of the fermented garlic balanced against a sweet plum gastrique. On another visit, they were tossed with garlicky escargots. This kitchen likes to make gnocchi. Most nights, there are two or three different varieties on the menu.
A standout entrée, the braised Wagyu beef cheeks (from Tennessee) were braised four hours to achieve a buttery texture. They were served with a rich demi-glace and two types of cheddar-infused grits from Castle Valley Mill in nearby Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Metz isn’t shy about letting the cost of ingredients determine the prices; full-portion pastas are quite reasonable in the upper $20s, but meat and seafood entrées range from the $30s to the $50s. Looming at the top is Duck Party! at $67. In addition to its own exclamation point, Duck Party! includes a confit leg-thigh, a sliced, ruby-rare breast, and a few slices of seared liver. It’s a main for one very hungry person, or a sharing plate for two.
For dessert, Cheryl Metz makes extraordinary pies and tarts. Her lemon-cream pie with sourdough crust is summery, citrusy, flaky goodness. (If you’re gluten free, try her lemon-almond cake). There’s one dessert Metz makes himself, the crème brûlée. Not a take on crème brûlée, it’s audaciously classic: vanilla custard with a finely tuned wobble and a micron-thin cap of evenly burnt sugar.
While 12 Farms didn’t invent farm-to-table, it’s hard to imagine it being executed with more low-key confidence and creativity.
- Cuisine Type:Italian - New American
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $11–$18; entrées, $27–$67; desserts, $5–$25
- Ambience:Upscale casual, open kitchen
- Service:Warm and considerate