Unless you’re, say, wolfing down tuna sushi takeout while running to catch a bus, most everything we eat can be considered farm to table. Jon and Robin McConaughy were determined to kick up this catchphrase, not just a notch, as in the old Emeril slogan, but three (technically, four) distinct and not easily achieved notches.
The subject here is Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell, the triumphant new notch. It follows the couple’s 2004 creation of Double Brook Farm in Hopewell; the opening of Double Brook Market in Hopewell in 2013, and last year, the securing of USDA certification for an on-farm, humane slaughter facility for the sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys and goats Double Brook raises with non-GMO feed, no hormones and no antibiotics, and serves (along with its own organic fruit and vegetables) at Brick Farm Tavern, which opened last November.
“The goal was, tie all three together—farm, market, restaurant,” says Jon. “Early on we wanted to do a closed-loop food system, controlling all parts under one umbrella.”
The missing link was the right team to run the restaurant. After a long search, the McConaughys had about run through their list of chef candidates when Dean Carlson, a friend from Jon’s investment-banking days who now runs a restaurant outside Philadelphia, introduced him to Greg Vassos, 37. Vassos had been chef/owner of Racine, outside Philadelphia, before winding up as chef of the five-star Penrose Room at the luxury Broadmoor Resort in Colorado. There he found a kindred spirit in Colorado native Mike Lykens, 31, GM of another Broadmoor restaurant. The friends dreamed of opening a place that would close the gap between farm and table and use only sustainably raised products.
The question was, where?
The McConaughys had the answer: in a stately, 1812 brick farmhouse (with harmonious 1950s and ’60s additions) they had bought and renovated just for that purpose. It stands at the roadside on one of the parcels that comprise the 800 acres of Double Brook Farm.
All very admirable and serendipitous. But, you ask, how’s the food? In a word, terrific. So is the country-patrician decor, the short but intriguing wine list (just two chardonnays, one cab and one pinot noir among 21 wines by the glass), the rewarding specialty cocktails and the attentive service.
Over a wood-burning grill fueled by hickory, cherry and oak logs from the farm, Vassos crisps tender sous vide chicken wings and sends them out swabbed with a lip-smacking Thai honey-garlic sauce. The farm raises the chickens, of the flavorful Freedom Ranger breed, organically. They get about 35 percent of their diet just from pecking around Double Brook pastures.
Vassos works equal wonders with their breasts, cooked sous vide, sprinkled with spruce powder made from locally foraged spruce needles, then grilled and served with foraged maitakes and a profoundly earthy roasted-bone gravy, to which hay is added for extra flavor before being strained out.
The Freedom Rangers also supply luscious eggs, the centerpiece of Egg in a Nest, which might be Vassos’s first signature dish. The staff weaves a wreath of hay to surround a bowl of cheddar polenta topped with a pudding-textured, slow-cooked egg and Shibumi Farms (Princeton) mushrooms caramelized in…ka-ching!…bacon fat. Vassos scatters pea tendrils or cress on top to offset the knee-buckling richness. “It’s really just bacon and eggs,” he says, tongue presumably in cheek.
Unfortunately, in a whimsical starter called Double Brook Landscape (basically mashed potatoes topped with chopped porcini “soil” and baby vegetables) virtuousness trumped pleasure.
With too few acres in any one parcel to raise cattle, the McConaughys get their grass-fed, grass-finished beef from Thistle Creek Farm in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. It makes for an exemplary tartare, as well as satisfying rib-eye and New York strip steaks and a generous and ethereally tender beef tenderloin. The steaks come with covetable smoked potato croquettes, a witty, grown-up version of Tater Tots. The tomato-cream Bolognese in Vassos’s tender potato gnocchi invites unseemly plate-licking, so richly ramped up is it with bits of house-made merguez sausage, beef short rib, pork, goat or whatever meat is in from the farm that day.
When you’re determined to know where every protein comes from and how it is handled, seafood can be, as Lykens puts it, “a constant challenge.” The tavern tried Scottish farmed salmon, but switched purveyors and now serves only line-caught fish. It’s a part of the menu that needs shoring up.
Meanwhile, there are happy endings. A ribbon of chocolate ganache brings gravity to a scoop of popcorn ice cream, made by steeping hot, freshly popped corn in vanilla ice cream base before straining it out and freezing the ice cream. Yes, it really tastes like popcorn, only creamy and sweet, and it’s served with ravishing cubes of butternut squash confited in simple syrup. Another example of child’s play for grown-ups was a creative popsicle on a stick, made of frozen parsnip purée dipped in white chocolate. It’s off the menu now, but may return next fall.
Another attraction should be ready by midsummer, Lykens says. A pathway is being laid out past the new vegetable gardens, behind the tavern and the greenhouse where kitchen staff pull weeds and harvest vegetables. It will wend through 40 acres, where cute goats and lambs will graze and ducks waddle. Your inner carnivore may be a little unsettled when you sit down to dinner, but Vassos and company will win you over.Click here to leave a comment