Ever contrary to certain kinds of politically correct food trendiness, I've already declared my somewhat cranky response to those who want to restrict their diet to foodstuffs sourced within 100 miles of where they live. I'm not going to give up white truffles (or the memory of white truffles, now that they're $265 an ounce), the more than 365 varieties of French cheese (or 450, or 500, depending on which source), bananas, or, emphatically, pepper. And don't even start with me on coffee or wheatflour. As I've said before, I've eaten more than my fair share of Maine lobster, and I've never been to Maine.
This crankiness obscures the fact that I know in my heart and mouth that what so-called locavores — those who want us to eat what's been grown and raised within a 100-mile radius of where we live — profess is in many ways, not least taste, the best cuisine. Seasonal and local, that's the ticket — so much so that it's become a kind of new-restaurant mantra, to which you can also add organic and sustainable.
Earlier this year two books came out that covered, in almost-eerie real-time duplication, year-long experiments on opposite sides of North America — Vancouver on the west, Virginia on the east — of two families to eat only locally. There were many differences.
Barbara Kingsolver's family, as chronicled in their Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (www.animalvegetablemiracle.com), are cheerfully carnivorous. Lifelong gardeners, they grew much of what they ate, including chickens and turkey, on their hundred-acre farm.
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, coauthors of Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally (www.100milediet.org), divide their time between a Vancouver apartment and a shack in the British Columbia wilderness, consider themselves vegetarians who eat fish, and rode their bikes in search of provender.
When Kingsolver started thinking in 2005 about what to call "diners who are queasy about fuel-guzzling foods," a generally accepted term hadn't yet been invented. "Petrolophobes? Seasonaltarians? Local eaters? Homeys?" she muses, before saying, "Lately I've been seeing the term locavores, and I like it."
She's not the only one who liked it. As our own San Francisco–centric www.locavores.com trumpets on its home page, locavore is Word of the Year for the New Oxford American Dictionary.
Local locavores now have a restaurant they can call their own, and share with the rest of us. Fish & Farm, a chic, sophisticated small eatery recently opened on the ground floor of the Hotel Mark Twain, whose lobby boasts large, glamorous portraits of Samuel Clemens and Billie Holiday side by side. The menu states: "Our goal is to have all produce organic and sourced from within 100 miles of this restaurant. ... When possible we source all proteins from within 100 miles from the front door of this restaurant."
My two friends and I are impressed with the classy decor: plushly upholstered dark leather banquettes, smallish marble-topped tables, and big photorealist murals of men fishing in streams and plowing fields. There are big mirrors, some of the deep-blue paint Robert deems inevitable in fish places, and a careful, not to say ironic, deployment of tiny mounted antlers, a couple of oars, and a covetable folk-art pig.
We're brought tall shot glasses of a creamy celery-root and pear soup topped with snipped chives: rich and yummy. So is the pan-cooked local seafood chowder, almost pure cream in which float clams in the shell, calamari, oysters, and a whisper of smoked bacon, accompanied by a paper cone of puffy house-made crackers. Gail finds the soup a little paler in flavor than she'd like, mentioning the more robust version at Berkeley's Sea Salt, but Robert and I fight over the last spoonfuls — I find it disappointing only in quantity. I love the airy brandade fritters, three long thin ones standing atop a savory stew of peppers and onions, topped with a poached egg whose runny golden yolk provides a perfect sauce.
Our server insists on warning us that the night's fish and farm plate contains tripe salad and pork headcheese, but we're innards fanciers. I think even non-innards-fanciers wouldn't be fazed by the thinly sliced tripe, whose mild funkiness is rather obscured by its mustard-seed dressing, or the little porky round of terrine-like fresh headcheese, nicely served by its chopped-egg-and-pickle gribiche-like sauce topped with two big caperberries. The two fish dishes are tiny gravlax-like cuts of rosy Coho salmon touched with citrus and parsley, and an oniony clam salad. We also try a special that night, wild boar spareribs, unexpectedly fatty and luscious, though not as gamy as we'd hoped, propped on a carrot-and-celery-root slaw. The whole is surf and turf taken to new heights. All were helped by the organic and biodynamic French Chidaine Chenin Blanc, which ventures far outside the 100-mile rule. It was chosen from a very interesting list of a couple of dozen whites and about twenty reds (with a half-dozen varieties of each available by the glass).
After the uniformly inventive and delicious first things, as they're called here, I'm shocked by my first bite of my main course, pan-seared corvina, a fish I don't think I've ever seen on a menu before. Under an enticing golden-brown crisp crust, the flesh is mealy, dry, and tasteless, and, I have to think, woefully overcooked. I love the sweetbread and mushroom filling of the supple-skinned ravioli beside the corvina — the thick, meaty slices of chewy wild mushrooms, the few shreds of baby spinach — but the fish was a total disaster. The sautéed sablefish, by contrast, another infrequently seen variety (and that mostly cured, in Jewish delis), is perfection: deeply flavored, it peels off in luscious oily flakes, well served by its hearty accompaniments of mustard-braised cabbage, chanterelles, and sliced roasted potatoes. It's my favorite, although I also like the chunks of rosemary-scented slow-braised lamb shoulder atop smashed red potatoes. A side of house-pickled vegetables provides a nice crunchy and acidic contrast: a jardinière salad of diced carrots and cauliflower, shaved celery with a poached quail egg and salsa verde, beets and pears, and house-cured olives. We've switched to a nice light Italian red, a Lagrein from Elena Walch in the Alto Adige.
A crisp of undercooked pear and huckleberry with vanilla-bean ice cream didn't thrill us. I don't think I've ever had a crisp I liked as much as a good pie or cobbler made with the same fruit; the crisp topping is something of a shuck for cooks intimidated by real dough. Why here, where they proudly make their own pasta? We like the persimmon bread pudding more, helped along by a sprightly cinnamon sabayon. And even more the embarrassingly named dessert drink, the Drunkin Punkin: a tiny martini-glassful of house-made pumpkin schnapps, organic pumpkin, house-made vanilla vodka, and cinnamon sugar cream, rimmed with organic graham cracker crumbs. I wish the $8 glass were a little heftier — I could have quaffed it in one go.
But I intend to have more than one go at Fish & Farm. Its young chefs, Michael Morrison, Colton Harmon, and Ricky Odbert, are demonstrating skills worthy of their locavorish philosophy. Even the best and freshest ingredients need respect, inspiration, and execution.