Sitting on the patio at Farm & Table in the North Valley on a recent Friday night, one could almost forget that the novel coronavirus ever existed. Diners filled every table, and a steady procession of well-dressed people made their way out to a picnic deck beyond the patio for some function.
The sight of the people trudging out to a pergola-covered deck, gift bags in hand, offered a reminder of something we had lost in the past few months: the chance to get together at a restaurant and celebrate occasions such as engagements, graduation and reunions.
There aren’t many better settings in town for such occasions than Farm & Table, an 8-year-old restaurant on Fourth just north of Paseo del Norte. Fields stretch out from the patio toward the west, where the sinking sun silhouettes greenhouses and a geodesic dome. The restaurant’s design reflects its rustic setting, with thick wooden posts and corbels looming over painted wooden tables and chairs draped with Navajo rugs.
Cherie Montoya opened Farm & Table on her father’s farm in 2012 with an emphasis on locally sourced food and sustainability. Before the pandemic, the restaurant frequently hosted special meals pairing wines and food over several courses.
The menu is succinct, with the list of small plates and entrées fitting on one side of a piece of paper. Remarkably, prices for several items are a tick or two lower than they were at this time last year. The small plates include a rotating selection of soups; on this night, it was corn soup ($7) with pumpkin seeds and goat cheese. The lumpy cheese melted into the butterscotch-colored soup, creating a silky textured balance of tangy and sweet that was a superlative start to the meal.
A starter of arugula salad ($12) was equally proficient, the namesake greens spiked with unique flourishes such as fat pitted cherries that had almost all the sweetness pickled out of them. All the ingredients, including corn, radicchio, candied pecans and goat cheese in a creamy lime dressing, were exquisitely balanced, provided you exercise caution with the blazing-hot jalapeños peppers.
The least expensive among the six entrées on the current menu is an apricot-glazed pork belly ($21) over barley, mushrooms and almonds. The glaze brought tartness to the rich, succulent meat, and the mustard jus underneath it all was like the sweet and spicy liquid essence of the mustard seed. It was a successful dish, but so hearty that it felt like a holdover from the cold months.
A beautifully presented fillet of steelhead trout ($25) with grilled asparagus and quinoa is a more season-appropriate choice. The trout has the pink-orange color and meaty, flaky texture of salmon, but with a milder flavor. Tomato jam, a spread of pureed green chile and half a grilled preserved lemon brings bright colors to the plate and, more important, an acerbic charge.
The server displayed excellent knowledge of Farm & Table’s thoughtfully curated wine list. His suggestion of a 2018 Eric Texier Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc ($13/$52) to go with the pork belly was particularly apt. The white wine had enough fruitiness and acidity to stand up to the fatty meat.
Based on the action at the other tables, the miniature cherry pies are the most popular dessert item from pastry chef Vanessa Martinez. Our choice of an Earl Grey Panna Cotta ($12) served with blood orange sorbet and chunks of bee pollen honeycomb was a mixed bag. The custardy panna cotta had nicely subtle floral and citrus notes, and the scoop of blood orange sorbet was superb if a little on the meager side. The bee pollen honeycomb, nutty, sweet and hard as peanut brittle, chewed down to a concentrated, gluey mass that had me worried I’d be down a couple of fillings by the time I finished it.
Patio dining almost always involves a trade-off, and this night was no different. The sunset was picturesque, the spacing between the parties sensitive to COVID-19 guidelines. But even with ample shade, it was still pretty warm out there, and the flies made their presence known, although they were courteous enough to wait until the tail end of the meal before showing up.
Service at Farm & Table is team-based, and there was always someone circulating around within hailing distance. Our server was still getting up to speed on the menu, but to his credit he doggedly chased down the answers to all our questions.
With its food and the setting, Farm & Table delivers a memorable experience, one that’s been sorely missed over the past few months.