Farmer's Table Is Surprisingly Excellent — and Disappointing
The La Mesa restaurant boasts farm-to-table recipes but the only person who is passionate is the chef
Prosciutto pizza with mozzarella, arugula, shaved Parmesan, and extra-virgin olive oil
8141 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Wood Fire Roasted Chicken
Well. “Farm-to-table” really got co-opted, didn’t it? For people who really believe in the cause (buying fresh, in-season, sustainable food from local farmers), seeing clowny fast-food chains do farmy commercials was a bit like spotting a Greenpeace sticker on a Hummer. It makes you less proud of your own Greenpeace sticker, eventually replacing it with an ironic Dukakis-Ferraro sticker to show you only support lost causes. I imagine the Hells Angels felt the same way when the rest of us—who hadn’t even murdered anyone or spread a single disease—bought Harley-Davidsons.
And Farmer’s Table in La Mesa casts itself as the farmiest of farm-to-table restaurants I’ve ever seen. There’s the name, obviously. In case you missed the point, “FARM TO TABLE” is written in big letters on the facade. There’s a real, ancient tractor forever parked in the front room. Rusted farm tools and memorabilia hang on every inch of wall and shelf space. They’re just one foreclosure notice away from being a true Smithsonian of farm culture. I’m somewhat surprised that the staff isn’t in overalls, bringing food to tables on the ends of pitchforks.
I’m very, very suspicious. What’s made me so wary about a local restaurant that the community seems to love? How have I gotten to this nadir of faith in my common restaurant man?
It was San Diego Magazine’s investigation of the farm-to-table movement two years ago. We found that a lot of unscrupulous restaurants were misleading or flat-out BSing about using local farms. It gave me the sads. It made me paranoid. I started to fear every restaurant was claiming their pork was fed acorns and acai bowls, pet every day by Bill Niman, then read pastoral poetry and its last rites by Alice Waters—when in actuality it was raised in a stinky CAFO herd (concentrated animal feeding operation), put on a gruesome conveyor belt, and flash frozen by Employee #24748. I’m a jaded, farm-sympathizing urbanite.
I understood why many real farm-to-table restaurants stopped using the term. They felt like first-wave punk rockers who’d just seen a Sex Pistols T-shirt at the mall.
So if you’re going to name your restaurant Farmer’s Table, and sell your customers on the idea that you’re serving them fresh, sustainable, local, farm-to-table food, you must deliver—or be driven from this land.
But how to know? Seated in the dining room, I notice the names of two top San Diego farms carved into our wooden table. Without a doubt, they MUST be buying from these two farms, right? It’s etched into their furniture! That’s like me carving a tree “Troy + Some Girl I’m Not Dating = 4ever.”
So I call the farms. One says “Yes, those guys buy from us, and they do a good job of buying local.” The other says it’s unlikely they’ve ever bought a thing from them, and they’re definitely not currently doing so. Hmm. This is troublesome.
Granted, Farmer’s Table’s menu doesn’t claim the food is from that farm. Their servers don’t, either. But it’s engraved at your seat! Most diners would naturally assume the food is from that farm, right? And if not, aren’t they using the farm’s name to brand their food and add cachet? Is that false advertising? Or is it okay to “pay tribute” to a great local farm even if you don’t buy or serve their food? Don’t bars have umbrellas with logos from brands they don’t serve? Is it such a high crime?
I call the general manager of Farmer’s Table, a very nice woman named Medina Poulain who assures me it’s the farmiest restaurant she’s ever worked for. The chef is obsessive about it, she says: They buy one whole fish every day, and when it’s gone it’s gone. Reportedly, farm trucks constantly loiter at their back door. She emails me a list of local purveyors they use, and says the chef welcomes anyone to ask for proof.
That’s pretty good assurance. Evidence points to them doing farm-to-table reasonably well, if not perfectly. I still think they should get new tables, or remove the name of that farm they’re not using. Maybe paint over it. Like when you get a tattoo that says “Lisa” but then you start dating Jill. Or they could just buy produce from them.
La Mesa is a cute little hiccup of a neighborhood, isn’t it? My gay BFF described it to me as “the Hillcrest of East County.” And that’s important. East County has long been derided as a conservative foxhole of firearm advocates, immune to progressive ideals. I’ll make no value judgments about East County’s philosophical mien. But I will say La Mesa seems progressive, with better architecture and cleaner sidewalks and plain ole curb appeal. Many friends who can play better music or make better art than me have moved out there. It’s cute.
And Farmer’s Table has a prominent corner downtown, in the spot that housed Sanfilippo’s Pizza for the last 40 years. It’s the second project from Alberto Morreale, who opened Farmer’s Bottega in Mission Hills and co-owns the Fig Tree Café, and a new partnership with Vincenzo Lo Verso (Greystone, Osetra, Osteria Panevino, etc.).
Expectations low and suspicions high, I was fully unprepared for how excellent the bison tartare is. Bison is a lighter, brighter meat, and its sharp, almost pastrami-ish flavor can be tougher for chefs to wrestle with. But Morreale spikes it perfectly with finely cut avocado, garlic, capers, and a mango-pomegranate salsa. Spread a quail egg on that and it’s gold. The pork belly over a potato risotto, sautéed mushrooms, and bacon jus is also very good. Pork belly has become so common on menus that lesser chefs are really botching the execution, serving slabs of un-rendered fat. But Farmer’s Table finds that perfect ratio of cooked meat tucked between layers of luscious fat that quickly melts away on your tongue.
The only appetizer we don’t heartily enjoy is the grilled octopus. It’s just neither here nor there, with red watercress, watermelon radish, and the traditional octopus side, fingerling potatoes. The octopus is tender, but it needs more spice, sauce, identity. For dinner I always try the chicken. If you can make the most predictable, boring protein in the world really sing, then you’re cooking. And theirs is a knockout. They must brine it, because the meat is extraordinarily tender and juicy, and the spice on the skin is just right.
Farmer’s Table serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So we pull in on a Monday at 1:30 p.m., and it’s packed—the dining room a riot, the patio spilling out with people on breaks from their workaday drudgery. After such a good dinner the night before, we’re eager. We order six dishes, and wow—they are almost all uniformly mediocre.
On the short rib horseradish flatbread, the meat is excellent, but the dough undercooked and horseradish creamed into boredom. The burger is actually very good, with a well-seasoned patty. But our server had promised us an egg on top, and there is none. Without the egg, it’s a bit dry. We try the Man Candy Bacon side dish, and the flavors are fantastic—bacon in brown sugar and paprika. But they need to find a way to crisp it. Soft, wet, and limp is no way to bacon. Their potatoes with arugula, Parmesan, and truffle oil are excellent, but served to us room temp. A carne asada torta needs zest, spice, punch—it being a Mexican dish, after all. And ours is far too Anglo-Saxon. Lunch isn’t awful, it’s just a shrug.
Service at Farmer’s Table is polite, friendly, and significantly bad. On both visits, service is very, very slow. But mostly it comes down to knowledge—we didn’t see any of it.
Every restaurant has three opportunities to “sell” the food they’ve created. First, the menu, which is usually a CliffsNotes: vaguely descriptive bullet points of main ingredients. The second is when the server suggests a few favorites, going beyond the menu description with a little passion. Finally, and most importantly, is when the meal lands on the table. This is the coming-out party, the quinceañera of your meal, the moment the bride and groom enter the reception party under a spotlight and massive applause. This moment is sacred, and should be celebrated and described in great detail.
The staff needs to point at each ingredient and component and paint you a picture of what the kitchen has done. Of the little art you have. When the dish is perfectly explained, the server expresses not only that they care enough about the food to get to know it, even admire it, but they also stoke your appetite with a little kitchen poetry before you take that first bite.
And no one we encounter at Farmer’s Table knows the food. At dinner, a busser delivers our plates and we ask him to describe the dishes. He politely says that’s not his skill set, and that’s understandable. No problem, we say. I’m sure our server can give us a full description. Nope. The server pauses, then picks up the menu and reads it to us. At the second day’s lunch, we ask the server which dishes he recommends, or which have been popular, and he merely names them with zero description. There is an utter lack of passion and/or knowledge from the four people we interact with over two meals.
Which is a shame, because we didn’t have a bad dish there. The food was decent (lunch) to very good (bison tartare, pork belly, that roasted chicken). Restaurant hiring is hard. But if the chef is as passionate about farm-to-table food as they claim, they absolutely need to get the rest of the staff to buy into that. Since the cooks are stuck in the back, the front of the house needs to be their ambassador, their translator, their emissary. And right now, it seems that the Farmer’s Table’s passion is buried behind the kitchen door.
If they straighten out the front of the house, La Mesa has itself a very good new restaurant.