A new Needham restaurant, The Farmhouse, is a reminder of how much the front-of-the-house experience matters. At this point in dining, USA circa 2013, what else is going to make dinner at a farm-to-table-esque restaurant stand out?
Not the name (a mere five miles away, in Newton, you’ll find Farmstead Table). Not the appealing decor, which offers a modern version of rusticity, with soft shades of paint, reclaimed wood from barns, drinks in Mason jars, and the requisite sculpture of a pig. Not even the food, uncomplicated, fresh combinations heavy on seasonal produce, some from area growers.
All of this is pleasant enough — so pleasant you’ll find shades and versions of the experience all over town. So the burden of making a meal memorable falls to the people: The waitress who will talk with you about everything from her tattoos to interior design to her love of wine and truffles. The bartender with ties to the local music scene. The winning proprietors, a married couple with kids. Dora Tavel-Sanchez Luz and Gabriel Sanchez Luz met working in restaurants in New York, moved to Boston, catered and worked in more restaurants, and dreamed of having their own. “For 10 years,” she says by phone, “we were passing ships.” It’s no wonder, then, that The Farmhouse is pleasant — memorably so. It’s a home at the end of a long journey.
Gabriel heads the kitchen. His cooking is unpretentious, a notch up from what you might produce on an ambitious night in your own kitchen. There are big piles of lettuce with sweet cubes of beets in different hues, adorned with goat cheese and pistachios. Kale salad is cropping up around town, and the one at The Farmhouse stands out, sturdy greens tenderized in a bath of lemon vinaigrette, almonds and Parmesan steering the leaves away from stern austerity. White gazpacho may become the soup of the summer — the first truly hot week, it seemed to be on every Boston-area menu. And why not? A bowl of The Farmhouse’s version, with almonds, grapes, and cucumbers, is cool and tangy, pure refreshment.
One can’t argue with crab cakes, either, brightened with mango salsa and spicy aioli. Nantucket scallops are seared golden, paired with nutty cauliflower and earthy mushrooms. A dramatic lavender swirl encircles them on the plate. It is purple cauliflower puree — eye-catching, if not as delicious or texturally satisfying as plain old florets. Pork chop Milanese is a happy surprise. Versions of this dish are often leaden and dull, but the chop here is juicy under crisp breading, and toppings of arugula salad, brown butter, and capers keep things fresh. For dessert, butterscotch pudding appears in a Mason jar, beneath a pouf of cream and chunks of toffee.
It is worth a visit to The Farmhouse for its truffle fries and cocktails alone. The fries would be good salted, but flavored with a judicious amount of truffle oil, a shaving of Parmesan, and chives, they are decadent. They make a perfect companion to well-mixed drinks from the refreshing Aperol spritz and cucumber Collins to a stiffer, balanced Ward Eight.
Still, dishes don’t always come together. A soft-shell crab is fresh and sweet, and with accompaniments of yuzu aioli, avocado, and grapefruit, it should explode in the mouth. Yet the composition is quieter and less complex than one expects. Calamari are combined with lemon aioli and marinara, the flavors simple and satisfying. But the squid has been fried too long, and some bites are dark brown. One first course features a pile of plain asparagus with a lemon drizzle, one random roasted tomato, and a Parmesan tuile. It needs something — a good dressing, a sprinkling of olive oil and coarse salt, something — to tie it all together. Otherwise tasty lamb chops are overcooked; lobster risotto is desperately seeking salt. And kudos for including in the “kid’s loft” a fluffernutter sandwich with house-made fluff, a fun idea. But the bread it is served on is thick, heavy, slightly stale, and not fun at all. Pout!
Yet there is a place for The Farmhouse in Needham. As much as — and sometimes more than — what’s on the table, the people here make the experience stand out.