(07/05/10) (07/25/10) (09/04/10)
Set on a winding country road in Essex, The Farm Bar and Grill has the innocent look of a converted residence. Stacks of wood are piled near the seating area for the ice cream window at the side of the building. Inside, there's a separate bar room to the right that has a long wrap-around bar, a few TVs, a few high tops and a few recessed booths in the rear. To the left of the main entry is the wide open dining room that has spacious booths and large tables made of natural wood, many with carvings of pigs and fish in the tabletops. The rear of the building has a sprawling, fenced-in lot that has picnic tables, a volleyball net with a sand playing area and more stacked wood for the smoker. Although barbecue is a small part of the menu, you can smell the aroma of smoking wood as you walk in.
Barbecue takes a back seat to seafood on The Farm's deep menu. Babyback pork ribs, pulled pork and smoked chicken are available individually, in sandwiches (pork), in quesadillas (pork, chicken) and on a BBQ combo with all three plus marinated steak tips and two sides. Seafood options include fish cakes, haddock, swordfish, salmon, fish tacos, fried shrimp, mussels, seafood casserole and clam chowder. Steaks, meatloaf, nachos, quesadillas, fajitas, six salads, and an assortment of half pound burgers and sandwiches round out the something-for-everyone menu.
Three visits were spaced over a two-month period, all on weekend nights. Two couples hit the menu hard on the final visit.
Chicken wings ($6.00) are fried—possibly with the lightest of batter, but I think au naturale—and topped with a choice of sauce. On the first visit we tried the Ah So sauce, which was applied very sparingly and didn't envelop each piece entirely. Size was small, crispness was high, flavor was good, saltiness was a bit of a surprise. On the third visit, the wings were a little larger and the sauces were more generous. Buffalo was fairly standard but well executed; honey mustard was thick, super creamy and very homemade tasting.
Fried shrimp ($8.00) are superior, serving plump fresh shrimp coated with a light, crunchy beer batter. The accompaniment of sweet and tangy chile sauce would be very welcome as a topping for wings. This item has been cooked perfectly on all three visits and has impressed every time.
Smoked haddock fish cakes ($6.00 for 2) from the second visit were served at or near room temperature. These were fried sans batter to a golden brown on the exterior while retaining good moisture inside. The fish was flaky and soft, made even more so by the addition of just enough potato to round things out. Smoke was very noticeable, though more along the lines of smoked whitefish than smoked pork shoulder. Even though I would have enjoyed it more if there were some sort of dipping sauce (like a smoked pepper puree), I enjoyed this a lot as is. On the third visit, the fish cakes were much drier and this time served with a refreshing (dill, I think) dipping sauce.
A mammoth BBQ Plate ($24.00) rounded up a 1/3 rack of babybacks, a big pile of pulled pork, a boneless chicken breast and about a half dozen marinated steak tips. We ordered this platter on all three visits.
Before the plate hit the table on the first visit, I was impressed by both the meatiness/thickness of the babybacks and by the bark, which had great eye appeal. Sauce on the ribs was minimal, which was good. Doneness was spot on, with a toothsomeness that still had plenty of give. The meat was light pink and slightly juicy. There was a noticeable light smokiness, but overall, flavor on the ribs fell just a little short, possibly because the cut was so thick. That crust could have used more seasoning or more sauce. But overall, the first sampling of the ribs showed a lot of promise.
On the second visit the ribs miserably failed to live up to the promise of the first. Again they were babybacks, but not the thick, manly cut I received the first time. Instead, the bones were short, the meat was extremely thin and the entire half rack was stiff and cold (and by cold, I don't mean room temperature, I mean cold. Beyond the meat selection and reheating issues, there wasn't much flavor in the meat beyond the sauce, which was actually quite good.
The third crack at the ribs swung the pendulum back about halfway between the first and second visits for size, flavor and texture. Temperature wasn't an issue. More at issue was the promise, again unfulfilled. I haven't given up hope yet, but I'm not exactly eager for more.
Pulled pork on all three visits had more sauce and more flavor than the ribs. The well shredded meat was slightly crispy, with some dry spots and some moister, softer chunks. Bark was minimal, but it was in there, as was a faint smokiness. The heavy, overly sweet saucing and fine mashing yield both a flavor profile and texture outside my preference, but for what it was, it was done fairly well. On the second visit, the flavor of the meat made itself known, asserting what one barbecue buddy of mine likes to call a "piggy" flavor. But if you're not a fan of the intensely candied pork created by a good but overwhelming sauce, this might not be for you.
On the first visit, chicken was the surprise highlight of the plate. The exterior had a grilled finish and the sauce seemed different—a later check of the menu revealed that The Farm's half smoked chicken is served with cranberry barbecue sauce, so maybe that's what it was on this boneless breast. There was a pleasant spiciness that enhanced the already enjoyably moist meat. I'm not sure if this boneless breast was smoked, but it was good. On the later visits, the chicken breast was more ordinary, with a flavor much less intense and an exterior/interior textural contrast much less pronounced.
A super generous allotment of steak tips (three times the promised amount) was prepared in typical fashion, with the marinade and sauce providing good flavor, but only on the second visit did the meat succeed in delivering tenderness and flavor at an above average level.
Our larger party on the third visit allowed ordering and splitting a burger, so we chose the biggest beast on the menu: the one-pound, two-patty Mega Burger ($12.00, plus $1.00 for bacon). One of the main selling points of this burger beyond the ridiculous amount of meat is the inclusion of two jalapeno poppers. What made this even more impressive is that the jalapenos in said poppers are grown in The Farm's very own garden in back of the restaurant. But what mitigated much of this impressiveness was the delivery of the burger without the poppers, with the explanation that the jalapenos had to be picked and would be right out. "Right out" turned out to be about 15 minutes later. Maybe the poppers were intended to be more of a side item (in addition to the excellent if droopy fries), but I assumed they were part of the burger itself. As for the burger, it presented no real flaws and no real drawbacks; it was solid and satisfying but unremarkable.
Barbecue sauce isn't available on the table and isn't really emphasized, although the meats arrive with sauce already on (light on the chicken and ribs, heavier on the pork and steak tips). It's dark and sweet with its own personality, not an imitation of what you'd find at the store.
Swordfish is available blackened or grilled with lemon and seasoning; the latter preparation didn't have much lemon or seasoning. The portion was more than generous in two large, thin slices, but the fish was a little dry.
The haddock in the fish and chips from the second visit was excellent: a thick cut, tender and flaky, with a light and moderately crunchy batter similar to the shrimp. There was a good portion of it too, with three large fillets on the plate. It certainly upstaged the barbecue on that visit. On the third visit, the crunchy exterior was fine but the fish was raw (sufficiently so that its cost was deducted from the bill upon staff inspection).
Sides have run the full spectrum but have been mostly good. A basket of cornbread and butter is served at the beginning of the meal, and the cornbread has always been hot andf slightly crisp, but varyingly moist/dry from visit to visit. Baked beans were large, slightly al dente and slightly sweet, perked up with what seemed like the house barbecue sauce. Cucumber salad was a mostly sour treatment. Excellent hand cut fries have been long, thick and multitextured, providing crispiness and chewiness in the same bite. Cole slaw was creamy and just enough past simple to be a hit. Mac and cheese delivered lightly lubricated elbows that tasted oddly buttery, a little like pasta in garlic and butter, with less garlic and more cheese.
It is impossible to overstate the appeal of the place itself. The country charm of the dining room, the sprawling backyard and the cozy bar are all ideal settings to enjoy barbecue and farmhouse fare.
Prices are reasonable and portions are typically generous.
Everything is homemade. Everything. The jalapenos are from their own garden. I admire the passion and the cut-no-corners ideals, but perhaps in cutting no corners they are cutting the biggest corner of all: quality. Consistency has been an issue, whether it's the temperature of ribs, the rawness of fish, the inclusion of dipping sauce, a missing side item, missing pork on some pulled pork nachos or having to wait an eternity for a key burger component while the meat sat cooling.
The Bottom Line
Some of the food has been fantastic and some of it has been dreadful. I still want to like the Farm Bar, whose barbecue has what I like to call "breakout potential." I'm still waiting for that promise (barbecue and otherwise) to deliver consistently, but can squint my eyes, extrapolate and see something really special down the road. I'm just not sure how special—or even how close—it is right now.
Yelp reviews of The Farm
Urban Spoon reviews of The Farm