Manchester's more urban incarnation of the flagship in Essex MA still
has down home touches, with shiny natural wood floors and brick walls
that display an interesting mix of hangings: winter sports (toboggans,
snowshoes), kitchen gear (egg beaters, washboards), outdoor tools (2-man
saws) and a stuffed deer. The complex features two bars, a small darts
alcove and a large dining room split into two sections, with most of the
seating in comfy booths.
Barbecue is less of a specialty and more of a featured item among a wide roster of options designed to appeal to a varied clientele. There's a pulled pork sandwich, a smoked half chicken with cranberry glaze and babyback ribs by the rack and half rack. Flexibility isn't a strong suit here. First, there's only one combo: a BBQ plate combining a half rack of babybacks with pulled pork, grilled chicken breast and steak tips. Second, the sides are no longer configurable, as was the case at Essex—instead you get a side salad (at least the dressing's configurable) and either mashed potatoes or the vegetable of the day. Mac and cheese, cole slaw and beans are off the menu; fries can only be had with the sandwich. Non-barbecue options include wings (not smoked), chili (not made with smoked meats), burgers (several) and an assortment of pub appetizers, seafood, pasta, flatbread pizzas, steak and classic American fare.
I took my young bride to the Farm Bar's Manchester outpost for a Sunday dinner a few years after we tried the Essex MA flagship a few times in one season. The original location made several missteps but still showed promise; this was a chance to check out out a new location and check in on that promise.
Cornbread: We never received any cornbread to start the meal. I didn't see it on the menu and I didn't see any being brought out to other tables, so maybe the complimentary cornbread I remembered from the Farm Bar in Essex is no longer offered at this location or no longer in play across the board. Then I checked out some Yelp reviews and saw some mentions of cornbread here, so I'm guessing we simply got stiffed.
Mussels: An unusual presentation ($10) had two slices of whole grain bread completely covering the bowl. I would have gone with a crusty French bread (or Paul Lynde to block), but in the end it wasn't such a big deal. One of the draws for this dish is the smoked chorizo sausage. Portioned as ground crumbles rather than sliced or chopped links, it had a soft texture and a slight sweetness. The mussels were fairly ho hum, with a creamy but thin broth accented with garlic and herbs.
Side salad: This wasn't just a few scraps of greens tossed onto the plate with the entree. Instead, this was a separate course, served on its own plate. Nothing about it was overly cheffy or farmy (cheese looked straight out of the bag), but you gotta give props for effort, volume, a wide choice of dressings and some decent croutons. Caesar dressing doesn't just get you the dressing but a Caesar salad with Romaine lettuce. No anchovies and a little heavy on the creamy, but more than you'd ever expect out of a side salad.
Steak tips: Anyone who's ever been at an orgy knows that when you're buried at the bottom, it can get awfully steamy, and such was the case with the three steak tips included in the meat orgy known as the BBQ Plate ($24). With pulled pork butted up against them, a blanket of chicken above them and a near rack of babyback ribs on top of that, these tips continued cooking in their own heat long after being placed on the plate, pushing them well past the requested medium rare. So instead of a glorious contrast between red interior and darker, crusty exterior, they were uniformly brown and medium well. Flavor was nice, with the barbecue sauce assistinging rather than overwhelming. Aside from the doneness issues, tenderness was okay, avoiding that overly chewy aspect you sometimes find.
Pulled Pork: When I got to the bottom of the pile, it was hard to distinguish the
pork from the steak tips, as they were so tightly packed and the same
shade of brown throughout. That brown barbecue sauce made it hard to see
bark (present but not plentiful) or pink (not present), but there was
at least a generous sandwichworth of pulled pork on the BBQ Plate.
Unlike with the steak tips, the sauce dominated here. Smoke, rub and
porkiness were all very light. Texture varied between merely mushy and
virtually pre-chewed, possibly from overcooking and possibly from
sharing space with the steak tips at the bottom of the meat mound.
Chicken: Sitting mid level in the BBQ Plate was this boneless breast, shaped like a Hostess fruit pie but about 25% larger, so chalk up another generous sandwichworth. This got a nominal crusting and probably the heaviest dose of seasoning among the meats. Moistness and tenderness were both was okay, nothing special. Most of the chicken wound up being brought home and sliced for sandwiches, and in that format compared favorably with your typical deli counter chicken.
Babyback Ribs: After an unimpressive sampling of the first three meats (I'm describing in the order tried), I dug into the babybacks, which looked like the best offering thanks to a more appealing red color and good crusting that remained intact at the top of the meatpile. These were slightly smaller than average babybacks, making the $24 rack price a little steep, but the BBQ plate had enough overall carnage to justify the same price.
I peeled back the crust to take a look at the meat below, which was refreshingly pink and more than welcome after the monotony of brown that preceeded it. The photo is a little deceiving; it looks like the meat may be a little raw but I can assurre you it was fully cooked. I liked the snap of the bite that these ribs gave. Instead of being overcooked like the steak tips and pulled pork, the ribs were cooked just to the point where they could be pulled off the bone with minimal effort. You don't want to have to use too much effort and and you don't want to not need any effort; these were just right. And guess what? Flavor was the best of the bunch too, with sauce helping it along but content to be part of the ensemble which included rich pork flavor and very pleasant, woodsy smoke.
This was by far the best item of the meal and a better plate of ribs than any of the three tries at the Farm Bar in Essex or the one try at the now-closed Farm Downtown in Beverly MA. I'd even go as far as saying these babybacks were well above average. Whether I just got lucky or the ribs are always this good here, I'm not sure (I can guess), but I enjoyed them.
Fish tacos: The fish itself had a boiled texture and very bland flavor that wasn't perked up by a tame salsa with that "sitting around awhile" feel.
There's no sauce tableside and no choice of sauce. It seems like the ribs were cooked with a different sauce from the other meats, as it was more red, but the sauces were thick and sweet throughout. I liked that the saucing wasn't heavy handed. If the sauce was the predominant flavor, that was due to lack of flavor elsewhere, not too much sauce.
Mashed potatoes: These were more like baked potatoes that were simply removed from the skin and broken down for a few seconds with a fork. Which can be a plus if you're looking for something not whipped, not smooth and not buttery.
The Bottom Line
Think of it as destination barbecue (or destination anything) and The Farm will probably let you down. But do keep it as an ace up your sleeve for when you're in need of a something-for-everyone kind of place. You'll find an alternative to the chains that's at least capable of some surprisingly good babybacks.
My 2010 review of The Farm in Essex MA
Yelp reviews of The Farm in Mancherster
Urbanspoon reviews of The Farm in Manchester