In 2010, when chef Jim Coleman left his post at Blue Bell’s Normandy Farm and abandoned his hosting gig on the popular WHYY show, A Chef’s Table, many wondered what the heck was going on. A year later, The Farmer’s Daughter debuted at the suburban hotel and conference center.
But just weeks after the ambitious farm-to-table restaurant’s grand opening, Texas-born chef Corey Fair was gone. Taking over was sous chef Mtele “Abu” Abubakar, a Culinary Institute of America grad who’d worked with Fair over the past several years.
Last we heard, Fair is busy developing restaurants in Center City with the same “modern farm cooking” influence. And while his sudden departure from Normandy Farm did seem a little odd, Fair’s short stint at The Farmer’s Daughter was influential nonetheless.
The renovations at Normandy Farm have resulted in an updated, two-room dining space with attractive, reclaimed-wood tables, dark wood beams, sleek hanging lights and a fireplace. Just a few steps away from the dining room is the spacious, new 90-seat bar and lounge, with handblown chandeliers and a 40-foot fireplace.
On a recent Thursday night, the bar was more crowded than the restaurant, with corporate types enjoying libations from the extensive drink menu. The beer list features more than 20 microbrews, all from either local or New England breweries, and the four-beer flight for $7 is a great way to sample more than one. Whiskey and white and red wine flights are also available—a good deal considering the large selection of each.
Fair and Abubakar conceptualized the bar menu perfectly. The noshes are just what you’d want to accompany a cold beer or one of the house’s infused vodka or bourbon cocktails made with local fruits and vegetables. Plates of local cheeses or charcuterie go well with the truffled soft pretzels, Pennsylvania beef sliders, or house-baked burrata with local mushrooms and grilled bread.
A meal in the restaurant’s main dining room (the connecting smaller dining room can be used for private functions) may be a completely different experience, but the food philosophy is the same—only on a grander scale. The restaurant sources seasonal products that are “local whenever possible, usually sustainable, hopefully organic and always fresh.” You’ll find pasture-raised chicken from Lancaster, beef from Meadow Run Farm in Lancaster County, and cheeses and meats from Chester County’s Birchrun Hills Farm. And while the farm-to-table concept seems to have reached critical mass on the culinary-trends scale, The Farmer’s Daughter really takes its devotion to fresh eating seriously—something diners can most definitely feel good about.
The $35 three-course prix-fixe dinner is a good deal, as is the farm-style sharing option, which offers a choice of one of six entrées with side dishes. The Rioja-braised short ribs—with coarse, creamy grits, roasted vegetables and fresh horseradish—were massive enough to feed four people. One taste of the fall-off-the-bone meat and buttery grits had the two us licking our plates clean.
It’s worth ordering some local cheeses and a salad to share before moving on to your main dish. The baked burrata, with homemade mozzarella and ricotta, comes to the table bubbling from the oven and with a small jar of arugula pesto (some of the best I’ve had), grilled country bread, lemon zest and sea salt.
Three small mason jars filled with olive tapenade, cannellini-bean hummus and piccalilli were served with grilled bread and Illg’s German sausage from Chalfont. Everything was delicious and seasoned just right.
While it’s easy to fill up on charcuterie, cheese and small plates, save room for a main course. If you’re not into the farm-style sharing or the prix-fixe option, Abubakar has a wonderful selection of farm dinners that are typically in the $19-$30 range. The evening we were there, selections included olive oil-poached salmon with celery root purée and broccoli rabe; butter-poached Maine lobster and fava agnolotti with mushrooms and cream; Virginia striped bass with Chianti and red-beet risotto; and diver scallops with bacon, capers and golden raisin salsita.
A lovely dish from start to finish, the striped bass was tender and almost sweet. The beet risotto, brown-butter parsnip purée and braised leeks provided an earthy contrast.
But meat is what The Farmer’s Daughter does best, with local purveyors providing the tenderest cuts. The Jersey lamb shank couldn’t be more straight off the farm, accompanied by dandelion greens, barley and smoked eggplant. There’s also a veal rib-eye from Birchrun Hills Farm, along with various cuts of beef and pork from Sweet Stem Farm in Lititz. Each dish is generously portioned and paired with seasonal sides that perfectly complement the meat. Our beef was served with crispy potatoes, rosemary butter and a spring salad, while the pork came with a tangy mustard spätzle, pickled cabbage and sweet juniper applesauce.
After a hearty farm dinner, dessert may be the last thing on your mind. But it’s worth ordering a few to share at The Farmer’s Daughter. Pastry chef Colleen Winston and sous pastry chef Tia Bennett have reimagined some classic desserts with a down-on-the-farm twist. The espresso ganache and doughnuts were excellent, for the most part. Light and not too sweet, the doughnuts went well with the chai ice cream. But the slab of dense espresso was overpowering.
The warm blackberry bread pudding, on the other hand, was the perfect balance of tart and sweet, rounded out nicely with a jar of apple butter ice cream. Be sure to order a cup of coffee from Audubon roaster Café Excellence, or split a pot of Ethiopian or French roast served piping hot in a French press.
THE SKINNY: There’s been a real surge in farm-to-table cuisine in the Philadelphia area over the past year. And if you happen to be a chef caught up in this booming trend, you better be able to cook consistently with the seasons and stay true to sourcing local ingredients. While his talented predecessor may have moved on to bigger urban ventures, Abubakar has successfully made The Farmer’s Daughter’s modern, farm-fresh menu his own.
The bar is a relaxed, comfortable place to grab a small bite and a pint of local brew. And in the utterly charming restaurant, the seafood, meat from the farm, local cheeses, seasonal vegetables and more are prepared thoughtfully, with delicious, homey touches.
Beautiful place. Beautiful food.
THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER
Location: 1401 Morris Road, Blue Bell; (215) 616-8300, normandygirl.com.
Cuisine: Modern American, farm-fresh fare.
Cost: Appetizers, small plates $7-$16; entrées $19-$35; farm-style sharing $30-$55; chef’s table $55.
Attire: Smart casual.
Atmosphere: Chic yet rustic, with modern touches.
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Saturday 5-10 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m. Sunday brunch: 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Extras: Thursday-night happy hour 5-7 p.m., with food tastings, live music and $3 beers.
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