The nice neighborhood place. Taken for granted, it deserves odes and encomiums. Who is there for you the way your local is? Who makes you dinner, is kind to you at the end of the day, offers a glass of wine and a comfortable booth? Your nice neighborhood place takes care of you and your family. It is a relationship that requires little maintenance yet rolls together some of the benefits of a spouse, a nanny, and a therapist.
Farmstead Table opened in Newton Centre in August, across from the train station, and it instantly became the new nice neighborhood place. For quite a lot of people. Trouble is, it is better than it is big. Ever had to tangle for reservations in Newton in the middle of the week before? To eat here, one must plan in advance.
It is part of a new movement one might call “farm to Newton,’’ a wave of small restaurants serving dishes made from local, seasonal ingredients. Waban Kitchen recently debuted, from 51 Lincoln chef Jeff Fournier. Sycamore, a project in which David Punch (Ten Tables) and Lydia Reichert (Craigie on Main) are involved, is coming soon. I expect to see this wave spread through surrounding suburbs like hand-pressed, unfiltered Concord grape juice on an organic muslin tablecloth. The costs and risks of city restaurateuring are too high. The locally grown actually grows in or closer to these parts. And a hungry, underserved customer base awaits.
At Farmstead Table, husband-and-wife co-owners Chad and Sharon Burns have created a rustic-chic space: white walls, wood tables, spring-green chairs. Colorful patterned fabrics are displayed in embroidery hoops hung on the walls. At the entrance, a blackboard lists the local farmers and purveyors whose products the restaurant uses. It’s a flowers-in-Mason-jars, gourds-on-display aesthetic, sweet but spare enough to not be kitschy. The tiny restaurant has a proportionally tiny bar at the front, where one can drink well-made cocktails that often showcase spirits from local distilleries such as Bully Boy and GrandTen.
Chad is the chef, and he has worked locally at Radius, Aquitaine, Beacon Hill Bistro, and Great Bay. Sharon is the baker, with experience at Anago, Tea Tray in the Sky, and Grill 23. Their menu is just “restaurant-y’’ enough — not too formal or rich, but not home cooking, either. The food is comfortable, clean, not crazy or unhealthy or trendy. It’s the sort of food people want to eat with regularity.
Every meal begins with Sharon Burns’s spelt bread, which is so excellent that a warm loaf and a glass of wine would not make an unwelcome supper. It is dense and springy, perfect spread with butter. After you Hoover the first plateful, you’ll want more — to accompany a slightly too sweet, warmly spiced butternut squash soup; alongside one of several salads, such as thin-sliced golden beets with arugula, pine nuts, and goat cheese; or dunked in a creamy, light, bacon-flecked broth, in which handfuls of juicy clams are steamed. (The bread is also great with peanut butter and jelly, which I know because when I praised it, they gave me a few slices to take home. It’s that kind of place.)
Rabbit rillettes are served with toasts, drizzled with a warm vinaigrette of maple, bacon, and onion that complements the mild flavor of the chunky pate. And house-cured salmon comes with classic accompaniments of lemon, capers, and creme fraiche, along with salty, crisp, dark brown potato chips. Brie from Vermont’s Blythedale Farms is served unevenly warmed, with cranberry compote and spelt crackers. It’s billed as a plate for two, but it’s enough for four, pleasant but not as interesting as some of the other appetizers.
Main courses feature a rotating cast of vegetables, prepared simply, generally arrayed around a well-cooked piece of protein. A fish dish changes daily, depending on what is available. Roast chicken might come with sweet parsnip puree and braised Brussels sprouts (still slightly crunchy, but otherwise a very nice dish). Slices of duck breast are arrayed over chewy wild rice, Brussels sprouts, turnips, and bright orange sweet potato puree. A hefty veal chop is surrounded by whole cooked carrots, turnips, and fingerling potatoes. These dishes, as the farm-to-table mantra goes, let the ingredients shine. On one visit, when the meats are cooked perfectly, this seems an infinitely wise approach. On another, when steak and duck are both a shade overcooked, it is less appealing. That is the difficulty of this deceptively simple approach: Each component must be just right.
The restaurant’s virtues are showcased in two of its best, most diametrically opposed dishes. A vegetarian plate doesn’t even mess around with grains. It is straight-up vegetables: buttery, velvety roast acorn squash spilling over with kale, Brussels sprouts, and carrots. Talk about highlighting the bounty of the season. It is far more satisfying than it has any right to be, each ingredient cooked to its ideal point, lent just a bit of extra flavor from a sherry reduction. Then there is Farmstead Table’s burger — grass-fed beef grilled medium-rare, caramelized onions, cheddar, and thick, smoky bacon on a brioche roll. It’s a great burger, in the same way a traditional tux is a great suit without the cummerbund. The perfect fries — hand-cut, slender, crisp, with bits of skin — are the finishing touch here.
Dessert is worthy of the rest of the meal, from a s’mores-inspired chocolate tart topped with bruleed marshmallow to a fluffy pecan-toffee bread pudding with creme Anglaise poured over it to a rustic beauty of an apple tart.
It all adds up to a lovely restaurant, the nice neighborhood place that locals will have to learn to share. The only misstep the Burnses may have made was in not opening a bigger space.