Good Swill Hunting: Confessions of a Farm to Table Foodie

"Eating is an Agricultural Act" — Wendell Berry

Jersey Road Trip

image (5)

Whenever I travel, I visit as many places as possible that are listed in my Foodie Guide database. It’s a treasure hunt. It gives my day forward momentum. Knowing that a new place and a potentially good meal awaits me offsets the drudgery of flying or those really long drives, often on nondescript interstate highways.

Actually, the reason for establishing farmtotableguide.com and the forthcoming Foodie Guides is because it’s hard finding decent food on the road. It’s one thing to research a good restaurant in a major North American city. But in smaller towns and rural America? Where’s the reliable data for that? My work didn’t always take me to large metropolitan areas and I often drove long distances. I was often on the move, without much time. I found myself more than a few times hunched over my smart phone while eating dinner, researching the next day’s food options. All those complaints on the web about this place and that. It seemed pretty hopeless. How many more disappointing meals could I endure? Eventually, I realized it was time I did something about it. I was too miserable. Now, with my database as a tour guide, each trip is a food odyssey. It’s a chance to discover new favorites anywhere in North America and reconnect with old friends. Soon, the Guides will be posted after three years of research. I hope they help you to find great eats.

In June, 2014, armed with my trusty iPad and tried and true foodie database, I took a memorable three-week road trip from Atlanta to New Jersey and back. On my first day, with clear skies and moderate temperatures beckoning me, the first stop was the Blacksburg Taphouse. This very casual spot, only five hours away, is in Blacksburg, Virginia, a college town just off the I-81 corridor. Blacksburg Taphouse is fiercely engaged in the farm-to-table movement. It serves affordable comfort food (burgers, salads, sandwiches, small plates), has a comfortable outdoor deck and a huge beer list. Its chef, Michelle Smith, spent a great deal of time with me during dinner explaining her plans for the future. Business is so good they’re expanding after a little more than a year in business. They’re already shopping for their own retail establishment/banquet place to do food prep. There’s nothing like it in Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech crowd is taking to it in a very big way. Fortunately, it’s creating a ripple effect: Other restaurants are jumping on the farm-to-table bandwagon. The burger I had was terrific. So was the house-made sausage, part of the excellently assembled charcuterie plate. One suggestion before going: Call and ask about parking.


 

I always stop at the Roanoke Coop in Roanoke’s Grandin Village, not far from where I typically stay on my way north. Somehow I didn’t notice before that they do made-to-order veggie juices. My default “large beet/carrot/parsley” gave me the energy I needed to motor north to West Virginia and beyond. The Coop’s cafe is a good place to stop for lunch and the store is perfect for loading up on local cheese, bread and other provisions.

Several days later, after setting up camp at my sister-in-law’s in Northern New Jersey, I returned to the terrific Little Falls, New Jersey BYOB bistro Bivio Pizza. Tommy Colao, an alto saxophonist and former jazz club owner, presides over the kitchen. I knew his food was especially savory from several previous visits but I learned this time around that he sources his summer produce from Bracco Farms, a high-end farm that supplies many regional restaurants. Bivio is very small (about 30 seats) and is only open four days a week for dinner. I recommend getting there at 5pm. Everything that’s cooked is made to order in Colao’s wood burning oven. The daily salads and specials are always delicious and sometimes sublime.

About thirty minutes north of Little Falls, in posh Ridgewood, New Jersey, a new juice bar, Super Juice Nation, features cold-pressed organic juices and made-to-order organic drinks. It fills a void, especially since nearby Whole Foods doesn’t have a juice bar. Parking in Ridgewood is a challenge. Alternatively, with some advance planning you can call in your order, prepay, drive up, and have your juice handed to you.

In North Salem, New York I had a great lunch at Purdy’s Farmer and the Fish. They feature SoCo Creamery Ice Cream from Great Barrington MA, some of the best I’ve had anywhere. My blue cheese grass-fed burger included house-smoked bacon. Its side salad was in part picked from their farm/CSA, on the hillside right behind the restaurant. It’s an historic spot, built in 1775, with wide-plank wooden floors and all the charm you’d expect from buildings of that period. Purdy’s also maintains a great take-out market. Try their house-made sausages or any freshly picked produce from their farm.

Also in North Salem, New York is Harvest Moon Farm & Orchard. It’s a country store that specializes in outdoor plants, groceries and grass-fed beef they raise and butcher. Harvest Moon also maintains a broad selection of New York wines. (I bought a spectacular 2012 Atwater Dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes!) Their local cheese selection is especially good. I chose the Toma Celena from Cooperstown Cheese Company, not knowing anything about it. Wow! A Google search unearthed this entry at http://www.palisadesfm.org/cooperstown-cheese-company.html:

“Bob Sweitzer and Sharon Tomaselli started making cheese as Cooperstown Cheese Company nearly three years ago, but in that short time were able to develop a wonderful alpine style cheese and win a second place ribbon at the American Cheese Society annual competition in 2009. Toma Celena, named after the first person to taste it and love it, is a very complex semi-hard and natural rind cheese that is nutty and fragrant, yet has slightly sweet undertones. The flavor lingers and is bold enough to match well with meaty red wines and broad enough to match well with spicy brews. Known iconically as the ‘The Red Roof 6 miles south of Cooperstown on Route 28,’ Cooperstown Cheese Company handcrafts artisan cheeses from locally-sourced, raw cow’s milk. Their Toma Brand Cheeses are made from milk from Brown Swiss cows raised naturally and hormone free on Lester Tyler’s family farm, Sunny Acres Swiss. Their Jersey Girl Colby is made with grass-fed, raw milk from Autumn Valley Farm in Worcester, NY. . . . In mid-January of 2013, Bob and Sharon received a call requesting that they send 40 pounds of Toma Celena and Jersey Girl cheese to the White House, because their cheese was selected to be served at the Presidential Inaugural Luncheon on January 21, 2013. To say they were stunned is an understatement.”

After a two week stay in the New York suburbs, it was time to head home. I took a more easterly route than usual. Veering off from Harrisburg, the plan was to first drive to Baltimore. Then, past Annapolis and across the Chesapeake Bay, the second day’s drive would follow local highways down the Delmarva Peninsula south to Norfolk, finally across the beautiful Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. I did it mostly to avoid Washington traffic, but also to visit two places new to me. First, however, I had a chance to revisit one of my very favorite places, Woodberry Kitchen. Woodberry is one of the great farm-to-table restaurants in North America. (See “The Movement” for more about my experience and what makes it special.) Spike Gjerle, Woodberry’s owner and chef, recently opened his fourth Baltimore restaurant, Shoo-Fly Diner. In Belvedere Square, it’s diagonally across the street from the tres cool Belvedere Market. I’ll eat at Shoo-Fly on my next visit. This time around, though, after Woodberry I stopped off for a glass of wine and a small plate at Grand Cru. It was around 9pm and Belvedere Market had closed.

The next day it was off to the Eastern Shore. Easton, Maryland’s Out of the Fire does lunch and dinner. That worked out beautifully for the tour since I could check out of my hotel and get there in time for lunch. I also wanted to get to Norfolk/Virginia Beach by nightfall to check out a wine bar with half-price wine by-the-glass. Easton is a beautiful Eastern Shore village, a place I first visited when I was home from college visiting a friend many years ago. Too bad it was a bruising 98 degrees on my recent visit. I would’ve liked to have walked around and taken in the sights. Out of the Fire–an appropriate metaphor for the scalding heat and air conditioning that saved me–is a comfortable, long, casual room with a wood burning oven at the far end. It’s fervently dedicated to the farm to table movement. Very good service and food: I had yet another grass-fed burger, this one also terrific!

Finally in Virginia Beach, I stopped at Eurasia Bistro and Wine Bar. On a Wednesday night, maybe because of half-price wine, the place was surging with excitement. What a great thing it was to feed off of the dining room’s energy after a long drive in oppressive heat! The front of the space has a well stocked wine shop. You can buy a bottle and bring it to your table. Nevertheless, in a value conscious state of mind, I focused on their wine-by-the-glass list, settling on a fine Alsatian Gewürztraminer to go with my Spring Pea Soup with Riccota and Surry Ham. Be sure to ask for Heather, my high-spirited, very talented server. She’s excellent!

Before the last stretch of the drive home, I stopped in Raleigh at the wonderful wine shop Seaboard Wine Warehouse, where I always reload my cellar with Wachau Gruner Veltliner. Seaboard is a fully diversified wine shop that specializes in Austrian wine. The owner, in fact, had just returned that day from Vienna. Because Austrian wines are often hard to find, I always stop in to at least grab a few bottles of Steininger sekt. Seaboard does wine tastings throughout the week. Check their website or give them a call.

Across the parking lot from Seaboard is J. Betski’s, the intimate Polish-German restaurant with superb wurst and an impressive wine and beer list. This time around I had an excellent, locally pastured Smoked Beef-and-Pork Kielbasa with Sauerkraut and Spicy Mustard. Chased by a glass of floral and complex Schneider Weisse Beer, it was a superb pairing. The biggest surprise, perhaps of the entire road trip, was their spectacular dessert: Banana Coconut Rum Strudel with Spicy Avocado Ice Cream (see photo). It was just perfect in terms of texture, balance, mouth feel, and complexity. It was so good, I got another one to photograph and then devour! If you’ve been to J. Betski’s or any of the places I visited, please let me know what you think of them.

image (1)

Comments are closed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *