Sometimes the Coastal Emperor will cross the bridge into the Lowcountry to find something that might be lacking in the Savannah area. We go to Hilton Head for our Brazilian Churrasco, or we travel to Charleston for a good burger and other treats. We have also been no strangers to the delightful little hamlet of Bluffton that sits merely half an hour’s drive from downtown Savannah, though it has been a few years since our last report.
Over the last couple of months, this classy looking Airstream “food truck” had been popping up at different events around town and when we approached to check it out, we discovered that it was run by the folks who operate the restaurant FARM in Old Bluffton. We’d seen FARM on many occasions just driving past, because it is a handsome looking spot, but we’d never taken the time to eat there despite smatterings of good words trickling into our ears now and then. The food we sampled from the truck was delicious: grilled asparagus with an amazing remoulade -like sauce, and these incredible corn cakes. It was just a little sampling, but it was enough to finally pique my interest in checking out the flagship there in the Lowcountry.
I must say, it might be the simplistic name spelled in all caps that had me initially wary. As we all know, the “farm to table” mantra has become cliched to an extent and calling your restaurant simply “Farm” was troubling. At least it wasn’t “The Farm”, which I will give them credit for. I do find myself calling it “Farm Bluffton” when talking about it though so I don’t sound like a simpleton. Misgivings about the name aside, everything I read about the place was positive—and their focus on actually using only local stuff—often from their own farm—was encouraging. We made a reservation for a Thursday night hoping to sit at what they called their “Chef’s Counter”, and low and behold that is where we found ourselves when the magic began.
The Chef’s Counter is exactly that: a counter in front of the pass where you watch the kitchen work. It was like an interactive episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The guy running the show that night introduced himself as Chris, the sous. He was incredibly friendly and took time to speak with us regularly, introducing each dish, and letting us know when we’d chosen some of his personal favs. We really felt like the coolest kids in the room when he’d tell us things like, “man, you guys order just like I would.” The whole team was doing a bang-up job, and we were pleased to get to witness them work.
Prior to all that, our server introduced himself and, before we’d said anything at all, made a rather involved speech about how the plates might seem small and the prices might seem high but that was because of ingredients, sourcing, blah, blah, blah. It was almost defensive and also pretty funny. I can just imagine the very Savannah-like attitude a lot of people in that area must have when they come in and order something for $18 that looks like an appetizer and has no side dishes. (To be fair, apparently at lunch service they are more of a meat and three style joint so they probably have to explain the transition between services often, but still, we are “city-fied” and it was humorous to get a speech from this kid who wanted to be “fully transparent” about how ordering the salad would be a bigger plate of food than the 5 roasted Calibogue Sound oysters at the same price point.) That speech aside, the service, like the cooking, was top notch and everything outside of the food was so pleasant and enjoyable that I really wanted to make mention of that before diving into the food.
We started off with the blue crab toast, because what is the Lowcountry without some blue crab? We’d already had oysters elsewhere that evening so we thought we’d get our iodine in with the crustacean spread. It was excellent—basically a buttery mess of crab meat to slather on even more buttery brioche. It was in essence the flavor of my youth of taking a Captain’s Wafer and pilling it with crab. There were some calabrian chilies mixed in for heat and a nice chopped herb salad to give it some color, but the star was rightfully the crab. It was a great sign of things to come.
With the crab toast came our side of charred okra. They were served like Korean bulgogi with strong gochujang and sesame flavors, but with benne instead of sesame seeds. They tasted phenomenal by themselves as a vegetable, but prepared as they were in the bulgogi-style they were like a main course. I would have taken down a second plate of them easily.
Next we had an incredible bowls of chanterelle mushrooms that Chris told us had been foraged from around woods in town. I love chanterelles and have never seen them growing wild around here, but I’ll take his word. They were cooked so perfectly that the edges were crisp and the centers were creamy. They came with semolina dumplings that were like little polenta cakes of love and a sauce combo of tomato butter and tomato jam that was sweet, tart, and bright. It was a truly inspired preparation of mushrooms, the likes of which I have not had since Kyle Jacovino was chef at 1540 Room.
I’ll take this time now to talk about the tea. I don’t know if you’ve ever had fresh tea, as in the leaves themselves are fresh, but it makes all the difference in the world. The tea at FARM comes from the only tea plantation outside of Asia, Africa, and South America which is conveniently located on Wadmalaw Island near Charleston. The crew at FARM make their tea at the restaurant in a french press, and it was a revelation. I drank quite a bit and now I really want to get to Charleston Tea Plantation and stock up.
Wave three of our food offensive was a bowl of sweet corn agnolotti and “Kung Pao” beef tongue. We almost didn’t get the agnolotti because that was a specially of The Florence back in the day, and we feared it might disappoint comparatively. However, we were quite wrong in that assumption and I’m glad we pulled the trigger. The pasta pockets were filled with the most incredible corn flavor and served in a bath with equally sweet shrimp and a golden tomato broth that I could have drunk from a pitcher. We quite literally licked the bowl clean. The Lowcountry already knows how well corn and shrimp go together, but this bowl was tied up in a sweet, slightly tart, buttery bow with the tomatoes in a way that I’d never had the pleasure of experiencing before.
Then the parade of meats began. The tongue was the first dish I knew that we would order (after the octopus, because I always order the octopus). I love eating animals and I love eating the whole animal, well, not liver so much unless its poultry but I digress…., so when I see an “offal” cut, I get it. Tongue, like heart, is just meat with a slightly different texture but it doesn’t really have an organ flavor. It is actually fairly common in Argentina and my wife’s native Brazil (and real Mexican taquerias.) In Latin America it is often served cold, sliced, and with a parsley sauce. It’s common enough that it can be picked up pre-prepared in the supermarket next to the to-go salads. FARM’s tongue was cooked in an Chinese-inspired fashion, burstingly sweet and umami rich. I don’t know how exactly the tongue was prepared before it was sauced, but the texture was out of this world. It was cut into cubes that were crispy on the outside and melty, nay, buttery (I’m using that word a lot today, I realize) on the interior. Served with the excellent Carolina Gold Rice, I could see why Chris would say it was his favorite dish on the menu. It wasn’t much to look at (“ugly delicious” as David Chang says) but we licked that bowl clean too.
The last of our main dishes were the big boys, the charred octopus and the grilled short rib. I watched one of the cooks grill the octopus and the smell of it had me salivating before the dish even made the table. It was filled with butter (lima) beans and and a ragout of sorts made from ground sausage. The fennel in the sausage was amped up with the shaved fennel on top. The whole dish was delicious but when it comes to octopus, you can have all the taste in the world but it won’t matter if that cephalopods tentacles are rubbery. Chris and the crew nailed it, of course, and the meat was succulent and perfectly charred on the edges. The tentacles were sliced into perfect, bite-sized chunks and easy to scoop into a mouthful with the other ingredients. It was a first class preparation and I don’t usually even care for fennel that much.
Finally, the big chunk of short rib was served with shishito peppers and new potatoes that had been cooked soft and then smashed onto the griddle to crisp up the outsides. They were covered in a creamy, rich “green harissa aoili” that would make any potato a star. However, this plate was about that beef. Like the little bits of tongue, the short rib (boneless) had been cooked in such a way that the inside was pull-apart tender and juicy, laced with rich rendered fat, but the outside had been fried into a crisp shell. I must say, I was thrilled. Cutting into the meat was like cracking into a beefy version of a Cadbury Cream Egg at Easter Time—that first one after you’ve waited all year for that selfish little rabbit to bring you some. We’d had oxtail prepared similarly in Barcelona, where I think the meat was slow roasted or maybe confite and then flash fried at the end. However they do it, it turns out incredible both texturally and flavor-wise.
I’d read online people lauding the cake, so we finished things off with a slice and some freshly prepared coffee. It was indeed delicious cake. The frosting was cream cheese based and it was covered in a delightfully salty crumble that gave it a perfect crunch and mineral bite. While we ate our cake we chatted with the cooks who were packing up the kitchen for the night. Chris was kind enough to give us a slice of the cornbread that he and the crew were sharing. It was covered in cane syrup and so excellent and basically a desert itself. Chris and I chatted about Savannah restaurants and we learned that he had helped open Husk in Savannah was responsible for at least one of the dishes I thought was really good the first time we went (the turtle boudain). We shared similar views of the big names in town but I won’t go into any dirt.
Suffice to say, the menu changes with the seasons and the available ingredients, but we tried such a wide variety of dishes that were all perfectly executed and delicious, that I would have confidence eating any dish that comes out of that great little kitchen. Even the mixed green salad we saw being prepared looked outstanding,and we really agonized about not ordering it.
Go to FARM. It is a really good restaurant. We will be back. Onward.