There's SOLE food and there's soul food, and rarely do the twain meet. Last night, however, Miss Steak and I got to indulge our tastes for both at farmerbrown restaurant in San Francisco.
Open since spring, farmerbrown is a labor of love by chef-owner Jay Foster, formerly of Emmy's Spaghetti Shack (a great late-night comfort-food joint) and BlueJay Café, and his friends Deanna Sison and Gwen Ledet. The restaurant uses "organic, biodynamic and/or sustainably raised foods, and beverages whenever possible" from local farmers, emphasizing African-American ones in particular. According to the Chronicle, much of the produce comes from Mo' Better Food, which hooks up black farmers with Bay Area restaurants. This photo (above) that farmerbrown uses on its website and on its menus quite awesomely conveys the point of view.
Although they don't list any meat suppliers on the menu except for Fulton Valley, other restaurant reviews have said the kitchen uses Niman Ranch pork and bacon and occasionally Marin Sun Farms and smaller meat purveyors. I was happy to read that Fulton Valley's up in Sonoma, where their chickens "are provided with a forage and range space equal to or larger than the houses provided for their security." Websites are no substitute for visiting suppliers yourself, but that's not always feasible. Truth is, I was craving fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and as long as there was even a whiff of SOLE-fulness, I wasn't going to ask too many questions.
Farmerbrown is on the corner of Market and Mason Streets, right smack in the middle of the Tenderloin.
I was running late and somehow missed the valet parking entrance at the hotel next door. I pulled into a flat-rate lot around the corner only to discover I had entered the Thunderdome: as soon as I got out of my car to attempt to pay at the machine, a flock of Mad-Max-ish homeless men lurched out of the shadows to compete for my cash. I ended up giving $5 to the biggest, most insistent guy and skedaddling as fast as I could, shrugging off fears that my car would be dismantled and sold for scrap by the time I got back. Basically, a warning for suburbanites: farmerbrown's immediate neighborhood makes mine in Oakland, where hookers and dealers lurk in front of our house, look gentrified.
Inside, farmerbrown was an oasis of cool, yet the vibe fits the Tenderloin: it's dark (witness these crappy pictures), lit by candles and mismatched lamps, with rusty, not shiny, industrial décor. It's really loud, which normally annoys me, but last night the d.j. was spinning a great mix of reggae, funk, soul, and ska that I enjoyed way too much to complain about having to shout.
What really struck me was the crowd: black people, white people, a few Asians; gay, straight, hipster, 20-something, middle-aged in suits, miniskirts, cargo pants, Dockers, '70s leather jackets. It made me aware of just how white most restaurants I eat at in the East Bay are, with the exception of the Townhouse in Emeryville.
Feeling like I was back in New Orleans, I ordered a mint julep at the bar while looking for Miss Steak. It was strong, and not as sweet as I remember. Farmerbrown has a lot of locally brewed beers and alcohols, including Hangar One vodka from Alameda, and the new Square One organic vodka, as well as a large selection of "hand made" cocktails, including a watermelon margarita rimmed with cayenne salt that I'll have to try next time.
Miss Steak and I had trouble locating each other, during which time I realized I'd left my phone in my car in the scary parking lot so had to go back and get it. (I was reassured to find it intact, with my phone lying in plain view on the driver's seat. Clearly I had paid the right guy.)
Unfortunately, we were too busy chatting and catching up — Miss Steak has been working her ass off after vacationing in North Africa, but we hope to get her blogging again someday — to really do justice to the menu. Although it was a work night and we didn't plan to drink much, we were both so intrigued by two unfamiliar wines that the list noted were made by African American vintners that we sprung for a $55 bottle of the '04 Brown Estate Zinfandel. (The other was an '02 Esterlina Cabernet.)
"It's…complicated," Miss Steak, the designated taster, said. "There's a tobacco flavor, and some strawberry, but it's not a big, fat fruit-forward wine like a lot of California Zins."
I agreed, also detecting a hint of cloves or cinnamon in the medium-bodied wine. I am not very good at describing wine, but I dug it. We both thought it was lower in alcohol than usual; Miss Steak bet it was under 13%. Shows how much we know: the bottle said 15.4%. The family-owned Brown Estate, whose wines are on the lists of a bunch of top San Francisco restaurants, does not seem to be affiliated with farmerbrown the restaurant, as far as I can tell.
The wine mellowed considerably after five minutes or so, which was good because we'd ordered it without thinking how it would go with our food — not at all, as it turned out. Ehh, whatever; we didn't care. Miss Steak opted for the chopped autumn salad followed by another appetizer, the local king salmon croquettes, while I went for the wedge salad and the fried chicken with macaroni and Tillamook cheddar cheese.
The iceberg lettuce in my salad was far more lettuce-y tasting than any iceberg I remember form the South; it actually had some flavor, that is to say. I could have used a bit more of the Pt. Reyes blue cheese dressing, but the radishes and the cherry tomatoes on the side were definitely farm fresh and delicious. Miss Steak dubbed her salad of radicchio, sugar snap peas, apples, tomatoes, and cucumbers in a Dijon vinaigrette "deconstructed cole slaw in a lettuce bowl," and gave it a thumbs-up.
Neither of us, however, was impressed with the cornbread mini-muffins — not gritty enough — and the berry butter (ick).
Our second courses were even better. Miss Steak's croquettes were pure, unadulterated salmony goodness, and her side dish of mashed sweet potatoes and plantains was good enough to be dessert. I got three large pieces of the fried chicken I'd been craving, and was not disappointed: they were moist, juicy, and in a rich batter perhaps a tad on the too-crispy side, but that's just splitting wishbones. It rocked my world.
The mac'n'cheese was smooth and creamy, yet with quite a cayenne kick to it. I'm not complaining — I like spicy twists on old favorites. However, Miss Steak and I agreed that tempering the sweet side of Southern food seemed to be a goal of the restaurant, perhaps an unnecessary one.
"You know, we're being way pickier than we would normally just because we're 'reviewing' this place," Miss Steak said. It was true. Service was cheerful, if a little erratic, the food was better than good, and the music infused everything with energy and, well, soul. If I'd just walked in off the street — not likely, given the location — I'd have been in heaven. But give me a notebook and I get all persnickity.
Alas, we were too full to order any actual sweet stuff, even though I was dying to try the bourbon pecan pie and sweet potato pie. I'll be back ... especially since I just noticed they're now serving brunch, with two-for-one mimosas.