Arts & Culture

‘Stinky cheese’ and coziness at Farmstead

Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When I read that Farmstead, the cheese shop-turned-restaurant near Wayland Square, pledges to teach its costumers to “enjoy and imbibe in the once lost, yet re-discovered art of crafting true, artisan foods,” I was a little wary. It is a promise that sets the stage for some killer gastronomy, but whether it would be spoiled by snobbery remained to be seen.

Entering the shop for the first time, I only encountered a friendly greeting from the hostess and the pungent aroma of a cornucopia of cheese.

A set of white, window-paned French doors open into the small dining room, where painted walls in taupe and burnt orange contrast with the shop’s exposed red brick, and paintings of farm animals adorn the walls to contribute to the space’s rustic-yet-refined country feel. The dark, wooden tables fill the small space without cluttering it, and each features a cute miniature pumpkin.

Fittingly, the lunch menu most prominently features boards of assorted cheese and charcuterie. But if a plate of fancy cheeses or cured meats doesn’t tickle your fancy, their sandwiches, soups and salads are only slightly more expensive than anything you would find at Panera ­— and twice as delicious.

The “cheesemongers” grilled cheese made the restaurant’s decorative homage to the cow and its fellow dairy-producing livestock seem perfectly justified. The menu advertises “lots and lots and lots” of cheese, and it delivers — the surfeit of warm, stringy cheese crammed between golden-brown, crusty Seven Stars bread seemed endless. The blend was flavorful but not overwhelming, and I was only disappointed by the skimpy amount of bourbon-melted onions I received.

Vegetarians without a super-human tolerance for dairy will be quite content with the black bean “fillet.” Although the patty was more like a thick spread, it is still a hearty sandwich that balances the heat of jalapeno with cool cilantro and crisp mixed greens.

The house-roasted beef sandwich, complemented with a delicately garlicky aioli, pockets of piquant bleu cheese and sweet-tangy pickled vegetables, is another delectable option. And the addictive house-made pickles served with every sandwich show just how much care is put into the food.

But the service failed to match that attention to detail. I was always well-supplied with water, and my waitress was friendly and knowledgeable. But the hostess carelessly slipped a sandwich — different from the one I ordered — onto my table without so much as a word. And her refusal to seat groups of two, saying that the several available four-seaters were reserved for larger parties, bordered on rude. Later, it took some serious hand-waving to procure the check.

But the eager service in the accompanying shop, where I stopped on my way out to survey the admittedly pricey assortment of local honeys, butters, breads and other treats, was redeeming — as was the attentive, yet unobtrusive service when I ventured back for dinner.

At night, Farmstead’s dining room becomes La Laiterie — possibly the best place you can convince any generous family member to take you to when they come to visit. The Edison bulbs are dimmed, casting a warm glow that creates a cozy but sophisticated atmosphere. While the dishes are elegant and most of the prices too steep for college student budgets, the many patrons sip their wine to the sound of Mumford & Sons, Weezer, Queen and Modest Mouse.

My first dish was the skillfully crafted seasonal pasta special — a beef cheek agnolotti with sherry vinaigrette, fennel pollen and kohlrabi. The flavor was at once approachable, with the comforting flavors of roasted garlic and slow-cooked stew, and complex, with subtle notes of curry from the fennel pollen.

The pairing of dynamic flavors with simple, down-home goodness was perhaps most apparent in their masterful macaroni and cheese. The sensation of plunging one’s fork through crackling brown crust into a molten heaven of savory cheeses and tender pasta is enough to put a smile on the toughest curmudgeon. And at $9 for a sizeable portion, it could even be a post-finals treat for the frugal student — come on a Wednesday and get a nice glass of wine for only $5.

Entrees include a decked-out burger at $16, a deluxe version of the lunch menu’s grilled cheese and several more innovative, original selections. The chef’s riff on pork and beans, re-imagined as pork shoulder with a preserved-lemon mostarda and punchy, sour pickled apples over smoky beans, is a surprising and delicious dish.

The hanger steak, cooked until medium rare and fork-tender, has a notably robust, beefy flavor that pairs beautifully with a creamy sunchoke puree. The gnocchi, though squashed beneath the steak, were still velvety and delectable.

But it was dessert that finally did me in. A warm fudge brownie dolloped with generous spoonfuls of silky coffee ice cream and rich cinnamon ganache then sprinkled with crunchy sugared almonds was so delicious that its disappearance provoked my deep sadness. The raisin molasses upside-down cake with pumpkin spice ice cream and whipped cream was similarly obsession-worthy.

So if reviving the humble artistry of food is the epicurean mantra, Farmstead fits right in. And perhaps the pretentiousness I thought I smelled was just the wafting odor of the cheese shop’s pungent Camembert. After all, Farmstead’s website also raises a humble toast to “stinky cheese, fine wine and good times.” Hear, hear.

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