Farmshop: LA -- Shake the Hand That Feeds You...

If you live on a farm, never name the animals, because if they become pets they also become the source of tragedy. But names are important -- they give distinction.

Farmshop LA is a terrific, inventive restaurant in Santa Monica, with an inspired chef trained by top chef Thomas Keller. Wait a sec. Just a knife's throw away in Santa Monica is LA Farm, a terrific, inventive restaurant with an inspired chef who was on Top Chef, Stefan Richter.

I love both restaurants, but last night I went to Farmshop for the fourth time. I don't always visit one place that many times in a month, but some consistent factors kept me coming back.

Farmshop Food Market

1. This quote from chef-owner Jeff Cerciello should be tattooed on the neck of everyone in the restaurant business:  

Everything we serve and, in fact, everything you see at Farmshop starts with a name, a face and a long-standing relationship that we believe in.

He means the food, he means the customers, he means himself. Jeff's credits include French Laundry; his partner Michael Darmon worked at Per Se. Shutthefuckup.

2. Location. Farmshop is at 26th and San Vicente. Close to anyone on the Westside, so you won't have to dangle a caramelized carrot to get them there. If you need to coax someone from the Valley or Hollywood, this is a good middle ground. They won't be driving deep into Santa Monica, they're just dipping their toes in. Just say it's in Brentwood. Explain that you can't drive to the Valley or Hollywood, fighting traffic in that direction is like an obstinate egg in a fallopian tube dodging sperm, determined to fail.

The restaurant is located inside the dark, creamy center of the Brentwood Country Mart, the ever-evolving neighborhood hodgepodge of shops with a casual food-court nucleus. Parts look like they are held together with tape and hope.

They waved a wand and transformed the Mart's decrepit old grocery store into sexy, swanky Farmshop. When you walk in, you see a case full of great meats and funky cheeses, and their counters hold fun, rare and creative foods to take home.  Cruise the products before or after your meal to discover some creative fare that restores your faith in artisan and small production passion.

The room is divided in half, the to-go counter on one side, and a chef's tasting table in the middle. On the right is the dining side, farm-style wooden tables line both walls, and another row runs down the center. Despite the high ceiling, noise is not a problem. I could hear both my dining companions and the waiter. The dining room is stark, letting me expect the food to be the star. A busy restaurant covered in decor that distracts from the food is like buying a feather coat for a bird. Farmshop is a clean, crisp and light apple pie. 

Farmshop LA dining room

3. Service.  The host is standing there as you walk in, but they don't react like I've walked in on them taking a shower or interrupted their private life. Because I haven't. This place understands that the hosts are the first point of contact I have with the joint. I don't eat at restaurants with anyone who greets me rudely or has any weird attitude -- that tells me that the food might be served with the same lack of care, and there are so many places to eat. Whether I have called, or walked in, this host and management team has been, um, accommodating.

The waiters are top notch. When a waiter clocks in, perhaps he's had a bad day. Maybe a bankruptcy led to a fight that led to a breakup that led to a hangover --- but I don't want to taste that with my meal. I want a pro. The waiter is the chef's agent, he has to sell the food. The chef's unable to come out to the dining room and sing for his supper. You think he doesn't want to? Of course he does -- the dining room is the glory. Sometimes the chef will come out, take a little humble bow and then retreat back to braising his pork belly.
Farmshop waiters understand that they are the link that can't be missing between food and customer. Each time mine has passionately described the dishes, and freely given recommendations when asked. A waiter walks a fine line when adjusting your order with their opinion, but do it right, and the usual tip becomes greater -- and then the waiter has actualized your experience, and his.
Last night I asked the waiter a few questions, vacillating on whether or not have the sweet potato soup, deliberating as if I were adopting a cat. I finished my order, no soup. He paused just before he left, leaned down closer, but not too close, and smiled. Perhaps if the chef splits the soup in two bowls? The madras curry oil and buttered cashews are niiiice. His smile made me smile.

sweet potato soup

Smart waiter got another $12 out of me. The soup surprised me, it was really good, I forgot sweet potatoes weren't all orange. I wish their service didn't surprise me -- I wish that all waiters were this helpful and into their jobs, the customers and the food. The entire crew works as a team; you can feel it; you can see it. If your plate needs clearing, a hand swoops in and removes it. Look up and it might not be your waiter. Or is it? 

4. Food. For me, since the ban, pork belly is the new foie gras. I love the flavor. This crispy skin resists, but I win, and soon my knife has slid effortlessly through the tender flesh and is making a scraping noise across the plate.

Farmshop pork belly

I asked the waiter how long it is braised. A really long time, is all I need to hear.  The chef probably stayed overnight in the kitchen on a cot, setting his alarm and checking the pork like a new parent checking their sleeping baby.

Hummus with Pomegranade seeds and Black Sesame seeds

Hummus is sprinkled with pomegranate seeds on one visit, roasted figs on another. Maybe the chefs bore easily. I hope they don't discover Nintendo or charity work -- I need them in that kitchen cranking out beef short ribs that are served sprinkled with a surprise, unannounced, and so very appropriate gremolata all over the top like bright green, lemony snow. The cioppino had a slight smell of fennel in the broth, detected as I raised the spoon to my mouth. But when I took the bite, the fennel didn't stand out -- the dish was harmonious and supportive, every flavor got along without one's need to be the star.

The Jidori Chicken is their signature dish.  And they should be proud of their beautiful creation. Chef Jeff did not bring the petite portion sizes of the French Laundry to his Farmshop's table -- here you don't get a dainty little fashion model chick, you get a va-va-va-voom chick-en. Every fashion designer knows to run some color across a models mouth before she hits the runway, Chef Jeff slashes the chicken with luscious red lipstick peppers before sending it out to your party.

Jidori Chicken

I had been curious about the beet cured trout. The waiter's eyes lit up and he sounded as if he were selling his almost virtuous sister. She was the perfect pink, stained by the beets. I do love their health benefits, but I didn't love this dish. Yes, it was pretty, but I had it at dinner and it felt more like a brunch item. If a dish is going to be that pretty, I expect her to be cold, heartless and distant. Instead, the fish was warm and oily, more of a slut who'd been out all night than a fresh, tempting young thing.

beet cured trout

Dessert at Farmshop can be really good like pear tarts or great chocolate cake. Or this Lavender Meringue, with hibiscus candied quince & Meyer lemon curd. Treat this like a pinata, and once you bust open the meringue and set the lemon curd free, scramble like a kid to get it all. This dessert is Elizabeth Taylor -- on the outside it's glamorous, beautiful, and a little puffy. But giving and sweet and so much more on the inside. 

Read owner-chef Jeff's philosophy again, but just pay attention to this: "Everything we serve and, in fact, everything you see at Farmshop starts with a name, a face and a long-standing relationship that we believe in." Why that little kitchen Kierkegaard!

Food, customers, employees, everything. Nicest touch: If you take leftovers home, they hold them at the front door, and kindly hand them to you as you leave, turning my short term memory into a long lasting impression.

I've never learned my Farmshop waitress or waiter's name. I just can't take it if one day they disappear.

Farmshop. 225 26th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90049 (310) 566-2400.

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