Simpler, but not too much

The Farmer's Table brings comforting cuisine to Commercial Street
By BRIAN DUFF  |  April 15, 2009

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CREAMY AND DELICATE Lobster stew.

In taking over the space recently occupied by Mim's, one of Portland's prissiest restaurants, the owners of the Farmer's Table were wise to choose a name designed to set customers at ease. "A table is a common, everyday thing," Marx noted in Das Kapital. But he also warned those who would make money off the cachet of the common: "But so soon as the table steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas."

In seeking to commodify the rural meal on Portland's tourist row, the Farmer's Table serves dishes that are appealing if not transcendent. But this particular table has evolved some strange ideas about the farmer's meal. It's a comforting approach, but hardly rustic. And though the look of the space has changed somewhat, a hint of the Mim's prissiness remains.

Any farmer, for example, would be surprised to find that the grilled vegetables the menu promises with the goat cheese fettuccine are not an ample pile, but just two simple slices of zucchini and a thin shoulder of grilled red pepper. But digging into the pasta, you find plenty of densely flavored, squid-shaped local mushrooms — rich enough in earthy flavor to stand up to the heavy pasta coated in a mild and creamy cheese.

And farmers may not eat that much lobster, which are hard to raise inland. But lobster will appeal to the masses who visit the Old Port in the summer, and at the Farmer's Table they are doing good things with them. A lobster stew was expertly done. A simple and thin broth, creamy but delicate, with just a hint of sherry but ample chive, covered plenty of tender lobster meat. A similarly well-executed lobster sauce came ladled over grilled sea bass with ratatouille. In this case the vegetables — seasoned carrots, cherry tomatoes, and several varieties of diced squash — did not disappoint. The sea bass had been seared to a lovely beige-brown, and its flesh was moist and tender with a bit of crispness on the underside.

A Brie-fritter appetizer revisits tried and true approaches to rural commodification by offering a sort of Fryeburg-Fairish appeal. The cheese and pastry are a bit bland, but undeniably greasily satisfying. They were topped by a bit of apple mustard, which had the look and sweetness of fresh dates, and might have enhanced the fritters better with more mustardy sharpness. A house-made pecan pie was also pleasingly familiar, right down to the ever-so-slightly-burnt aroma you often get when you make it yourself.

But while the Farmer's Table gets its name a bit wrong, it gets many things right. There is clearly talent in the kitchen, and care goes into the ingredients and the preparation. The space is simpler, so it does not seem so eager to be striking, and has rustic chairs. But it retains everything that made it appealing in its previous incarnation — the curving and much-windowed front wall, the wood ceiling, the semi-open kitchen tucked behind the bar — and when the weather warms the patio will be tempting. Most importantly, the Farmer's Table is the first restaurant in this part of town to feature this sort of food at the sort of price-points for both food and wine that make Caiola's, the Blue Spoon, and the Front Room popular.

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