Once upon a time (and maybe not as long ago as it seems), your first impression of a restaurant came over the rim of a highball glass, on a spoon carrying the night’s amuse-bouche, or simply as you strolled from the door to your table. Places offered up some sort of food, assembled on some sort of menu and presented in some kind of atmosphere. Those were the things you judged them by.
But no longer. These days, your first encounter with a restaurant is usually on its website. And Fare’s is a lot more involved than a picture, a menu and an OpenTable button.
“Choices have to be made,” it proclaims in the first of a lengthy series of blog entries. “To eat local or eat organic? Low VOC paint or recycled paint? What kind of furniture should we buy? What kind of disposable goods should we use? Paper or plastic?”
Fare’s owners are proud of their answers to these questions. Their wood tables and veneers are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The ceiling tiles are made from recycled materials. Red pendant lights over the bar are repurposed from old traffic signals. The food, obviously, is organic to the furthest extent possible, and as free of trans fats, gluten and genetically engineered ingredients as you can get without joining a commune.
Chef Tim Bellew also eschews salt, sugar and rich sauces. He avoids them on grounds of health, where he’s on solid turf, and flavor—where, alas, Fare is on much shakier footing.
But before we get that far, a pause to gather a second impression. From the contemporary design of its well-lit interior—crisp white walls, muted gray-scale paintings of trees in winter, dark-grained tabletops that seem to float above the plush crimson carpet—Fare looks like a place where you’d be more likely to find foams and jellied chicory than vegan “cashew cheese.” Yet the presence of the latter isn’t the most surprising thing about the menu. That would be the prices, which target a level that sometimes seems all but abandoned by Center City restaurateurs. Entrées start at $13 and top out at $20.
So is Fare trying to be an affordable neighborhood spot? Or is it a commissary for Philadelphia’s eco-conscious, vegetable-loving gluten-avoiders? That’s apparently one choice the restaurant’s operators don’t want to make. And the result is a sometimes surprising (but mostly vexing) restaurant with a split personality.
Bellew’s cooking defies easy categorization. That cashew cheese (the nuts are soaked, pureed with probiotics, fermented overnight and then firmed up with coconut butter) has a beguiling tanginess and depth of flavor that’s reminiscent of goat cheese, but a grainy texture that’s completely alien to dairy. It’s one of the least popular items on the menu, but easily the most delicious. Plated with a hearty thicket of sunflower sprouts and orange segments flecked with grated coconut, it makes a case for raw foods strong enough to convince a microwave salesman.
But the further you stray from that healthful delight, the more you’ll start scratching your head. Roasted cauliflower with chickpeas, cold cucumbers and dill-spiked yogurt was clean and refreshing, but a stew of fava beans, peas and artichokes found all three overcooked to a dull green mush, their springtime freshness completely vanished—simmered away on the heat of a reasonable idea gone terribly wrong. Good scallops came mounted over a pea puree so abstemiously seasoned that it seemed to suck all the flavor out of the seafood.
The kitchen’s duck confit suffered from the same affliction, only more so, with the slightly dry leg slung over an unpleasantly sharp rhubarb-ginger sauce sweetened so stingily with rice syrup that it puckered the mouth. It’s one thing to have an ideological bias against rich sauces. It’s quite another to dress what is (and ever should be) a decadent fowl preparation with something that seems to reproach the diner who receives it for not ordering something more virtuous.
But even the most upright and righteous guests in Fare’s moral temple should beware the dandelion greens slicked with anchovy and topped with a fried egg. They’re as bitter as tears, only not nearly as salty. Truly, when your waiter inquires about your dietary requirements, you might consider claiming hypotension. Faking a fatal dandelion allergy might not hurt, either.
What Fare gets right is nothing to sneeze at. Every restaurateur should be so conscientious about sourcing food and furnishings, and should take customers’ health seriously. But for Fare to make those achievements count, it needs to deliver finished plates that satisfy more senses than the moral one.