Should rusted tractor parts ever be repurposed into patio decor? And can an otherwise serious restaurateur get away with using dented, secondhand store saucepans in place of ice buckets to chill $70 wines?
At The Farmhouse Tavern, a neighbourhood restaurant that opened last month on the western reach of Dupont Street, the smoker on the street-side patio is built in large part from the remains of a Massey-Ferguson 1100. The outdoor tables are made from concrete paving stones and tractor wheels, and part of the hood from a Leyland 272 farm machine (they were built in Scotland; collectors love them) serves as a sill for pots of herbs and marigold plants. Those wine buckets, too, seriously! It’s a small wonder that the staff don’t dress in dung-stained coveralls and take drink orders through toothless grins.
But the oddest thing about the Ontario-focused restaurant – the wine and beer list is entirely local, as are most ingredients – is how well it all works. If the patio’s backwoods scrap-yard aesthetic is meant to signal that this isn’t your usual stuffy, Slow Foodist bistro – that no one here will ever speak of Jerusalem artichokes in a quavering voice – most everything else about The Farmhouse Tavern reassures that the service and kitchen crews are competent and committed to what they do.
The restaurant is owned and run by Darcy MacDonell, who grew up on an actual farm in Alexandria, Ont. (much of the decor in the two interior rooms – a tavern space and a farmhouse-themed space – comes from the family homestead). MacDonell worked until this spring as general manager at La Société, the enormous, see-and-be-seen bistro on Bloor Street’s mink mile.
The Junction Triangle is about as different a neighbourhood as you can find from Yorkville: Next door to the restaurant is the Casa da Madeira Community Centre and across the street are the Junction Dollar Plus and Luu’s Market, a bustling little milk-and-porn. Two-thirds of the front yards on Edwin Avenue, which the restaurant’s patio opens onto, are paved over. But there are also modernist, horizontal slat cedar railings ringing some of the front porches in the area, and a Prius parked outside one of the semis. A guy on a Segway, of all things, blew past the restaurant like a punchline the other Friday night, helmetless and texting furiously on his iPhone. (“It’s Gob Bluth!” somebody shouted, laughing.) This is the market Mr. MacDonell seems intent on capturing, and it seems happy to oblige him.
The patio is jammed most nights with rapturous locals and visitors from around the west side – and with every bite of the tempura fried pickerel or the organic salad, they’re recalculating the lift this place will have on their property values.
The food, from 26-year-old chef Daniel Janetos (Buca, Le Gavroche), is excellent in spots. His battered Ontario trout and pickerel are some of the best in the city: light, supremely crunchy and moist, served with a stack of green beans and beets dressed in creamy vinaigrette. The superb pork terrine is topped with sweet, slow-cooked onions and served with a little salad made from parsley leaves, radishes and celery.
The best dish by far is the hamburger: Mr. Janetos has aimed to construct a locally sourced, house-ground and 100-per-cent un-trashy nod to the Big Mac sandwich. The single patty, made from side rib and beef chuck, is loose, moist and adequately (but not obnoxiously) fatty. The bun is soft, flavourful and studded with sesame seeds, the iceberg lettuce is iceberg lettuce (iceberg is aces on hamburgers), the sauce is creamy, tangy, spiked with a pinch of paprika and a nip of dill. But the fries are crushingly mediocre. It’s this sort of senseless inconsistency that prevents The Farmhouse Tavern from being a far better place. On another night, the fries are oversalted to the point of comedy: They’re so salty that you beg your tablemates to eat another just so you can see them grimace and lunge for their water glasses all over again. The flatiron steak is oddly un-beefy; it tastes acrid instead, like charcoal that isn’t yet all the way lit. The stock in the “fish dish,” which is supposed to be a sort of bouillabaisse, is over-reduced so it’s thick and savoury and your lips feel sticky after you eat it, which isn’t the greatest base for delicate lake fish.
Another thing: The wine list, which is fantastic, stocked with made-in-Ontario treasures, is chalkboard-only. The staff are proud enough of this that one server pledges they’ll never put it on paper. Yay for them! Meantime, on hot summer nights, the people who drink and pay for the stuff have to get up every time they’re thirsty, because the wine chalkboard is in the abandoned tavern area indoors. (I have no qualms with the saucepan ice buckets, however.)
Still, it’s a very good restaurant: unpretentious, welcoming, inexpensive, with plenty that’s good to eat if you know what to order. The other night, a man wearing a pork-pie hat walked up Edwin Avenue and stopped to talk to some people he knew on the patio. He looked like the sort of guy who owns an impractical Danish bike.
“I hate this place! It’s killing my neighbourhood with gentrification,” he told them. He was eyeing the tempura fish as he said it, though. He will be a regular before long.