Walking up to Farmerbrown, located in the lively Tenderloin district of San Francisco, we are greeted by a bouncer monitoring the front door. Although somewhat unusual for a restaurant, this club quality is a nod to the fact that Farmerbrown has drawn many patrons that come specifically to enjoy a delicious late night cocktail and snack at the bustling bar. Past the bouncer are a small foyer and heavy black curtain, adding to the restaurant’s club feel. The DJ booth emanating heavily rhythmic music gives the dimly lit space a distinctly sexy vibe. Projector screens mirror back time-warped flicks -- ones that involve break dancing, fluorescent ruffle skirts, and men’s midriff-baring shirts. The wait staff is funky, cute, and friendly; each member takes his or her job seriously, while managing to have a good time.
Farmerbrown was opened in 2006, by Chef and Owner Jay Foster. Only 33-years-old at the time, Foster opened his own restaurant after manning the deliciously hip kitchens of Blue Jay café and Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack. Chef Foster was interested in more than just opening another trendy spot, though; he wanted his restaurant to have a conscience. The Chef accomplished this in part by purchasing his produce from African American farmers during a time when it was difficult for many farms to stay in business. Another one of Chef Foster’s priorities is to ensure that items on his menu are organic and sustainably-raised whenever possible. He even puts forth the effort to make many of his dishes with the option of being vegetarian. And in so building up a business with a heart, Chef Foster has also managed to create a pretty hip spot at that.
Both the walls and the tables are adorned with hand-oxidized copper. The art of San Francisco’s own Keba Konte covers the walls, creating a truly bohemian vibe that makes me feel as though I’m in the warehouse home of an industrial designer. The music is vibrant: the beat pulses up through my feet, and I suddenly feel very hip and in-the-know.
The restaurant also offers welcoming touches that counter many of the less-than hospitable stereotypes often associated with the Tenderloin district. Mason jars are everywhere, being used as containers for the addictive mint juleps, beer, water, and even the salt and pepper. The silverware is unadorned, and the napkins are of the classic brown paper towel variety. Adding to the cozy charm is the fact that each table comes considerately equipped with its own bottle of homemade Honey Jalapeno Hot Sauce. Our server explains that this sauce is good with everything -- a statement we amply test, and find to be true.
Upon sitting down at our table, we are immediately served cucumber-infused water, along with a plate of warm, mini Jalapeno Corn Bread with blueberry butter. It’s a very tasty start. The toothy sweetness of the corn stands out against the slight spiciness of the jalapeno, and is supported by the more tart sweetness of the butter.
The menu is fairly small with approximately five appetizers, main courses, and desserts. There are also side dishes that may be ordered as appetizers or supplements to the main courses. For appetizers we decide on the Sweet Potato Steak Fries with cayenne salt and lemon aioli. The fries have a satisfying heftiness to them, and would be an excellent accompaniment to any of the fine drink selections. They are sweet and slightly chewy; the zest of the aioli and the touch of spice from the cayenne pepper create a nice contrast to their sweet starchiness. The fries are also an excellent match for the homemade jalapeno sauce.
The Watermelon Salad is the second appetizer we order. It is made with yellow Doll and red watermelon, cherry tomatoes, arugula, and ricotta salata, with mint oil and citrus vinaigrette. It is both refreshing and light, stimulating the palate after the rich weight of the fries and corn bread. The colors are a festive red, yellow, and green, and the taste is similarly vibrant. Both types of watermelon are brilliantly ripe, juicy, and sweet – they complement the crisp pepper notes of the arugula surprisingly well. The entire dish is tied together with a sprinkling of ricotta salata, which is a hard, salty cheese. The dish is summer-incarnate, making me long for a porch swing and a parasol.
No visit to Farmerbrown is complete without trying their famous Rocky Range Fried Chicken. Needless to say, this is the first entree we order. The fried chicken is done just right: the batter is crisp and flaky enough not to overwhelm the main attraction of the meat, yet thick enough to leave both the dark and light meat tender and juicy. A side of dark green kale with just a hint of smoke accompanies the chicken, along with a very traditional creamy and rich mac-and-cheese made with Tillamook cheddar. The vitamin-rich kale ties the crispy chicken and the creamy mac-and-cheese together nicely. There is just something about the taste and smell of fried chicken that is irresistible.
For our second entrée we choose the Cajun Crawfish, Shrimp, and Tennessee Stone Ground Grits with Parmesan and succotash. The grits themselves are fantastic –soft with a hint of texture, and cooked brilliantly. I could eat the entire bowl with little more than an addition of butter; whole corn kernels, jalapenos, and bits of bell peppers add crunch and bursts of flavor to the softness of the dish. Furthermore, the nuttiness of the Parmesan cheese makes the freshness of the corn stand out even more. The grits serve as a zesty bed for the seafood, which is a medley of shrimp and crawfish in a spicy red sauce -- the spiciness of the sauce is also a nice contrast to the mellow sweetness of the grits.
The culinary highlight of the evening is undoubtedly the dessert. We try our server’s two favorite dishes: the Bourbon Pecan Pie and the Red Velvet Cake. They are as delicious as promised! The pecan pie has just the right amount of crunch, and is not overwhelmingly sweet. The pecans themselves snap in my mouth, filling it with their toasted aroma. The Red Velvet Cake arrives regally towering on a plate. Its size may be intimidating, but inside it is a big softie. Its name is justified as I realize just how velvety this cake really is: it’s moist, rich, and perfectly poised between being light and heavy. A touch of seductively smooth cream cheese frosting tops off the cake, and makes for a very satisfying finish to the meal.
Chef Foster is young, and will no doubt go on to accomplish many more great things. With Farmerbrown, he has succeeded in creating a place that’s more than a restaurant: it’s a safe haven, hidden behind a plain façade in an unexpected part of town. With its intimate comfort cuisine and dimly lit interior, Farmerbrown succeeds in transporting diners from the industrial heart of the Tenderloin to the tender heart of the South.