Well-Trained but Restrained: Farmer’s Apprentice

Well-trained but restrained… maybe too restrained.

The first time I went to Farmer’s Apprentice was more than a year ago when I went for brunch. I remember being stimulated more intellectually than gastronomically. Since then, this restaurant has won a few awards and is generally regarded as one of the best restaurants Vancouver has to offer — especially when out-of-towners ask where to eat on Chowhound. Speaking of Chowhound, check out this little discussion of Chef David Gunawan’s new downtown venture with Donnelly Group (!).

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There’s some big love going around for this place, so we made a spontaneous decision to line up around 5:00pm to grab walk-in seats for when they opened for dinner at 5:30pm.

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It’s quite a small space — and very hot, even though it wasn’t a particularly hot day. Halfway through my meal, I just had to go outside to cool down and wipe the sweat from my head and neck. It must get unbearable during the summer. How do the cooks manage??

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Four beers on draft and some pretty good choices! The only thing I can say about gluten-free beer is that it exists.

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Their tasting menu.

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The day’s menu. I believe it changes weekly, if not daily.

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Cheese and desserts.

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Dageraad Burnabarian (4.5%), a Belgian “table beer”, which is a lower-abv beer brewed for drinking at the table I guess?? I think of it as a sessionable Belgian ale. Distinct citrus rind note. Light yet with enough complexity to keep things interesting. Wonderful on this sunny day. Note: this is the first time I’ve seen Dageraad Burnabarian outside of their brewery in Burnaby.

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Naturally Leavened Bread with onion butter and olive oil. The flavour and sweetness of caramelized onions, amalgamated into a butter. Great stuff. The olive oil was fresh and punchy, and had some sea salt sprinkled in it. The perfect thing to enhance their amazing bread.

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The bread had a subtle, sourdough-ish aroma. Even though it looks like they dropped the dough into a bird feeder, eating it was pure enjoyment. Wicca said, “best multigrain bread ever!” Little pops of poppy seed (?) in the crumb. We actually didn’t finish it all and took a couple slices home because it was so good.

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Dungeness Crab with buttermilk granita, nasturtium flowers, radishes, and puffed rice. I believe there were two kinds of radishes: fresh and pickled. I loved the addition of puffed rice for texture. A mild and subtle dish that lets the crab speak, and was fun to eat with the interplay between cool and cold ingredients. Delicious but a bit of a tease. A smidge more seasoning on the crab might’ve satisfied more. In retrospect, this was probably our favourite dish of the night though…

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Charcoal Grilled Beets with goat’s milk and wood sorrel. This is where I started seeing a theme here…very mild, understated flavours. We love beets but it’s not peak beet season yet and these beets weren’t sweet or flavourful enough. A bit more seasoning would’ve helped. This is one dish that shows how the farm-to-table thing is a double-edge sword. If your ingredients aren’t at the peak of flavour, it really shows on the plate and there’s nowhere to hide. Unless you coat it in panko and deep fry it. That saves everything.

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That’s the goat’s milk underneath the beets. Seemed to be lightly whipped. Goatiness was quite mild. But there’s a line from Ruth Reichl in episode 2 of Chef’s Table (Dan Barber) where she says:

“It doesn’t matter how good your technique is, if you don’t have good ingredients, you can’t make good food.”

Ultimately, the blandness of the main ingredient, the beets, let this dish down.

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Charred Octopus with young fennel, grand fir, and onion broth. Now this was an exquisite dish. Fresh, crispy fennel without any of that overbearing licorice quality fennel can have sometimes. Tender (possibly sous vide) octopus that still retained a bit of that chewiness. A delicately sweet onion broth that picked up touches of acidity from the dressed fennel. The interplay of all of these elements was very enjoyable. This is “healthy” food in disguise.

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Another gratuitous closeup.

Only negative is that I could barely detect any char on the octopus. Otherwise, still a good dish. Second best dish of the night, after the crab.

It was around this point in the meal that I just had to take a break outside to mop up some sweat cuz the restaurant was so hot and stuffy, even with the doors open and a fan blowing through the back door. I need to invest in one of those Japanese headbands…

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Organic Dry Aged Angus Beef Sirloin with charcoal grilled spring onion and wild foraged tarragon. The jus was a knockout. But the beef had sinew running through it and made chewing it too tiresome. The laidback seasoning made me realize how much I miss a healthy char on my beef.

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The server said the onion was grilled on Chef Gunawan’s Big Green Egg upstairs. I appreciated the charred element in the onion, but the actual eating of it was cumbersome because it’s really hard to cut or bite off a whole green onion. This (our last dish) left me with a vaguely unsatisfied feeling.

As I’d posted on Instagram later that night: “One side of me appreciates the skill and thought behind these dishes…other side of me thinks that the food here is always stuck in first gear. Or it’s like [watching] a whole ballet performed in slow motion. Well-trained but restrained…maybe too restrained.”

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I think those jars of red stuff are the pickled radishes in the crab dish.

They really make full use of their small space here. I dunno how they jam 6+ cooks into this space and make it work.

I really appreciate the farm-to-table and letting the ingredients speak for themselves philosophy here. But sometimes the actual ingredients let the dish down. Other times it was the restrained seasoning. And after eating brunch and dinner here, I think I get what they’re doing and it just doesn’t satisfy my gut to the same level that it stimulates my mind. We don’t eat this kind of “cheffy” plated food very often, but when we do, we prefer places like Chambar and Burdock & Co. They have just as much focus and respect for ingredients but have a better handle on seasoning and building a dish that satisfies.

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Their sister restaurant, Grapes & Soda, opened up just next door. Maybe I’d like the food more if I approached it like nibbles for wine pairings?

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