Farmhouse’s Midwestern Benedict with Nueske’s applewood ham steak and spicy breakfast potatoes

Into the Woods

by Michael Wren | Photography by Jason Little | NS magazine | January 1, 2014

Sometimes, a little sincerity can go a very long way. Take Farmhouse, for instance, the new farm-to-table restaurant in the Hilton Orrington Hotel of Evanston.

As far as I can tell, principal owners Ferdia Doherty and T.J. Callahan, who also operate the well-regarded Farmhouse Tavern in River North, have moved into a cursed piece of real estate. Prior to their arrival, it was like The Shining in there. Restaurants would appear and disappear with no rhyme or reason. Experienced chefs would get behind the burners and start churning out bizarrely underwhelming dishes. Service, at times, turned ghastly. There was no explanation for it, especially considering the fact that the space offers a spacious dining room in a good hotel in the heart of downtown Evanston.

So I’m sure there was a temptation to play things safe—someone, somewhere probably pressed for yet another… yawn… deep-dish pizza place or, worse yet, another burger and fries joint. Luckily, the Orrington and Farmhouse’s owners didn’t take the bait. If anything, Doherty and Callahan doubled down, abandoning the tavern-like size and ambitions of their River North location in favor of a more full-bodied restaurant experience, complete with a menu that channels the robust pleasures of Midwestern cooking while showcasing the complexities of a well-curated craft beer list.

The truth of the matter is, there’s a great narrative running throughout this operation, including the fact that Doherty and Callahan are cultivating a 140-acre farm in Mineral Point, Wis., to supply their restaurants with richly flavored local vegetables, fruits, nuts and greens.
While they’re busy cultivating their farm up north, Executive Chef Eric Mansavage and Chef de Cuisine Stephen Paul are sourcing the vast majority of their ingredients from bordering states. You know you’re in good hands when the house jerky—a smoky, peppery treat—is dried in-house using grass-fed beef from Hoosier Farms in Indiana, and the revolving burger special is often made from leftover prime rib meat and choice cuts of rib-eye.

I was surprised to find that Farmhouse’s stellar beer list, which includes 36 beers on tap, is supported by a nuanced collection of bar appetizers and small plates. Bar snacks, at their worst, are often nothing more than salt in search of a few suds. But time and energy have been taken to ensure that those who want to stop by for a beer and a snack can enjoy themselves as much as those who want a full-blown meal.

Mostly, it comes down to some smart cheese sourcing. Farmhouse’s downright airy cheese curds are fried in a neutral pilsner-like Flywheel beer so they fluff up like big pillow-like kernels of popcorn, which are accompanied by a mayonnaise-based house dipping sauce that uses green jalapenos to dazzling effect, teasing out the pepper’s natural acidity as opposed its innate fire and spice.

I like the way many of Farmhouse’s dishes change flavor profiles as you work your way around a platter. An earthy root vegetable salad of turnips and beets becomes sweet when you reach a few knob onions and then takes an unexpectedly floral and creamy turn, thanks to a liberal smattering of goat cheese. And then there are Farmhouse’s colorful cheese platters, which are served on big planks of reclaimed wood, as if they are a painter’s palette, lovingly smeared with spicy brown mustards and vibrant red pools of cherry jam.

Speaking of woodwork, there’s a definite Little House on the Prairie vibe to the space, which is sheathed with enough reclaimed wood to rebuild every bridge in Madison County. Wildflowers are set in tiny glass vases on the table. Planks of wood are shaped into baskets and used as lampshades. And diners are provided thick-as-burlap towels so brawny they could sop up an entire bowl of chowder in one fell soak.

In other hands, the decor might border on kitschy, but every single accouterment in the place has a story to tell. Ask your servers—who’ll likely be wearing a shirt with the phrase “EIEIO” scrawled on their back—and they’ll be able to give you a quick history lesson of the place. There are some treasures in there, including a pair of second-floor doors that were salvaged from a dairy barn in Wiota, Wis., and an eye-catching cooler by the bar called a Beerador, a brand of antique refrigerator that was designed to look like a giant beer bottle.

When it comes to the entrees, the house’s cider-brined pork chop is the restaurant’s signature dish. Too often, chops are left to their own devices, grilled and served straight up like a steak. Not here. Farmhouse’s chop is glazed with dueling sauces—a rich trotter demi made from pork stock and a slightly sweet butter pumpkin puree—and then topped with a wonderfully tart and piquant cranberry relish next to charred bits of a corn succotash. It’s a nuanced celebration of warm-spiced wintertime flavors, the soul of a great turkey dinner made even bolder by substituting in a juicy pork chop from Gunthorp Farms in Indiana.

And while our arctic char offering was a bit fishy, with watery hunks of stewed tomatoes, I was intrigued by the kitchen’s take on cassoulet, which drops some nice duck confit and a bell-pepper-flecked Spanish-style sausage into a bean-based stew. It’s definitely not French. The sauce is too thin to stick to your ribs, but the light broth-like approach might work when the kitchen nails down the right mix of beans and vegetables. It’s one to watch as the seasons get colder.

If there’s yet another story worth sharing about Farmhouse, it’s the smart mead selection that is printed on the bottom of the house’s dessert menu. For far too long, mead, which is made by carefully fermenting honey, has been typecast as a treacly syrup-like tipple—basically, baklava in liquid form. Order a nice glass of Blanc de Fleur mead, preferably paired with the kitchen’s housemade peanut butter and chocolate tart, and you’ll realize its potential as an aperitif—as dry and complex as a good sherry.

It’s proof that Farmhouse is well on its way to not only overturning long-standing curses, but ushering in a renaissance or two along the way as well.

What to Eat
Beer-battered Wisconsin cheese curds with housemade catsup and spicy curd sauce; roasted root vegetable salad; apple-cider-braised pork chop; chocolate peanut butter tart

Sip Wisely
The craft beer list at Farmhouse is deep and nuanced, including a few worthy novelties, like the Arcadia Jaw-Jacker pumpkin ale with cinnamon. But don’t overlook the 22 wines by the glass either, including The Farmhouse Red, a blend of Lemberger and cabernet franc mixed exclusively for the restaurant from Hickory Creek Winery in Oswego, Ill.

Prime Cuts
Keep your eyes peeled for a series of charcuterie options that Farmhouse plans to introduce via its specials list, including creamy pork rillettes with a date-flavored spread on warm toast.

Farmhouse Evanston
703 Church St., Evanston 847.492.9700
Mon.-Thu. 11AM-10PM
Fri. 11AM-11PM
Sat. 10AM to 11PM
Sun. 10AM to 9PM
Bar snacks $3-$16; appetizers $6-$12; entrees $16-$24; desserts $8