Things Should Be Special: UBB Hidden Gems Part 2 of 2
As sustainability has encroached into the mainstream and the local food movement has become de rigueur at many Philadelphia BYOs, sometimes it’s easy to confuse “from a farm” with “farm to table.” Vegetables alone do not a farm-to-table meal make.
But Chef Joshua Lawler of The Farm and Fisherman was born and bred into the farm-to-table movement before it was trendy. He grew up gardening and cooking with home grown ingredients, and can’t imagine cooking any other way. “Even if I was doing sushi or another concept, I would still cook this way.” For Chef Lawler, farm-to-table isn’t a fad or trend, it’s just how he has always made good, simple food. It’s his way of life.
“I’ve always loved tomatoes, but I only eat them when they’re in season,” he says. “They taste better that way. Things should be special, and there’s a lot to be said for the seasonality of things. The sacrifice makes it better, you know what I mean?” And I do know what he means. I know exactly what he means. Too often, doing right by the environment is misinterpreted to mean suffering. Sacrifice doesn’t have to mean making life worse, sometimes it just means delaying gratification a stitch longer—and making it that much more enjoyable in the process.
And so Chef Lawler’s new restaurant is the first UBB hidden gem. Here’s how he meets our criteria:
1. Commitment to Sustainable Seafood: The restaurant commits itself to providing a dining experience true to the Delaware Valley while also sourcing ingredients that respect the Delaware Valley, both on land and under water.
I frequently lament that the East coast hasn’t caught up with the west coast (by which I mean San Francisco) in our sustainable seafood offerings, but Chef Lawler explained the conundrum. Many of the fish greenlighted on seafood watch lists don’t swim near our shores. So he faces a choice: rod and reel-caught fish that fly 4,000 miles to Philadelphia versus trawl caught porgie or bluefish from New Jersey.
Ultimately, though, Lawler’s using his establishment to catalyze an overall greater presence of sustainably fished fare on Philly tables. Reel and rod fishing, not unlike organic farming, is a hard business to earn a living, and Chef Lawler hopes that his efforts and the relationships he’s building will help him to source sustainable ingredients on a larger scale than his 30 seat BYO. “Now, more than ever, chefs want to know everything. How it’s raised, where it’s raised, everything,” he says.
2. Too New For Your Neighbors to Know: The Farm and Fisherman is a new player on the Philly restaurant scene. If you’re spending the afternoon on antique row, you just might be so overwhelmed by the neighborhood’s red bricks and classic Philadelphia historical architecture that you walk past it. That is, unless you happen to peek through the windows.
If the city block doesn’t obscure The Farm and Fisherman well enough, it’s constantly booked Saturday nights will. Chef Lawler started his venture in the beginning of March, and weekend reservations are already hard to come by. Our advice: mix things up and go on a Tuesday.
3. Menu Changes Daily: During our conversation, Chef Lawler made a few points. First, that no two nights are the same. And he means this literally: There are no daily additions to the menu because every day’s menu is new. If he picks up a really cool white sweet potato at the market in the morning, he’ll decide what to do with it and print it on the menu for that evening. And then it will be gone tomorrow. Every meal is an adventure.
Some menu items manage to hang on a little longer than others. “The Egg,” as Chef Lawler calls it, has been a mainstay and will be for as long as kale is in season. A Pancetta Wrapped Farm Egg with Red Russian and Tuscan kale and civet mushrooms. Bummer for me that I dropped by before the dinner hour, wouldn’t you say?
Education is available for inquisitive diners, and Chef Lawler and his team are happy to talk about how they compost their scraps, and will soon be sending others to feed Medford hens, who will supply the eggs. Given a few minutes, he’ll gladly explain the benefits of true farm-to-table cooking and how committed he is to offering diners a true Delaware Valley experience. But he understands that his patrons are out hoping to enjoy a nice date and a delicious meal. They want to engage the other diners in their close quarters while savoring neighborhood fare in one of the city’s most alley-rich quarters. What they don’t want is a lecture.
Which is fine by Chef Lawler. He believes in farm-to-table because it’s what he is. It’s all he knows. And he’s happy to let diners discover its pleasures on their own.