[ review ]
Chairs matter. Especially when your sister is a chiropractor.
That's why Robert Amar took his time getting the seats just right at Fare, the Fairmount restaurant where he serves as both general manager and consigliere to the owners, Savvas Navrosidis, David Orphanides and Andy Siegel. After four rounds of prototype testing, the foursome settled on chairs with black frames like nerd-chic glasses, reclined just a whisper, fitted with butt and back cushions upholstered in vanilla fabric made from post-consumer recycled material.
I hereby proclaim these the Most Comfortable Chairs in Philly. I should have stolen six for my dining room.
From the carpet (recycled polyester) to the pendant lights (repurposed traffic signals) lining a bar that pours biodynamic wines and carrot-juice cocktails, Fare has been built with eco-friendly intentions, and green is a great color for this airy 70-seat space facing Eastern State Penitentiary. The menu follows suit, ripe with organic, local, seasonal. But while Fare spends its days deep in soil, when the artsy crowd floods the white-and-silver dining room, the restaurant gets that dirt off its shoulder. The sexy mirrors, inlaid with curves of river rock and mosaic glass, gleam. Every reclaimed-wood surface preens for your attention. The chairs stand up straight, eager to cradle some asses.
Based on appearance, Fare seems dedicated to sybaritic pursuits, but dish by dish, the restaurant revealed itself to be as sensible and ascetic as a JCPenney pantsuit. "I feel like I'm at a fancier Fuel," my dinner companion said, referencing the local healthy-food mini-chain as she prodded a puck of cashew "cheese" aside a tuft of sunflower sprouts.
Mentally, I was ill-prepared. If only I'd known most of the desserts are gluten-free, my thoughts on cold cherry-pecan quinoa pudding might have been warmer. (The strawberry johnnycake was better, albeit more cookie than cake.) If only I'd known the kitchen eschews white flour, I wouldn't have scratched my head at the grainy whole-wheat slices stuck in the bowl of olive-oil-braised artichokes, an out-of-character choice for the bruschetta their presence seems to suggest. If only I'd known the light use of salt is intentional, I wouldn't have gotten so salty over the perfectly seared scallops' under-seasoned fairway of pea purée.
Maybe I should have done some more digital pre-dinner reconnaissance on Fare's blog, full of posts you'll find peachy or preachy depending on which side of the organics fence you're on. Here, chef Tim Bellew says flat, "I cook with minimal salt, allowing you to add your own." But there was no shaker on my black-walnut table.
In another post, Amar writes about defining Fare's cuisine in the early stages: "For Tim, there was only one word, Healthy." If only I'd known Bellew's definition of "healthy" is more rigorous than most, I could have calibrated my expectations appropriately.
Those oil-braised artichokes were just awful, utterly bland and as excessively greased as a Margate sea hag. Acid. Herbage. Salt. The tender thistles needed it all; it was as if Bellew's station had been burglarized of its mise. Greased peas, a valiant freshening effort, resisted capture, ricocheting around my plate like ball bearings in a heated game of Crossfire.
Not everything was this bad. In fact, some of the items Bellew whips up on such a restrictive dietary budget are downright magic. Sure, the sunflower sprouts weren't the best choice as a principal salad green — the slender shoots slipped through the tines of my fork like garter snakes through a picket fence — but the cashew "cheese"? Liked it. Made from cashew milk injected with probiotics, it had the tang and texture of chevre, with the residual nutty butteriness of gouda and a hint of floral spice from a roll in crushed pink peppercorns.
Despite a topping of distractingly orange-y gremolata, the aforementioned scallops were the most pristine I've had lately, so fresh they shone with a pearlescent coral tint. Mussels spread their shells in an unexpected carrot broth charged with garlic and ginger. That broth was so sick, I would have even used the crunchy wheat bread to sop it up. Instead, I settled for a spoon — and later regretted it. Our server, bored at best and surly at worst, ignored the dirty utensil, as well as other soiled cutlery and dishes. Between disappearances, our water ran dry.
I needed some to extinguish the burn of cumin, rubbed heavy on a Lancaster pork tenderloin. Better too spicy than bland. Marinated in yogurt spiced with mint, ginger and mombasa pepper, pan-roasted chicken thighs (also local) crackled with flavor, too. Served with brown rice and the same side of warmed zucchini/squash slaw, they felt more like something a competent home cook would make for dinner than what you'd be served in a restaurant.
Maybe that's the point? With check averages at $28 a head, "Whole Foods is who we're competing with," says Amar. "Unless you want the pleasure of shopping and cooking, why would you eat at home?"
Keeping the price point affordable — the menu tops out at $20 — doesn't come without restrictions. "Fare isn't a chef-driven restaurant," explains Bellew. "Nothing new, nothing over-the-top. I'm hiring people not for their creativity but for their technical abilities. We want to get this formula down and repeat it with consistency."
Consistency is admirable, but discouraging creativity? Striving for formulaic? No amount of "healthy" food makes that easy to digest.
Fare | 2028 Fairmount Ave., 267-639-3063, farerestaurant.com. Dinner served Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Appetizers, $6-$10; entrées, $12-$20; desserts, $4.50-$6.