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When Chef David Gunawan spoke at Pecha Kucha last year, just a couple of months after opening The Farmer’s Apprentice with partner Dara Young, he made a comment that got nervous laughs. He’d been talking about his desire to eliminate the ego in cuisine, to do away with pretension and fussiness — the crumb removal and expensive cutlery — and get at something more surprising. And he said: “We don’t want you to like everything about us. I find it boring to love all dishes. I’d rather have you like one, hate another, and find two okay, then have a dessert that’s amazing!”
Maybe chefs aren’t supposed to say that, but Gunawan did and good for him because The Farmer’s Apprentice is packed. Forty seats, including every available inch at the bar, and I was there twice and could hardly see the floor. An interesting room: equal parts hole-in-the-wall comfort station and mad scientist’s lair. There are simple wood tables, jars of pickles on shelves, a warmly lit sidebar with a turntable and a stack of vinyl. But then there’s the kitchen, which is so open that you feel like you’re eating in it. It pulses with energy as Gunawan and his cooks and dishwashers square-dance around the Rational oven and Kamado grill and a single prep table stacked with what would appear to be 800 plastic tubs of mise en place.
The menu does indeed surprise. Egg yolk, potato, onion, granola. Octopus, salsa verde, fennel, potato, salmon roe. Chicken liver and foie gras parfait, winter vegetables in textures. It might sound like white-tablecloth food, adhering to the annoying gastronomicazzi trend of listing only ingredients, not preparations, but when it’s served on the rough-edged ‘70s-evocative pottery dishes tabled by one of the cooks trotting out from the kitchen in stained whites, it presents like a kind of gastronomically geeked-out comfort fare. Yes, it’s all farm-to-table, as the name suggests (Gunawan reveres farmers of heritage breeds and seeds), but that earthy sensibility is always refracted through layers of technique and flavour combinations that, let’s just be honest, nobody would think of as comforting.
Olives, yes, but smoked for four hours. Oysters to start, but only after 40 minutes in the sous vide and topped with green radish, grapefruit granita, and a splash of sake-kasu cream. Do these things taste good? Those two certainly did, and ditto the onion butter, which I could see replacing peanut butter if marketed correctly. Other items were more complexly encountered. The octopus was fork tender, with traces of grill smoke and tasting strongly of the sea, but it came to life only when every component of the dish was precariously combined into a single bite (with a potato chip with a bead of salmon roe, a sliver of fennel, et cetera). Likewise that curious granola dish. Swirled together with the yolk and potato foam and caramelized shallots, you get a creamy, rich, and delicious porridge. We scraped the bowl and found ourselves pleasantly perplexed. The liver foie gras parfait didn’t work as well, something about the mouth-feel of foamed meat. The risotto did, a brilliant Melmac green and perfectly cooked, though I’m not sure the bits of sea cucumber added much beyond the opportunity to feature an unfamiliar protein.
The Farmer’s Apprentice has to be considered a success on Gunawan’s terms, in never being quite so boring as to be merely lovable. It’s the kind of place where you eat and talk about the food — but not just because you think you’re supposed to or because it’s so expensive. It really is interesting enough to talk about. And no, you will never wake up craving any item on this menu as you might occasionally do with fish tacos or braised beef tongue, if you’re me. But neither is it a meal you’ll soon forget.