Farm-to-Table-Light: Embrace Dish Society For What it is, Not What it Could Be
The citrus beet salad is a filling plate of diverse veggies accentuated by local goat cheese.
The term "farm-to-table" is so overused that it's lost much of its meaning. When the phrase first became a buzzword in the culinary lexicon about a decade ago, everyone expected it to be the saving grace of the restaurant industry — and the world. All produce would be sustainably raised. We would know exactly where our meat came from, and we would know that the pig led a happy life before becoming bacon crumbles on our heritage lettuce wedge salad.
Flash forward, and we aren't quite there yet. Sure, we know that tomatoes from Atkinson Farms didn't have to travel far to make it from the greenhouse to our plate, and we know that cheese from Blue Heron Farms comes from ridiculously happy (and cute) goats, but what about everything else we eat? What about the fact that "Big Food" is just getting bigger, while family farms across the country are being forced to close because they can't compete? We've made strides, sure, but we're still too reliant on factory farms and processed food to truly say we've got this farm-to-table thing down.
Take, for instance, one of Houston's newest restaurants touting the farm-to-table mentality. Dish Society calls itself a "farm-to-table restaurant that offers a local ingredient driven and chef inspired menu." On the back of each menu is a list of farms, ranches and companies from which Dish Society sources ingredients. One of the popular dinner options is the "farm-to-salad," featuring seasonal items that the chef chooses and makes into a meal.
The week I visited, one salad featured roasted Texas peaches (very much in season now), butterhead lettuce, banana peppers, pine nuts and wonderfully sharp Texas gold cheddar cheese, which adds just enough richness to a plate of fruits and veggies. It's a good, satisfying meal — as are most of them at Dish Society. From the chimichurri-topped steak with local greens from Atkinson Farms to the ice cream fresh from Cloud 10 Creamery, both the food and the effort to source from local spots are respectable.
But in spite of its clear commitment to the cause, I can't help wondering how much of Dish Society's mission is a gimmick, intended to help overworked Houstonians feel just a little better about the fact that we're supporting local farms instead of going to Walmart or some Sysco-fueled restaurant for dinner. Or maybe I'm just jaded.
But the other evening, while determining what to order for dessert at Dish Society, I inquired about the bread pudding. I was informed that that night would not be a good time to order it. It might not be good again for a while, because the chef had run out of cocoa powder, so he just stopped putting it in the bread pudding, and unfortunately, that caused the flavor to suffer.
"Oh, I understand," I told the server. "Where is the cocoa powder sourced from?"
Apparently there's no cocoa purveyor in the greater Houston area. We ordered the sorbet.
Regardless of how well the whole farm-to-table thing is working out, Dish Society is an interesting place. It was founded by Aaron Lyons, an entrepreneur from Austin who grew tired of the mediocre fast-casual dining options available to him during his frequent travels between Austin and Dallas. It took seven years for Lyons to move the concept from idea to reality, but since Dish Society opened in January, the place has really taken off.
Weekday lunches are packed with business people who work nearby in the Galleria area and families who live in the apartment complex in which Dish Society is housed. Breakfast and brunch are equally as busy, with the line to order snaking down a hallway toward the back door that opens into the complex courtyard and parking garage. It seems Lyons wasn't the only person eager for a healthier, more environmentally conscious fast-casual option.
Though I don't live or work in the area, I was pleased with the lunch menu, a mix of interesting salads; large sandwiches; and various entrées like a chimichurri steak, pasta with chicken breast or shrimp tacos. The steak sandwich and pork belly barbecue sandwich are both hearty and filling, but not so much so that you return to work feeling as if you've just eaten lead. The grilled flatiron steak with caramelized onions, roasted peppers and melty Gruyère cheese on Slow Dough ciabatta bread is more spa food than man sandwich, but the pork feels a little more substantial with thick-cut pork belly from Black Hill Ranch and spicy barbecue sauce that soaks into the airy bread.
The shrimp tacos have a great flavor thanks to the generous helping of cabbage and roasted corn slaw light on mayonnaise and heavy on tangy citrus notes. Unfortunately, there's so much slaw on the tacos that you have to dig for the two measly grilled shrimp buried underneath. They're less shrimp tacos than they are cabbage tacos with shrimp accents, which for $12 is not a great value.
At dinner, the shrimp make a more successful showing sautéed in butter laced with Tabasco and shallots and served with bacon gouda grits. Those grits should replace the watery truffled mac and cheese as a side option so I can order them with anything and everything I eat at Dish Society from now on, and so I can take them home and save them for a midnight snack. I'm pretty sure they'd be wonderful even cold.
I was particularly impressed with the salad options, which are fully realized main courses. At many restaurants, the salads seem like afterthoughts, but here, they truly shine. In spite of lacking any protein, the citrus beet salad is a filling meal, thanks to the amount of produce packed onto the plate. A massive portion of arugula (with just a tad too much citrus vinaigrette dressing) is topped with bright, fresh avocado chunks; juicy pink grapefruit wedges; thin slices of jewel-toned beets; and a smattering of goat cheese from Houston Dairymaids.
A pork tenderloin demonstrates well the goal of using local ingredients. The pork comes from Black Hill Ranch, and the coffee crusting the outside of the juicy tenderloin is sourced from small producers and roasted and ground locally by Greenway Coffee Company. It's drizzled with a tart cherry and port reduction and paired with finely chopped collard greens that miraculously were not overcooked.
Seafood also gets respect at Dish Society, where each piece of fish I've had has been cooked perfectly until it's flaky but not tough. Gulf redfish is pan-seared until there's a crisp brown crust on the outside, and citrus-glazed salmon (I know that ain't local) arrives steaming hot and melts like butter in your mouth. Each is paired with something I couldn't expect — roasted carrot and lemongrass purée with the redfish and citrus avocado quinoa with the salmon.
The carrot and lemongrass purée doesn't quite pair with the more Italian roasted vegetable orzo served with the fish, but it's a generous portion packed with (mostly) local ingredients for $20. The salmon and filling quinoa is also a great value at $14.
As at most restaurants that fall into the mid-priced, fast-casual category, the food at Dish Society is comforting, hearty and largely unchallenging. Chef and author Dan Barber recently made an argument in The New York Times that the farm-to-table movement is failing because "[i]n celebrating the All-Stars of the farmers' market — asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, Emmer wheat — farm-to-table advocates are often guilty of ignoring a whole class of humbler crops that are required to produce the most delicious food." Dish Society is as guilty of this as anyone else. You won't find the same unique and unusual vegetables on the menu here as you might at restaurants like Oxheart just north of downtown Houston or FT33 in Dallas, where the chef forages for much of what he serves. Think of Dish Society as farm-to-table light and embrace it for what it is, not what it could be.
I don't mean to harp on Dish Society for picking a theme and only partially committing. It has made a valiant effort, and it's certainly succeeding more than any local chains and probably more than most other local restaurants. I merely want to point out a flaw in a trend has received far too much buzz and seen far too few results. In order to truly do farm-to-table well, a restaurant has to completely embrace the concept. In order to make good food with an eye on sustainability and not alienate potential customers with local food that's too obscure, follow the Dish Society model.
It's not a bad model at all. Lyons hopes to open several more restaurants by 2015, and I can see them doing very well in a city eager (but not too eager) for healthy, environmentally friendly options. The food is dependably good, the prices are reasonable, and the chic interior is warm and inviting, in spite of being deafeningly loud due to a lack of insulation.
Still, I find myself going back to Barber's primary assertion in his manifesto about farm-to-table dining: "Imagining the food chain as a field on one end and a plate of food at the other is not only reductive, it also puts us in the position of end users. It's a passive system — a grocery-aisle mentality — when really, as cooks and eaters, we need to engage in the nuts and bolts of true agricultural sustainability. Flavor can be our guide to reshaping our diets, and our landscapes, from the ground up."
Maybe I'm overanalyzing what should be a simple, useful restaurant. Maybe I'm standing on a soapbox when there's no crowd around to listen or even care. Maybe next month Dish Society will prove me wrong by incorporating bycatch, millet and mustard greens.
And maybe I should go to Kroger and bring the chef some cocoa powder. I really want to try the chocolate pretzel bread pudding with caramel ice cream — regardless of which mega-corporation or local producer ground the damn beans.
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