Restaurant Reviews

Farm-to-Table-Light: Embrace Dish Society For What it is, Not What it Could Be

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?"

"Kroger."

Apparently there's no cocoa purveyor in the greater Houston area. We ordered the sorbet.
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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.

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Kaitlin Steinberg