In a city where restaurants pride themselves on their local, farm-to-table offerings, a farmer’s market dinner almost sounds superfluous. But with this beautiful summer weather comes a veritable goldmine of delicious produce at area farmer’s markets – so it makes sense that chefs want to take advantage of it, and inspire themselves to work with what they can literally buy that day.
Two restaurants invited me in to try their summer weekly market menus: LloydMartin in Upper Queen Anne and downtown’s Urbane. While LloydMartin’s dinners occur every Thursday night through the end of summer and are hand-picked from the Queen Anne Farmer’s Market, Urbane (which serves theirs on Fridays) gets “surprise” ingredients delivered from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). So while LloydMartin has slightly more control over their menu, what’s seasonal is what’s seasonal, so in the end they basically work with the same stuff.
But, my, the differences in how they each rendered those ingredients. I’ll be honest: I went in with some bias. LloydMartin is a beloved neighborhood restaurant, charming and cozy while Urbane, which occupies the first floor of the Hyatt at Olive 8 Hotel, is large and somewhat generic in that modern global hotel way. I assumed Lloyd Martin had the upper hand. I was wrong.
For starters, the menu offered at Lloyd Martin was downright skimpy, with a salad, a pasta dish and dessert. Though I’m a big fan of small portions, the pasta was too small of one to deserve entrée status. But more unforgiving was the lack of flavor in any of the dishes. The salad with local greens, lemon cucumbers, rainbow carrots and radishes was served with a lemon vinaigrette so mild as to not marry the flavors of all the fresh produce. While I get that the idea was to let the ingredients sing, not one of them popped. Even the ricotta salata was lacking in umph. I never salt but, I would have in this case, had there even been salt shakers on the table.
The pasta sounded yummy: tossed with an almond, basil, mustard-green pesto, cherry tomatoes, squash blossoms and parmesan. But it, too, was bland. Pesto is such a simple thing to make – and with these great ingredients it should have been piquant and wonderful. And I was particularly disappointed in the squash blossom, a summer-time favorite (the only one I could find any way, wilted and sucked up in the sauce).
Dessert was the best of the meal, but it too missed the mark. A corn cake with corn ice cream, blueberry coulis and bourbon whipped cream was interesting in how very much it tasted just like corn, especially the ice cream. But it was just too savory of a dessert, the bourbon whipped cream not sweetened enough to offset the one-note quality of it.
Fortunately, LloydMartin’s regular menu was available too, and we enjoyed a silky Foie Gras spread on bread with a Buffalo Berry Gelee (a Buffalo Berry is a tart berry that resembles a currant and often comes from, as it did in this case, Montana). The sour cherries from the market were dipped in a vinegar/salt mixture that paired wonderfully with the Foie. Our rabbit loin was also solid, served with mustard spaetzle and braised chard. My only criticism: the overly-sweet Madeira caramel sauce.
Perhaps tonight’s market menu will be better. After all, it can’t be easy to pull together an entire concept for a meal, shop for it, and cook and serve it in a day.
At Urbane, there were missteps too, but overall the meal itself was plentiful--with three real courses, plus dessert—and satisfying. The salad, which also made use of local greens (as well as kale) and the multi-colored carrots came alive with the addition of sweet-tart roasted grapes, a few candied pecans and a roasted grape vinaigrette that sparked without stealing the show.
Their second course – a Vegan soup (I almost cried when I saw that), was incredibly spicy with the addition of Field Roast Mexican chipotle sausage. I’m a huge skeptic when it comes to fake meat, but the sausage really had the chipotle flavor, even if the consistency, alas, wasn’t quite that of meat. Still, their broth of carrots, leeks, peas, onion, mushroom and celery was simple but good – just as a summer soup should be.
Draper Farm Roasted Chicken was the main course – and it was moist and abundantly topped with summer squash (one of my seasonal favorites) and bacon lardons. But, just like at LloydMartin, the sauce – in this case a Plum gastrique – was just too cloyingly sweet.
Where Urbane really failed was on dessert. As a self-proclaimed peach-fanatic (especially when it comes to delicately, floral-flavored white ones) July is one of my favorite market months. So when I saw Urbane’s Stone Fruit Trifle with Lady Fingers, white peach, plum, cherry (stone fruit heaven!) and an Erocia wine reduction I was excited. Unfortunately, the most predominant part of the dessert was layers and layers of whipped cream, part of a Trifle I know, but not intended to mask all that gorgeous fruit. When I did manage to get to the fruit, I was doubly disappointed to find that it was all just a compote of sorts, with none of the stone fruit in its pure, ripe, in-season self.
Both of these restaurants will be serving their market menus once a week until the end of summer. And while execution might not always be spot-on as chefs face the challenge of really working on-the-fly, it’s fun to be surprised and to wholeheartedly give yourself over to the week’s bounty.