“What the heck is this?” I ask, pointing at the word satsumaimo on the menu at Farmhouse. This beguiling patio is chef-owner Rich Mead’s fourth and most triumphant enterprise, and stumbling on unknown ingredients is nothing new when he’s doing the cooking. Discovering new foods and the local farmers behind them is his passion.
Farm-to-table dining was a novel concept in 1997 Orange County, when Mead opened Sage Restaurant, now closed. He was the sole conduit between the Santa Monica Farmers Market, with its hip L.A. chef culture, and sleepy Newport Beach. Back then, he gently preached the merits of seasonality, sustainability, and small, local farming to mostly naïve diners. This sounds positively daft today, when those terms are peddled with gratuitous abandon.
Seeing tables of contented diners, luxuriating alfresco while noshing on lush salads and pristine seafood, makes it clear that local palates have evolved to meet his mindset. Since Farmhouse opened in September, reservations have been hard to come by at the sprawling 108-seat gazebo. Loyal Mead followers and longtime customers of Roger’s Gardens revel in this enchanting collaboration, making it a prime destination for dates and celebrations.
The best starter on the warm-weather menu is pastrami-cured salmon, a vivid platter of rosy salmon slices, fresh tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, and capers. Pickled red onion, grainy mustard, and pumpernickel toasts have the brio to set off the salmon’s bold seasoning of bay leaf, sweet paprika, and caraway. Butter lettuce leaves supply a tender wrapper for Asian-style grilled beef short ribs that beg for dipping into sweet spice and a bite of tart green papaya salad.
A paper-lined flowerpot bearing just-baked focaccia comes with a mild spread of white beans flecked with herbs. Sometimes bread service is offered; other times it’s by request. I sure miss Mead’s delectable Parmesan cracker shards. Bread Artisan Bakery attempts a version that, alas, falls short. To be fair, it’s a complicated recipe, ill-suited to Farmhouse’s compact and very busy kitchen. Hot soup is welcome when the ocean breeze kicks up, and so far the tortilla-thickened chicken soup packs hefty texture with bites of chicken and pureed vegetables. Tomatoes are at their peak now, reason to expect the tomato soup will have more depth of flavor than my spring test drive.
Vegetables star in salads of all sizes, including a gem lettuce and kale mix slick with roast garlic-anchovy vinaigrette. And in the popular chopped balsamic-grilled salad with feta cheese, avocado, and Dijon dressing, upgraded with your choice of shrimp, salmon, or chicken. Crunchy celery, sweet onions, green beans, peewee potatoes, and nicoise olives add heft to the grilled shrimp and romesco salad. I only wish it were served at lunch.
Fresh produce also populates a most intriguing list of sides, sure to make vegetarians swoon: roast cauliflower slices as big as your palm dripping with electric-green chimichurri sauce; braised greens and cannellini beans in broth, with grilled garlic bread for sopping; rainbow-hued roast carrots with creamy dollops of burrata for smearing in herbaceous salsa verde. And for even more allure than the huge signature dinner vegetable plate, opt for the quinoa, kale, and fava beans with roasted leeks, sungold tomatoes, candied pecans, preserved Meyer lemon bits, and charred lemon vinaigrette. It’s a side dish, but more engaging bite for bite.
Omnivores are far from ignored. The all-day burger is a dandy stack with a hand-formed patty that’s best done medium-rare. Salty pancetta and good cheddar bring on the richness, and the brioche bun holds it together with grace. Fish of the day often finds its way into a sandwich and given my delicious swordfish version, I’d gladly try what’s on offer again. If there’s such a thing as a beef lover’s salad, the grilled, sliced hanger steak with gorgonzola, gem lettuce, roast carrots, skin-on potatoes, walnuts, and pickled red onions is a masterful example.
For the money, my vote goes to the $25 steak-salad lunch over the dinner menu’s Brandt Farms ribeye for $44. And though chicken is a rare dinner preference for me, the juicy herb-roasted Jidori half chicken in pan gravy with tender broccoli and cipollini onions is splendid for $23. Icelandic cod with panko crust should have been crustier, and the dish needs more distinct seasoning. Hoisin pork tenderloin slices floating atop a rich broth with saimin (Hawaiian ramen) noodles is an improbable standout, in which Mead clearly channels his Chinese mother’s kitchen.
After a bumpy start, cocktails and service are improving, with bar master Anthony LaBorin whipping libations into shape. General manager Cecil Kepner is fashioning a thoughtful cheese program, with guidance from Norbert Wabnig of The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills.
I can’t think of another kitchen so smitten with the charms of mindfully sourced ingredients, so driven to make each season taste of its peak. That Mead is helming this kitchen within acres of gardens is proof that heaven is a place on Earth.
2301 San Joaquin Hills Road
Corona del Mar