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Food for the Soul 

Wonderful fried chicken and fixings for dinner and brunch at the corner of Funky and Town

Wednesday, Oct 4 2006
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A fter returning to town from a two-week movie orgy that started at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend and segued into the Toronto International Film Festival, I'm always especially hungry. During those two weeks, food goes by the wayside while I concentrate on celluloid: I sat down for a restaurant dinner only once in each town, subsisting on (admittedly excellent) sandwiches and a flood of coffee. A regime I suggest to fellow Toronto attendees wishing to up their movie attendance, including the two local writers, one of whom — whose 22 movies seen in six and a half days she thought qualified her as psychotic — was pissed that she hadn't seen more, and another whose editor thought 28 movies in seven days broke the record. Ha. Try 50 movies in 10 days, plus an additional six seen in part. What comes after psychotic?

The re-entry sit-down meal is always an important one. I lucked out big time this year: Peter and I dined at Farmer Brown, an incongruous, not to say ironic, name for its decidely urbane location in the Tenderloin, at Mason and Turk (or, as Peter said, "the corner of Funky and Town"). At night the dim interior, with its long bar, DJ booth, and distressed-metal tables, seemed big-city gritty rather than countrified. The only farmhouse touches were the dishtowel napkins and the mismatched thrift store silverware. I'm not thrilled with the cocktails we tried, which seem more exciting in description than actuality: The way-hot cayenne salt rimming the glass of Peter's watermelon margarita made it less than refreshing, and my ginger rum punch was weak and unbalanced.

We're given adorable miniature versions of biscuits and cornbread muffins, with homemade huckleberry preserves. I try to start with the soup of the day, which is listed as black-eyed peas, Parmesan, and bacon on a little insert that turns out to be outdated; I'm less intrigued with the sound of squash, fennel, and bacon, the actual soup available that night. So I switch to the chopped summer salad, a generous heap of chopped gold beets, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, long beans, cucumbers, iceberg and radicchio, nicely dressed with a tart, mustardy vinaigrette. I'm even happier with Peter's bouncy Oregon Bay shrimp cakes, two plump discs draped with pickled onions and sided with a spicy remoulade and a punchy cocktail sauce.

I'm deliriously happy with my fried chicken, a wing, leg, and breast, moist and tasty under a thin peppery batter: It doesn't get much better than this (though I wish its accompanying mac 'n' cheese was served a little hotter). Peter's gumbo of the day, with chicken and andouille sausage, is pleasant but lacks depth of flavor: It improves under the ministration of the house-made hot sauce. He loves his side of Kennebec fries, big floury ones, though I find their aioli a bit wan. By 7:30 the bar is jumping and the music goes up a few notches.

We finish with lovely bittersweet chocolate fritters, a light banana pudding topped with shaved chocolate, and a cup of Blue Bottle drip coffee that seems a bit steep at $4 (with no refills!)

A few days later and I'm a little worried about that $4 coffee as I BART my way toward Farmer Brown for brunch. I can drink a lot of coffee with my eggs. Will this be the day that the bill for caffeine runs higher than protein? It almost distracts me from eying my fellow travelers: At high noon, the car is full of people who seem to be dressed for clubland. There's a girl in one-shouldered black velvet with a bouffant black satin skirt, another in a shabby red velvet coat with a fur collar, and there's also too many miniskirts worn with tube tops and stilettos to count. And they're all so young! I wonder if I've wandered into the Children's Crusade, or am having an acid flashback.

All is revealed when I exit at Powell: It's the day of the Love Parade, a techno-fueled party imported from Berlin (where the festivities had to be halted for a few years due to excessive libertinage). It proves to be the perfect backdrop, spied through Farmer Brown's corner door, for a perfect brunch. Phil, Joyce, and I find it very hard to choose only three dishes from the intriguing menu, full of uncommon, original dishes, such as bowls of grits with assorted toppings, and scrambles with such interesting additions as roasted squash, smoked ham, and fresh cheese. We are more than pleased with our choices: poached eggs over a delightful hash of lots of excellent bacon shards mixed with diced white and sweet potatoes; an enormous, juicy pulled pork sandwich layered with smoked cheddar and arugula; a rerun of the fried chicken, even better served with spicy slaw and several dollars cheaper than the dinner price, for the same three pieces; and a shared plate of fluffy buttermilk griddle cakes served with huckleberry preserves.

My concern about the coffee tariff was solved because Farmer Brown sweetly serves an entire four-cup carafe of French press coffee for $5 at brunch. And when the kitchen can't come up with the popover we've ordered, our server, even more sweetly, gifts us with a plate of three big muffins. And the staff tolerates our frequent excursions to the sidewalk to check out the Love Parade floats; I see one topless woman whose engineered breasts are so perfectly shaped and immovable that at first I think they were bought at a Halloween store rather than at a plastic surgeon's. Even without the promise of a parade up Market Street, I feel an irresistible urge to return to Farmer Brown for brunch.

Alas, when I return for an early dinner — to avoid the DJ din — with my parents, the kitchen isn't helping out our server: The evening is something of a comedy of errors. The soup of the day again is different than listed (golden beet puree instead of cream of rutabaga), and furthermore isn't quite ready. Nor are the shrimp cakes we ordered ready, either. We started with the braised baby back ribs, five beautifully trimmed meaty ones, with a slightly too-sweet honey-soy glaze; my mother loved the accompanying slaw. And then we sat for considerably more than an hour before our main courses arrived: probably because I ordered the roasted chicken, which wasn't worth waiting for. It looked like a Cornish game hen, though our server thinks it's a poussin, spilling out a mountain of moist stuffing full of green grapes (though the fennel advertised is not very apparent). And ironically, the bird should have been pulled from the oven earlier. My mother is thrilled with her big grilled pork chop, very juicy under its too-cold topping of bartlett pear and huckleberry compote, atop a luscious mound of creamy mashed sweet potatoes and plaintains. We both loved the deep flavor of my father's sliced blackened sirloin, though he found it a trifle chewy, served with thin crispy onions and scalloped potatoes that perplexed me because they lack any milk, cream, or cheese, though they're tasty, just not my idea of scalloped. We tried the obviously freshly made stellar shrimp cakes as a savory after the meal, before the equally stellar bourbon pecan pie; I didn't taste the bourbon, but the crust is so good I could eat it on its own. Our server comped us both dishes, which went a long way toward making us happier. Though not as happy as on my two previous meals, beguiled by succulent fried chicken and divine bacon hash.

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Meredith Brody

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