Ferme ★★★ (Superior)
The menu is a playbill of coming attractions with whimsical titles: “Table Snacks,” “Shares,” “Supper,” “Flights of Fancy.” Any questions? “What about dinner?” Our cheerful young server explains that this is the dinner menu. It is also the lunch menu. Understandably, it’s long but it’s an interesting read. “Pickled martini vegetables,” “calamari with andouille, spinach and white beans,” “warm nut & spice crusted dukkah.”
Ah, we get it. Scrap fuddy-duddy, think outside the box, live free. We’d be delighted. We’re just a bit surprised because the room, beautifully redecorated since its colonial tenure as Seasons Restaurant, is rather formal, with a bow window, draperies, Queen Anne chairs and a brass chandelier. It’s lovely, it’s just not, well, rustic. After all, Ferme calls itself “a true farm-to-table-restaurant” and dedicates its menu “to the many foragers, fishermen, farmers, ranchers and dairymen whose passion makes this menu possible.”
Sounds solemn but don’t panic, Ferme is fun—as in a horizontal tasting of maple syrups with mini Belgian waffles and whipped-butter ice cream. If that doesn’t grab you, there are 62 other options on the menu. Luckily there are enough of us, and we’re hungry enough, to stage an in-depth sampling. Michael knows exactly what he wants: the pickled vegetables. Simply presented in a shallow bowl, a sheaf of slender green beans shelters a mix of baby carrots, pearl onions and a tiny jalapeño pepper. Each vegetable is infused with a spice blend so alluringly subtle it defies identification. Cardamom? Ginger? All we can agree on is that Ferme makes “Eat your vegetables” a pleasure.
Point Judith calamari wins high praise, too. Tender rings of squid arrive in the company of barely wilted spinach, spicy sausage and small, pearly white beans to sop up a flavorful broth.
When I ask our server about the “warm nut and spice crusted dukkah,” she answers crisply, “It’s a cheese.” This puzzles me because in Egypt and the Middle East, dukkah denotes a blend of nuts and spices (toasted hazelnuts, sesame seeds and sometimes dried mint leaves, as I remember) that is served with bread and olive oil. You dip the bread in the oil and then into a bowl of dukkah. Ferme’s version proves the waitress right. It is a wedge of soft, creamy cheese bathed in olive oil and dusted with dukkah. French bread is served with it, along with a garnish of preserved apricots. In Cairo they nibble dukkah with mint tea; I order a margarita. Live free!
Luxury enters the picture with butternut-pumpkin bisque. No country bumpkin, this velvety bisque is richly nuanced and heady with Frangelico.
Entrées, or what Ferme calls supper, come next—but not right away. The table is cleared promptly but service thereafter is sporadic, hovering, then vanishing for an inordinately long time—presumably until our food is cooked and plated. We pass the time estimating how much work those 62 labor-intensive dishes entail; our impatience turns to awe and we decide that the chef deserves a medal for bravery in the face of a herculean task.
We’re also impressed by the fact that, for the most part, the menu delivers what it promises, and often a bit more. “Dayboat scallops,” for example, arrive with a luscious cauliflower purée and meltingly tender boneless short ribs in port wine sauce. Farmhouse fare like this would be at home anywhere—on a silver platter or under a glass dome.
Homier but equally impressive is a Colorado lamb “porterhouse” chop with a heap of fluffy, house-made spaetzle and a red wine sauce. Filet mignon, which too often lacks depth of flavor, surprises us with a tastiness that seems inherent, not just added on with a sauce. Again there’s more on the plate to enjoy, in this instance a tasty little parsnip croquette swathed in morel crème. We also like the pan-seared wild striped bass with spinach and root vegetables flavored with vanilla and saffron. Only the salmon disappoints. It is wild Irish salmon, and it’s delicious—but it isn’t hot. Too bad because it is a nice, fresh piece of fish and the wild mushroom risotto served with it is very good.
As for desserts, can we resist “the seven deadly sins—a sampling of our evilest desserts”? Of course not. But the kitchen is “out of it” and without blowing my cover, I can elicit no further information. Our second choice, “French butter pear cobbler in cast iron, vanilla ice cream” is also unavailable.
We settle for an unremarkable crème brûlée, an exquisite apple galette and a fabulous chocolate brownie—moist interior, crispy edges, a glisten of chocolate ganache. How gauche to fall in love with a brownie. Well, I do. But wait, there’s another contender coming down the pike. The aforementioned maple syrup tasting is clearly the most interesting—and interactive—dessert on offer. Three shot glasses of syrup, from Vermont, Canada and Connecticut, arrive with delectable miniature Belgian waffles, light, fluffy, piping-hot and topped with whipped-butter ice cream. We leave dreaming of maple trees and amber gold sap singing its way into silver pails. Taste is memory.
Avon Old Farms Hotel, 279 Avon Mountain Rd., Avon (860/269-0240)
Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 2, dinner daily 4 to 10. Sunday brunch 10:30 to 1. Price range: appetizers $5 to $15, entrées $12 to $25, desserts $6 to $12.