Imperfect but sincere garden of food
HELLO, my name is Tarragon. Hello, my name is Thyme. Hello my name is - Holy laksa leaf, are those phalluses we see sprouting out of the ground?
Welcome to Open Farm Community (OFC), where vegetables are your friends. They sit in the ground or in glass jars beaming at you, waving their herby leaves in welcome, hugging you with sunshine and good intentions - the only living species in the world to invite you to rip them out of their soil and eat them.
Okay, too much sun can distort your thoughts, especially when you're not used to the idea of dining within a vegetable garden like this urban farming project, the pride and joy of entrepreneur Cynthia Chua and chef Ryan Clift.
They've taken a bedraggled 35,000 sq ft piece of land in Minden Road and roped in the green-thumbed wizards from Edible Garden City to transform it into a beautifully landscaped farm and food-and-beverage destination. (By the way, the phalluses are actually sculptures of seeds in various stages of germination done by a local artist.)
Two stylish conservatory-like structures sit on this piece of land - their pathways lined with pots of herbs - and they satisfy every possible dining need. There's breakfast and coffee at the takeaway/retail section and a restaurant behind it with a sprawling menu that personifies chef Clift's inner farm boy.
The chef - better known for convention-breaking cuisine at his flagship restaurant, Tippling Club - doesn't cook at OFC. But he's made sure everything on the menu at OFC is fresh, familiar and bursting with natural goodness.
There's a strong Aussie influence in the food, with its emphasis on letting the produce speak for itself: Expect sturdy salads, and minimally dressed meat and seafood whose simplicity belies the careful thought and sense of craftsmanship behind it. Like all good Aussie joints, OFC does an all-day brunch on weekends.
The execution isn't 100 per cent, but there's an intangible sincerity to the food at OFC that you don't find in the self-conscious cooking by the likes of Bread Street Kitchen or Jamie's Italian.
We get a sense of that in the warm orrechiete salad ($24) that's the edible equivalent of a reassuring hug - chewy, savoury ears of pasta cuddled by hot broccolini and baby carrots, fluffy torn bits of goat's cheese and zingy pickled beets dressed in good olive oil. An off-target sprinkle of salt makes some mouthfuls saltier than others, but it's a minor blip.
The shredded green papaya and jicama salad paired with seared raw tuna ($26) doesn't have the three-dimensional punch of its Thai cousin, but it's a decent contender that balances the tuna's general blandness. What we really like is the kelp powder-dusted cracker on top.
Squid ink taglierini in "inferno" sauce ($26) overstates its ability to burn, so don't be too frightened by it. The chilli paste has bite, but we wish the pasta did too. An al dente texture would give the chilli paste something to hold onto in the mouth, instead of quickly disintegrating. Deep-fried battered calamari strips help to give you something to chew.
The charred lamb rump ($32) is like a macho jock who's a softie under his hard muscles - we didn't expect this butt of lamb to be steak-like tender, so easy to cut and surrounded by lush whipped potato mash, peas, bacon and lettuce, like an old-school British dinner without the stigma.
We're okay with the coal-baked barramundi ($26) with a nice dusting of curry powder on its crisp surface, tzatziki-like cucumber coleslaw dressed in yogurt, and smoky baba ghanoush to complete the quasi-Middle Eastern image.
Pita bread wedges to mop up the ghanoush would be perfect at this point, but our telepathic line to the kitchen is blocked by all the herbs in the room sucking up our cosmic energy.
If you must end your meal with chocolate, hot and cold chocolate cake ($17) offers a quick solution to your "should I have cake/fudge brownie/ice cream" dilemma by assembling bits of everything in an artistic arrangement decorated with shards of mint meringue and edible soil.
Our pick is the lemon tart ($17), where thin sheets of cookie millefeuille which smell gloriously of Chinese New Year-sandwich piped rows of lemon curd for a finale that's all sunshine and sweetness. Basil sorbet and crisp leaves for garnish help to fulfil the garden-to-table criterion.
Realistically, the vegetable garden can't grow enough for the restaurant's needs, but you see a little bit here and there in the form of garnishes and maybe a roast eggplant or two. But this is a concept you wish you could see more of - a logical but not often practised progression from garden city to garden of food.
Hello, my name is converted urban farmer. Wanna come and see my seedlings?
THE BUSINESS TIMES
OPEN FARM COMMUNITY
130E Minden Road
Open for lunch and dinner daily:
12pm to 3pm, 6pm to 10pm (Mon to Fri); 11am to 10pm (Sat, Sun and public holidays)