Opening a restaurant might well be a final frontier for the Hall family.
Ted and Laddie Hall and their son, Chris, have farmed cattle, grown all manner of produce, planted grapes, made wine, and pressed their own olives into delicious, peppery oil.
“Now with a restaurant, they’ve come full circle,” says Sheamus Feeley, executive chef of Farmstead, the restaurant component of the sustainable food, wine and agricultural center that opened to the public less than two weeks ago in St. Helena.
Located at Charter Oak and South Main Street opposite the landmark eatery, Tra Vigne, the Hall family’s latest venture is anchored by Farmstead restaurant and their Long Meadow Ranch Winery tasting room, and shared with vegetable gardens, a seasonal farm stand plus the organic Whiting Nursery which has occupied the site for more than half a century.
In keeping with sustainable practices employed at Long Meadow Ranch, Rutherford Gardens and other Hall farm sites in the region, the entire property is solar-powered.
Housed in a former nursery barn, the 110-seat Farmstead restaurant features an open central kitchen, booth and table seating, a community dining table and a full, spacious horseshoe-shaped bar ideal for both dining and drinking.
It’s a comfortable, casual space with lots of beautiful reused redwood and polished granite — which should make for a lively atmosphere when the place fills up.
Salvaged hay hooks, a hay fork and poultry feeders have been transformed into appealing, utilitarian light fixtures by local lighting artist Jim Misner. Metal milk bottle carriers contain colorful potted flowers and lit votives, anchored by pebbles inside Ball jars, are strategically placed throughout the airy high-ceilinged dining room.
During warm weather months, diners will also be able to enjoy alfresco meals among espaliered apple trees as well as drinks at an outdoor bar set opposite an authentic wood-fired forge.
To accommodate the chef’s American farmhouse style of cooking, a majority of the fare is prepared on a wood-fired grill, in a wood-fired oven or on a plancha (griddle plate).
The daily menu never strays far from chef Feeley’s goal of plating up farm-to-table comfort fare. Usually under 10 selections each, first and second course choices reflect the commitment to freshness. There’s always some kind of soup ($8) — the other day it was a savory vegetable broth chock full of signature meatballs. Additional starters ($12-$14) include freshly ground medium-rare beef meatballs with a sweet tomato marmalade and a bowl of caramelized red and golden beets paired with tangy goat cheese and arugula. The freshly picked salads feature mixed lettuces and chickories tossed with thinly sliced radishes and grated hard-boiled egg, as well as a toss of arugula, earthy mushrooms and buttery Bellwether Farms Carmody cheese.
As tasty as it looks, another rustic option is a bowl of wood-roasted marrow bones served with toasted baguette slices and a savory carrot and parsley salad. With a nod to both farm and France, the chef’s potted pig can be spread on crunchy toasts and slathered with whole-grain mustard.
The heartiest option has succulent red wine-braised oxtail and radicchio stirred into al dente long grain rice. Another features seared beef slices complemented by Vella dry jack cheese over arugula.
While the main courses are decidedly hearty, they’re not the trencherman portions one might expect at a roadside diner or, certainly, at an Arkansas farmhouse dinner table.
Ranging in price from $14 for a burger topped with cheddar cheese and arugula on a potato bun to $26 for the chef’s take on red flannel hash (short ribs and potato hash with beets and a fried egg), Farmstead’s second course choices always include fish, fowl and beef.
A recent “grass-fed beef cut of the day” was a juicy sirloin steak plated with roasted melt-in-your-mouth German butterball potatoes you could dip into full-flavored housemade ketchup.
The same flavorful beef — ground for the savory meatballs — is also foundation for the toothsome meatloaf, plated with a generous serving of roasted root vegetables tossed in a sweet/sour orange-cardamom sauce.
The chicken in the house was prepared two ways on our last visit — braised with a grandma’s loving care and her dumplings, as well as “brick cooked” and crisped on the grill, then provided a French accent with a ladle or two of flageolets, those pale green kidney beans traditionally served from Paris to Provence with roasted leg of lamb.
Roasted beets and Meyer lemon butter add flavor to the mild Petrale sole, while roasted squash, honey, blood orange segments and herbs are stirred into rib-sticking ridgecut grits, y’all.
Feeley and his team also tempt diners with a few mighty tasty side dishes and such — creamy Rancho Gordo beans ($4), rolls and biscuits ($5), yummy sharp cheddar cheese and macaroni ($6) and, always, “something green” ($5).
Save room for dessert ($8). There are usually three choices. Certainly a staple is the dreamy chocolate cream pie, while the intense Meyer lemon meringue pie gives it a run for its money. We also enjoyed the texture and flavor of a griddled corn cake dipped into olive oil ice cream.
Chris Hall, who is overseeing all operations of the new enterprise, has put together an impressive wine list that includes a substantial mix of Napa Valley wines, offered by both bottle and glass (there are three dozen choices). The extensive list features more than five dozen Old World wines that extend to Eastern Europe, including an intensely rich oak-fermented and -aged Edi Simcic chardonnay from the Slovenian side of the Friuli/Slovenia border.
While there’s no corkage charge for those who choose to bring in their own wines, Farmstead imposes a $2 fee, with all proceeds earmarked for local charities. Wine list pricing features a “one-time markup,” advised Hall.
Under the direction of general manager Adam Kim, attentive, knowledgeable servers are eager to please. Although the space is large, there’s still an intimate feel to the dining room, evidently prompted by a combination of ambiance, informality and efficiency. First and foremost, the food is tasty and the wines complement. In addition, the owners have come up with a design that fits theme, ranging from warm wood to farm implements, potted posies to colorful produce oils by Boston artist Aaron Fink.
Farmstead restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling 963-9181.
Delaying the inevitable / Feeley’s American farmhouse menu is inspired by childhood memories of his grandparents’ Arkansas farm and the restaurant his father ran in Razorback country.
“My grandparents had a 500-acre farm in Huntsville,” not far from the thriving northwest Arkansas city of Fayetteville, home to both the University of Arkansas and the family restaurant.
Feeley recalls the can of bacon fat on his grandmother’s kitchen stove and watching her sauté onions in the fat after the two of them had spent the afternoon prepping Romano and string beans for the annual harvest canning project. “She’d cook ‘em and then she’d cook ‘em some more in the pressure cooker,” he added.
His grandfather had a working farm with cattle, pigs and chickens, plus a whole lot of produce, including corn, tomatoes and melons. “Basically, he was a melon farmer because that’s what he sold the most. A lot of the other crops were just for the family. I used to go around with my grandfather when he was mending fences.”
But he grew up in the family restaurant, Fuzzy’s, which had been in his dad’s family for three generations. “The farmers were on my mother’s side. Fuzzy’s was a place where you could get everything from cheeseburgers to prime rib — and of course we had a smoker to prepare barbecue. It was Fayetteville’s version of Rutherford Grill.”
Feeley’s first job at age 15 was cleaning the restaurant daily before he went off to school. “I did everything, from the kitchen to the bathrooms — that was my responsibility. Eventually, the job changed to washing dishes, then prepping and finally cooking on the line.” He also spent considerable time learning the techniques of cooking meat by both wood fire and wood oven.
“But my father didn’t want me to go into the restaurant business. He knew how hard you have to work (to be successful). So I enrolled in the journalism program at the University of Arkansas. All that did was delay the inevitable.”
Part of his junior year was spent in the central highlands of Peru, where he shopped at a fresh market daily and learned the importance of “cooking with the seasons.” Following graduation, Feeley moved to Denver to accept a job opening a new eatery for Wolfgang Puck. He worked in other Denver restaurants and spent time in French kitchens during his travels abroad. In 2001, he opened Mateo Restaurant in Boulder, Colo., with Bay Area chef Matt Jensen.
Two years later, the Hillstone Restaurant Group asked him to help open restaurants in New Orleans, Palm Beach and Beverly Hills. That led to his moving to the Napa Valley to oversee operations at Rutherford Grill. In 2006, he also took on the role of executive chef/research and development for Hillstone Restaurants.
He’s been working with the Halls for the past year developing the concept for Farmstead.
“This is the epicenter of food and wine in the United States,” Feeley noted. “My intent was to have a place where I would want to eat several times a week...where prices aren’t outlandish and there’s no pretense...where you can bring in your own bottle of wine without facing a corkage fee. We’re asking those who do to donate $2, which will go to several good causes.”
Feeley said very few in the business can say they’ve actually raised as well as prepared the products served diners.
“We have great product, from grass-fed Scottish Highland and English short horn cattle raised on farms in Ferndale and Tomales to the 25,00 pounds of russets and German butterball potatoes we harvested in Tomales last fall. And a lot more of the produce is grown at our Rutherford Gardens site as well as on site right here.
“If anybody’s earned the right to call what we do farm-to-table dining, I think we have.”