Quiessence Culinary Center, 6106 South 32nd Street, 602-305-8192. Hours: Dinner, Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., October 1 through June 1.
Sometimes, you must admit, eating out can be such work. First, there's figuring out what you're hungry for. Chinese? Italian? American? Mexican? Then, you have to navigate the menu, with unending choices and "of the day" specials. Oh, and wine -- your server likely will hand you a small phone book of unpronounceable liquid grapes from which to select.
On a night like this, the worst moment will come after you finally decide and your dinner arrives. Is it your imagination, or does every plate parading past you to other tables, bearing dishes you passed up, look so much better than what you've got?
Of course it does. You're not crazy. There is, in fact, a little-known law of restaurant dining called covetous culinarius, which simply stated means that, sometimes, no matter what you order, everyone else's plate is going to seem more appealing. It's a little joke invented by the gods of sustenance to ensure that man never overestimates his power in this universe; after all, what strength hath a fellow who can't even make a wise choice between the steak and the salmon? This cruel trick ensures that every now and again, you'll creep away from a restaurant slightly embarrassed, slightly unsatisfied, and wholly confident that there exists a much greater power than you -- one that knows what you really should have eaten.
For those days I'm feeling a little pressured, I find solace at Quiessence. Here is my happy place hidden within The Farm at South Mountain, named after an interpretation of the word quiescence, meaning "quiet." Calm settles over me like a down comforter as soon as I pull into the gravel driveway canopied by pecan trees. At the end of the lane, buffered by flagstone walkways and trellises, a little home awaits. It's decked in white lights and scalloped with rough-hewn wood fencing under a tangle of mature pines.
This is where I go to escape the world and let Quiessence chef Hallie Harron take control. She tells me when to arrive (Friday or Saturday only, 7 p.m. sharp, please). She welcomes me warmly and parks me in a cozy seat. She scurries off to her kitchen and prepares a seven-course dinner she's positive I'll love. I need only open my mouth to eat.
And joy: every plate that passes by is mine. With just 30 privileged diners each evening, Quiessence offers a prix fixe menu that requires no decisions and results in no entree envy. The only caveat is that reservations are strictly required, often a month in advance, and if Chef Harron is serving something that evening you don't care for, you're out of luck.
At just $55 per person, I can't imagine how Harron makes a profit. It's true that her menus are vegetable-rich, but these are labor-intensive veggies grown under Harron's own hand in pretty little beds scattered across the 12-acre farm. There's little service cost -- Harron runs the entire enterprise including cooking, taking reservations and cultivating clientele -- but working without support surely can lead to exhaustion. Heaven forbid a dining party no-shows; Harron requests a credit-card guarantee, but in such a small space the monetary absence would be glaring.
But such concerns are best left to Harron, because I am now but a noodley melt under Quiessence's welcoming toast of "Quienscia," a home-brewed white wine infused with mint, ginger and a bit too much fresh citrus. It's a benign lead-in to Quiessence's BYOB policy (another tremendous bargain with a corkage fee of just $10 per table. Not per bottle, per table).
There's a wild mix of music playing in the background -- opera, French, Italian, jazz -- yet even at its high decibels it's relaxing. What's not to love, as my dining companion and I unwind in the glow of flickering candles, the flames dancing over tabletop art of fresh flowers, flutes of long-stemmed herbs, skinny crostini breadsticks and carafes of oil.
It's threatening to rain, and through the home's open front door, we savor the aroma of damp air, sawdust pathways lined with pungent herbs and colorful blooms, and curling smoke from the wood-fired bread oven on the front lawn. A thunderstorm would be delicious cinema, viewed through Quiessence's glass walls and skylight-dotted wood ceiling.
When I first heard that Quiessence served dinner family-style, I had pleasant images of long farm tables and making new friends. But this is sophisticated dining, and each party enjoys its own white-clothed table, sprinkled throughout what must have been the home's living and family rooms. Plates are presented family-style to each table, however, with large serving spoons and plenty of second helpings to divide and share.
Harron explains that her meals are planned based on "what the garden offers" each day. Dishes showcase the vegetables, although entrees include organic poultry or fish, such as Sonoma duck, gremolata salmon, shrimp with chervil or rose petal quail. It's a fluke -- by popular request of large dining groups, she says -- that both nights we visit feature almost identical menus. (I recommend calling ahead to check your selections or to request a completely vegetarian dinner.)
No matter, our wine is poured, and we settle in for a two-and-a-half hour feast. Each bite is luxury, beginning with salty, homemade butter dressed with flower petals. I admit to indulging in a lick straight from my fork, but it's even better on crisp crostini and later, with warm-from-the-oven red onion and white pepper focaccia.
A taster plate is just that: a tiny dill "doughnut" for each of us. They're both crisp and soft, like unsweetened cake donuts, and topped with a pleasingly tangy artichoke tapenade. A small saucer of fennel follows, the celery-like bulb braised al dente and glossed with a thin red pepper marmalade.
The next course, a "Tasting of the Farm at South Mountain Produce," brings brilliant mouthfuls of Harron's seasonal best. She's a gifted grower, and her talents shine in a gorgeous display of albino beets; roasted shallots; chewy, sweet dates with more tapenade; gloriously sweet and sour roasted onions; mealy corn pancakes and small buttons of homemade mozzarella with rich-flavored grape tomatoes. We top slabs of focaccia with zesty dips: oniony eggplant mousse with Chevre and a curl of earthy daikon radish; creamy marscapone; and white bean brandade (puree). But the best of all, for me, is the selection of peas, including a perfect raw sprig I devour pods and all.
Hot soup arrives next, and we find that we have visited on the only two weeks of the year that green garlic is available -- after its brief blooming season, it ripens to become regular, stronger-bodied garlic. What a treat -- on both evenings my dining group stops conversation completely to savor the mellow blend, spiced with garlic chives, delicate chickpea cracker and a centerpiece of roasted red pepper puree.
Our entree is presented almost apologetically -- there are only so many ways to make chicken exciting, Harron notes. I think she's done just fine with the tea and spice smoked bird, though, with its mantle of sour kumquat and what tastes like molasses. A side of South Mountain mushroom ragout bathes fungi in their own rich broth, coupled with wide sheets of arugula pesto pasta and leafy rainbow chard topped by grilled Shiitakes.
By the time the cheese course arrives, we're ready for some sweeter flavors. Homemade yogurt and goat cheeses are the perfect segue, nibbled with warm, whole walnuts and toasty walnut bread spiked with French currants. Dessert plates complete the sugar fest in graceful form: we daintily spoon lavender ice cream, sorbet-like lemon ice cream scattered with flower petals, flat waffle cookies, semifreddo (Italian cake and custard) with white-chocolate and raspberry liquor, Turkish coffee ice and lemon curd mousse pecan shortbread tart.
Hot coffee is steaming elixir in clear glass cups, but we're still not done. Out comes a dish of "Last Bites" -- brownie-like chocolate crackle cookies and a goblet filled with cinnamon candied pecans.
I leave refreshed and, with Quiessence as my safety net, ready to try choosing dinner on my own again.
The Farm Kitchen, 6106 South 32nd Street, 602-276-6360. Hours: Breakfast and lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., weather permitting.
The other, better known half of The Farm at South Mountain is The Farm Kitchen. On stressful days when I have neither the time nor patience to wait a month for a drawn-out dinner, this is where you'll find me.
Although this popular little eatery attracts the masses on weekends, marvel of marvels, it never seems crowded. After bunching together in the ordering line, guests distribute themselves politely afar, sprawling in the rosy sun on a lawn dotted with picnic tables, on a brick patio crisscrossed with a reed- and daffodil-trimmed stream, or on woven Mexican blankets next to the exotic duck habitat.
Pecan trees are everywhere, lovingly nurtured since the 1920s and gratefully paying back with harvests of more than 5,000 pounds of nuts a year. Among their branches dart cooing birds; at their bases purring pigeons peck hopefully at crickets singing tales of their country lives. To the beat dances a speckled gray horse, weaving crazily in its pen, and it's all I can do to resist setting it free.
Ordering is fun, if not challenging. We take a cute, open-top picnic basket and stare dumbly at our choices. Drinks are not labeled, nor are chilled salads, dressings, breads or sweets (an intriguing pile of muffins, scones, turnovers, bars, biscotti, and mini pies). This would be helpful, as when I ask about an apricot mango dressing, I swear I hear it as "apricot dingo." This is a farm, after all.
Too, on repeated visits, we find our favorites missing -- the salad of the day is a luscious-sounding white bean and tomato, but we can't have it. Another time we crave broccoli with roasted peppers, but it, too, is gone. This even though we arrive for lunch at 11 a.m.
A few bites of what's available, though, and the Farm is wholly forgiven. Potato leek soup ($3.50) is a dreamy, if low seasoned, puree. Greek side salad ($4) is stocked with bittersweet greens, feta, Kalamata olives, cucumber and tomato in my choice of an herb-richened vinaigrette -- so good!
My dining companion is happy with an albacore tuna sandwich (all sandwiches $7.95), and I agree this is one a fine rendition. It's a smooth blend of fish, kicked with onion, light mayo and tomato. Only the nine-grain bread falls flat; as my companion notes, it doesn't have the "sticks and rocks" that make it such a wild dough.
I find no fruit tones in my old-fashioned turkey sandwich's orange bread, either, but its jam-like spread of tangy cranberry relish and chipotle mayonnaise is all that's needed for this thick-chunked roasted bird. Chicken salad has no faults, anointed in a heady kick of Parmesan, light mayo and celery chunks heaped in great portions on excellent, crunchy-crusted French bread. A mesquite-grilled eggplant sandwich, on the other hand, is bland with its naked mozzarella, yellow and red peppers and tomato on un-sourdough bread. The hands-down winner among my picnic group is the curry turkey sandwich, stuffed with currants, red cabbage, celery and shredded carrot in sweet curry mayonnaise. It earns center stage at our table, and we pick it apart like vultures.
The Farm's signature lettuces play starring roles in the sandwiches and also provide a cherished zing to the salads (all $7.95). Turkey Waldorf salad is okay on its own, with red grapes, celery, whole walnuts and shredded carrot. But when paired with tongue-tingling exotic greens and the yogurt-like apricot mango dressing, it's beauty in a bowl.
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By the time we reach dessert, we're so happy you could feed us rocks. A chocolate-chip cherry walnut cookie ($1.25) is much better, however; chewy and dense, with flavors strong enough to stand alone. A berry cinnamon scone ($1.75), is a crumbly, plastic-wrapped mess, but it tastes good enough, thanks to fine pastry.
Now, about that horse . . .
Contact Carey Sweet at 602-744-6558 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org