Eat & Drink

Field Work

Eric Skokan's Bramble & Hare is the very definition of farm-to-table dining. 

September 2013


Over several visits, there were common gaffes: prematurely cleared plates, frequent poor pacing that once rendered doughnuts cold and soggy, audible tiffs between staff members, the need to ask for flatware and flag down servers instead of being checked on, a sommelier’s blind selection delivered without explanation, trouble describing obscure spirits on the cocktail menu, and even an annoying habit of saying “thank you” every time we expressed our approval of a wine or dish (as if the server thought he’d bottled or cooked it himself). 

What was more surprising was that servers were oddly unforthcoming, even uninformed. The exception was beverage director Dev Ranjan, who can deftly describe the stories behind his thoughtful list—concise but loaded with obscure grapes and small-batch producers—and offer pairings.
In the last several years, as diners rightly began craving more information about the origins of the food they consume, marketing-savvy chefs printed menus that were littered with a tedious amount of detail. In extreme cases, an entrée composed mainly of imported ingredients would credit a local farm for growing the parsley. I understand the industry argument for “menu provenance overload” and agree that, as Skokan says, “customers have hit their limit with jargon,” but servers can’t use this justified call for more subtle service as an excuse for misinformation—especially in a model farm-to-table restaurant where it’s these details themselves that are the draw. “When we train a new server, we explain to them that they need to know everything in depth,” Skokan says. “If they perceive that the customer really wants to know more, then we go into the long spiel.” This is a sound ideal, but not once did a server accomplish it. 

Although the waitstaff was welcoming, actual interactions were perplexing. When my dining companion asked what the bright green drizzle on our plate was, our server happily went running back to the kitchen only to report it was puréed “mi-zoo-MAY” (aka mizuna), then said, “Now that that’s settled,” as she fled the table. During another visit we asked if a ham entrée was cured or uncured.

“What’s cured?” our waitress asked. Another server zealously encouraged a cheese plate that she presented to us with descriptions stopping at “blue-ish” and “Brie-ish.” Even those staff members who did know the pork species was Mulefoot or that their colleagues had foraged the king oyster mushrooms were so taciturn it was as if we were holding up a line in the Ikea cafeteria by asking absurd questions. On each visit, I left sad and discouraged that we diners had more enthusiasm for the restaurant’s backstory than the staff did. The experience wasn’t just limited to my meals: Employees were oddly baffled during what should have been simple phone calls about parking and the restaurant’s hours. 

Among many admirable qualities, Skokan himself is a modest guy, not eager to boast. But once you ask him a thoughtful question, he is delightfully forthcoming—never aloof or terse. In fact, Skokan’s answers can be such gully washers that you’re tempted to interrupt him out of respect for the hay you know he has to bale or the 7,000 tomato starts he has to plant before sundown. I hate to add to his to-do list, but maybe the chef-farmer needs to spend some time waiting tables as well. Or at least spend a long winter training his staff how to do so.