Living on the highways and in the neighborhoods of Atlanta, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the city is sitting in the midst of a large and largely rural piece of land called Georgia. We fly in and out of the airport, we drive around the Perimeter, and sometimes we even take one of those highways all the way to a beach or another city. But it is rare for the average Atlantan to meander off the big roads, and to experience the Georgia countryside.
I am ashamed to admit it, but my first venture into the Georgia countryside was late in the summer when I drove out to eat at the new Farmhouse restaurant at the Inn at Serenbe. It was a bit of a shock -- Georgia is beautiful! Who would have known? And would I ever have discovered this beauty if there weren't the allure of good food dragging me out of my urban comfort zone? Honestly, the 40-minute drive to Palmetto is less stressful than driving to many of the northern Atlanta suburbs, and if the leafy roads and charming small town of Palmetto don't sooth your city-slicker soul, the Inn at Serenbe and the lovely Farmhouse restaurant will.
Serenbe is a 900-acre piece of land that houses the 1905 farmhouse country inn, an organic farm and a housing development built in the new-urban style to resemble a small town. In June of this year, Serenbe's owners decided to add a restaurant, using the farmhouse kitchen and dining room. They hired young chef Tony Seichrist, who had been working at Athens' Five and Ten under Hugh Acheson, and the Farmhouse restaurant was born.
The concept is about as simple as a restaurant can get, and is a nice change of pace from the crazily overdone, over-designed big-city establishments up the highway. The old farmhouse kitchen is huge and rustic. Seichrist and his sous chef cook from the garden and the farm, and a couple of inexpert but concerned waitresses serve customers in the adjacent dining room under the watch of a large painting of a friendly looking cow. On warmer evenings, seating is available on the screened porch.
Each night, the menu is set; Seichrist chooses whatever is freshest that day and creates a three-course menu. The price is an astonishing $28 per person. Intown, you would pay two or three times that amount for this quality of food. So it's safe to say that, even at double the price, the meal would be quite a deal.
The taste of the farm is present in every dish, and as a result the menus are intensely seasonal. That late-summer meal included an appetizer of mussels in a simple white wine and tomato broth, but the freshness of every ingredient down to the parsley was wonderfully apparent. An entree of trout with asparagus over creamy grits followed. At the time I was in the middle of reading a long novel set in the South in the 1800s, and it was full of characters growing and foraging for foods in the mountains and the foothills. It occurred to me that the meal I was eating could have been one of those meals. Apart from the mussels, it could have been grown, harvested and cooked in this very kitchen 100 years ago.
The simplicity of food this rustic does not leave a lot of room for creativity or finesse. This is not to say that there is any sloppiness going on here -- the food is plated nicely, the fish and meat dishes are cooked with a true chef's care. But there is still something a little green about the way Seichrist cooks. It's not surprising -- he is only 24. But as he matures, I expect his flavors will become a little bolder, his broths and sauces more refined. I would hate to see him lose the rustic aesthetic, and I doubt there is a need to worry about that, but his dishes could become more assured and more cohesive given time.
As it is, the straightforward pleasure of a white bean au pistou soup, with its drizzle of super-fresh basil oil, is pure comfort on a rainy fall evening. A pork chop cooked a pretty medium pink sits atop those same creamy grits and is garnished with fine fennel root shavings, chives and acorn squash crema. When we request a vegetarian plate, the grits come topped with a medley of cabbage, fennel and wisps of onion, and with the unexpected crunch of sweet and salty sweet potato chips as a garnish.
Perhaps the most surprising item on this menu is dessert, which consists of a rich vanilla bean ice cream served with plain hot doughnuts filled with sweet potato puree. A cross between breakfast and a Thanksgiving pie, the dish's honest qualities are striking -- dough, spice, natural sweetness.
The Farmhouse currently does not have a liquor license, and its beverage policy is strictly BYO with no corkage fee. It's probably a good thing -- while servers here are helpful and as sweet as can be, I'm not sure they are ready for wine service. This is a different breed than the professional powerhouse waiters you'll find in the city, but they are genuinely striving to do well, even if they do sometimes forget to tell you what you're eating or seem a little flummoxed.
It's hard not to envy Seichrist, cooking in the large, airy kitchen, surrounded by 100-year-old wooden plank floors and walls, stepping out the back door to pick herbs from the garden. At this time of year, if you are arriving for dinner you will probably miss out on seeing the place in the daylight, which is a pity. The grounds of the Inn are a spectacular study in contrast, mixing the luxurious (pool, cabana, croquet lawn) with the rustic (barn, vegetable garden, livestock).
If the people behind Serenbe are trying to conjure a feeling of rural utopia, they are doing a great job, and I challenge you to take the trek without thinking, just for a second, about how nice it would be to give up that city life and move to the country, where everything is simpler, prettier, fresher ... nahhh. But it's nice to know that a taste of the country life is available, for a mere $28, Thursday through Sunday evening.