Review: The Farmhouse at Serenbe is still bucolic 10 years later

To get to the Farmhouse at Serenbe from the city of Atlanta, you’ll need to drive south on I-85, long past the airport. You’ll be more than halfway to the city of Newnan by the time you take the exit, after which you’ll need to navigate a number of lonely two-lane roads, rolling and curving by pastures and stands of trees.

When you arrive at night, the lights of the Inn and the Farmhouse, the attached boutique hotel and restaurant, at Serenbe will probably be the only ones you see in any direction. If the mere name of the Farmhouse at Serenbe does not put you in mind of bucolic, agrarian life, this drive — long enough to feel like a destination but short enough to make twice in one evening — certainly will.

When you make your way inside the Farmhouse, which has the glassed-in porch and bones of a charming old house, you’ll no doubt be seated at a table with a white cloth and a vase of cut flowers. It won’t be long before a little bread arrives. In the evening, that’ll be a plate of bite-size cornbread muffins, made simply without a touch of sweetness. Even better though are the light, fluffy biscuits that arrive during lunch on Saturday or Sunday, and are accompanied with a pleasantly spicy pepper jelly.

If all this puts you in mind of, say, a country club with an old-moneyed clientele, you’d be more or less right. Not long after the Farmhouse opened, a little over a decade ago, it was something like the cutting edge of the farm-to-table movement in Atlanta. Serenbe, the planned community founded by Steve and Marie Nygren, was crowned “a utopian experiment in New Urbanism” in The New York Times, a destination that seamlessly blended locavore taste with a new Southern style.

It is the same sensibility that the magazine Garden & Gun, founded almost simultaneously, has since defined and made permanently part of popular culture. When the Farmhouse brought in Brian Moll, a chef known to Midtown Atlanta diners for his work at Ecco and La Tavola, earlier this year, I wondered if this was something of a shake-up. After 10 years, was the Farmhouse seeking to regain its place at the forefront of farm-to-table dining?

As it turns out, no. To eat at the Farmhouse today is to find out how quickly ideas that were fresh and noteworthy 10 years ago have become so accepted as to seem almost antiquated, quaint. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Take the cheese board, which is a fine way to start any meal here. On the menu, you’ll find each element of the plate described by the city from where it was sourced. The heel of the Pink Lady apple, sliced into a few thick wedges, comes from Blue Ridge in North Georgia. The excellent, creamy rich ash rind ripened goat cheese comes from Carrollton, just west of Atlanta. The firm, salty tomme cheese comes from Thomasville in South Georgia. The honey comes from the restaurant’s neighborhood in Chattahoochee Hills.

To which, the only reasonable response is, “Of course it does.” The local cheese board is such a fact of life for a farm-to-table restaurant that it can seem painfully obvious. Yet, I’d say this shouldn’t obscure the fact that both of these are quite good cheeses made by two of Georgia’s most dedicated cheesemakers, Capra Gia and Sweetgrass Dairy. On one Sunday afternoon, a friend and I happily nibbled away at the board and those fluffy biscuits that come on the weekend while sipping on White Blackbird Saison, brewed by Wild Heaven Beer in Decatur.

Wasn’t that the whole cutting-edge idea that made locavore-minded restaurants such hot destinations a decade ago? That you could sit in one place and enjoy the fruits and tastes of the area? I think it was and it is interesting to taste them now, when the idea isn’t so fresh anymore.

As you make your way through the rest of the menu, you’ll see what I mean. Another worthwhile snack, hummus made from boiled peanuts and served with crudites, was plain and satisfying, though a more ambitious farm-to-table chef would have picked better crudites than rectangles of carrot and limp broccoli. Much better was a plate of turnip and radish wedges paired with a pesto made from their tops and a thick bed of cultured cream. These aren’t plates being fussed over by a chef trying to make a point or push an idea forward. There’s nothing really ambitious here, but that seems to be the kitchen’s intentions. They’re just simple, tasty, local comforts. They’re crowd-pleasers meant to do just that.

The entrees follow in a similar style. Inevitably, you will be choosing a meat cooked probably for a long, slow time, doused in a jus, and plated over of a bed of vegetables.

You may have a roasted chicken leg sitting atop a bed of greens and cherry tomatoes. The fatty jus will probably obscure any distinct flavors of ginger or spice, but it will be satisfying and warm.

Or else you might have short ribs cooked down into shreds over turnips and beets. Again, the jus will probably be too fatty, the flavor indistinct, but the effect will be, overall, satisfying and meaty.

The exception here might come in the form of the vegetarian option. In my case, on one Sunday, I tried the sweet potatoes and chickpeas, which turned out to be exactly just that, roasted chunks of sweet potato and chickpeas. But the plate was rounded out with a selection of sides — Sapelo Island red peas, a light salad topped with bright rounds of radish, wilted brassicas — that made it satisfying.

After your meal, you should take a walk of the grounds. Nearby is the Serenbe Animal Village, a hodgepodge of fences and chicken coops and hog wallows that more resembles a petting zoo than a working farm. It’s almost as if this is the place that the whole farm-to-table idea went to retire. Not a bad choice, because it is an awfully charming place.

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