TWENTY-FIVE miles from Savannah along a pretty stretch of Highway 170, FARM in Old Town Bluffton sources leafy greens, robust root veggies, heritage meats, artisan cheeses and slow-leavened breads almost exclusively with a Lowcountry address, some a proverbial peach pit’s throw from the kitchen.
Executive Chef Brandon Carter, manager Josh Heaton and farmer Ryan Williamson—who grows much of the fresh produce a few miles up the road—opened their 47-seat dream restaurant last October to steady praise, and FARM’s reputation for local ingredients and adventurous flavors has been spilling over the state line.
After months of salivating over Instagram posts, I finally hitched a ride to South Carolina last week with two of the most sophisticated local palates I know: Natasha Gaskill, the genius behind A Squad Bake Shop’s donuts and desserts, and The Refinery’s Amy Paige Condon, an editor extraordinaire and local food writer who has co-authored several cookbooks. On the way, we agreed you might be a locavore groupie if you’re willing to travel further for a meal than the food does to your plate.
FARM is as hyperlocal as food gets, but farm-to-table is about more than fresh-picked baby eggplants and sustainably-raised pork chops.
“Basically, the concept is built on relationships,” explains Heaton, the front-of-the-house corner of FARM’s partnership triad.
“We know the names of every farmer and every vendor, real people who work hard and respect the land and animals.”
The three-way culinary bromance is also founded on an unorthodox approach to what’s on the menu, fed by Heaton’s penchant for foraging and Chef Carter’s hobby of poring over seed catalogs and asking Williamson about which variety of butter bean fares best on his five-acre plot.
“We reverse-engineered the idea of creating our menus. We start with, ‘what grows here?’ and become inspired by that,” says Heaton.
Like the Lowcountry weather, the menu is always changing. As we sat down to FARM’s communal central table, our server handed us menu edition No. 139, which means the chef and his crew have switched it up roughly every three days since they opened.
“Well, not everything works every time, so we try something else,” shrugs Chef Carter, who trained at CIA in New York and amassed a loyal following during his six-year stint at Palmetto Bluff.
“At least the vibe’s always good.”
The vibe is good—reclaimed wood and Edison light bulbs give the dining room a cozy intimacy, the kind of place where any attire from sundresses to suit jackets seems appropriate.
Décor is unfussy, the walls uncluttered save the amber glow of bottles stacked behind the bar and jars brimming with sunflowers and fresh herbs. The open kitchen is set as a stage, brightly lit and visible from every seat in the house.
As we contemplated menu No. 139, my companions and I tucked into a round of craft cocktails, FARM’s locavore commitment evident even in the glass: The Hard Iced Tea is steeped with leaves harvested near Charleston and toasted chai spices; small-batch Bulrush Gin is mixed with housemade tonic and Savannah Bee Co. honey. After I swilled the last sip of my goddess-green Garden Martini, we perused the wine list for a bottle to share and settled on a very reasonably-priced J. Mourat rosé.
“It’s like seersucker. It goes with everything,” approved the chef with a grin.
Thank goodness, because we ordered everything: To start, we passed a plate of ooey-gooey-delicious Burrata cheese and Serrano ham and a savory slice of lamb cheek pie, full of caramelized onions and Crisco, per the chef’s grandmother’s pastry recipe. Pork meatballs crumbled nicely under a crown of crispy parsnips, and the acidity of blistered padron peppers brought even more sparkle to the charcoal-roasted octopus settled on ribbons of squid ink tagliarini.
Hands clasped, we doted over the mushroom toast topped with pickled chanterelles foraged from a secret spot near Heaton’s backyard.
“We don’t buy chanterelles, ever,” promised Heaton, who holds a certification in wild mushroom safety. (Please don’t try collecting edible fungi without a guide, boys and girls.)
As our highly adept server crumbed the table and replaced our silverware for the main course, the conversation turned to far-reaching effects that a single restaurant can have on a local economy.
“You’re not just creating jobs, you’re supporting a whole community of vendors,” pointed out Natasha as we nibbled on the greens on the bottom of the lamb pie’s cast iron pan.
“Every part of the chain—from our staff to the farmers—is based on mutual respect. It’s about the food, but ultimately, it’s about the people,” nodded Heaton.
“We feel that if we honor each other’s values, we can all benefit.”
Given the company, it was suggested that the connection between where and who our food comes from is even broader.
“When you’re talking about true farm-to-table, you’re talking about economics, politics, culture, place and narrative,” added Amy, swiping up the last of the brown butter sauce with a hunk of bread from Root Baking Company on John’s Island.
“There is a story on every single plate.”
Indeed, we tried to imagine the hands that pulled in the Gulf Coast yellowfin tuna served on a bed of sweet potato mash and toasted corn, and praised the pastures that nurtured the heritage pork offered up with succotash-like maque choux. (We did not confirm that the bucatini was made by the same intrepid folks scurrying behind the counter, but since we could see a pasta maker sitting on a shelf, we assumed.)
If you’re planning to make the drive to dine at FARM, you’d best make reservations, since the room fills fast with fans from Charleston, Fripp Island and Beaufort, even on weeknights. For spontaneous cravings, there’s always lunchtime (11am-2pm, Tues.-Sat.), offering giant salads and compelling takes on the usual meat-and-three (hello, vindaloo chicken and Carolina gold rice!)
As far as the check goes, hyperlocal does not mean overly precious: The price point (apps $12-17, entrees $21-34) is comparable to most fine dining experiences in the Lowcountry foodie corridor, and portions are generous, attesting to the FARM guys’ commitment to sharing the local love.
A former cog in the Starbucks corporate wheel, Heaton could not be happier to living out his locavore passions. As we spooned up desserts of bittersweet chocolate strawberry cake and fried peach ginger hand pie, he plunked down a Mason jar, the last of his personal stash of a batch of loquat seed liqueur he made himself.
Pouring out tiny glasses of the golden-hued hooch redolent of almonds, he told us the story of how he spent an entire season harvesting loquats from his neighbors and public spaces, drying out piles of pits in his garage. The cordial was a perfect finish to an extraordinary meal, and a photo of Heaton’s two small daughters standing on a ladder and plucking the funny yellow fruit from the tree across the street from the restaurant somehow made it taste even sweeter.
“It’s just seeds, vodka, sugar and patience,” he marveled.
“But the fact that it came from right here just never gets old.”