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First Look: Farm Burger

Plus a visit to Rusto's Pizzeria & Pub

America is a strange place. We routinely bash obese people, even though the majority of Americans are overweight. We're all about learning to eat in a healthier manner. Yet we're obsessed more than ever with hamburgers and pizza, both of which have long been branded excessively fattening and unhealthy. Now they're the stuff of foodie fantasies.

Burger joints in particular are opening everywhere, and most have a gimmick – everything from association with a celebrity chef, like Richard Blais' Flip, to a sustainable and ethical business model, like Decatur's new Farm Burger (4108 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-378-5077, www.farmburger.net).

The new burger joint has been an overnight hit. During my first visit, on a Sunday evening, the crowd was so heavy and the order line so slow moving, we decided to leave. We returned the next night, Monday, and stepped almost immediately to the counter, but almost as soon as we sat down, another wave of people arrived.

Farm Burger's co-owners are George Frangos and Jason Mann. Frangos, also the general manager, is a veteran of Concentrics Restaurants. He also worked as manager of Savoy in New York and Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C. Both specialize in local, organic cuisine.

Co-owner Jason Mann is also a partner in the Athens' restaurant Farm 255, which, as the name suggests, features farm-to-table cooking. Mann directs Full Moon Farms, an Athens cooperative, and Moonshine Meats. The two operations supply Farm 255 and now Farm Burger with seasonal, organic produce and grass-fed beef.

Frangos describes Farm Burger this way: "Our burger joint will take what is now sometimes considered elitist and expensive – organic, local, grass-fed – and make it simple and economical, and a reflection of its community." Farm Burger also employs the usual green practices, such as biodegradable packaging and recycling of most waste materials.

In fact, a sign in the restaurant declares, "Our food makes ethical eating easy." The sign made me laugh because this is, no matter how you describe it, fast food. Ain't it cool that it makes ethical eating convenient, even if it's heavily calorific?

I've eaten twice at Farm Burger and enjoyed it – and been annoyed by it. The beef patty is delicious. I like the taste of grass-fed beef and, despite other people's description, I don't find it gamy at all. The restaurant promises, too, that its cows are never fed antibiotics, hormones or grain.

That really is a good thing, especially if you've read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma or Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. But all the emphasis on ethical eating has the paradoxical effect, for me anyway, of reminding me that I'm engorging myself unnecessarily on the flesh of an animal. But, no, I haven't felt guilty enough to order the quinoa veggie burger.

The burgers are only cooked medium, a fact that has annoyed a lot of medium-rare lovers. In both visits, mine was faintly pink at the center and remained juicy. What I have noticed, however, is that the meat is easily overwhelmed by the toppings (of which there are numerous choices for $1 or $2, if not free). I'm not sure why this is true, exactly. Of course, it's easy to explain in the case of Wayne's burger special that included salami and pimento cheese. The beef patty was nothing more than added texture. But the same thing was true of my signature Farm Burger with smoked white cheddar, caramelized onions and the restaurant's homemade sauce.

As I bit into the latter, a restaurant employee asked me, "How is your first bite?"

"Really oily ... greasy," I replied.

"Oily," he repeated.

And it really was. I was much happier when I scraped away some of the toppings. During my next visit, I ordered from the build-it-yourself menu. I chose a simple blue cheese and bacon burger and didn't feel overwhelmed. Wayne got another special – one topped with smoked Gouda and sherry-date barbecue sauce. Sorry, but it was another case of excess to my palate.

Speaking of excess, the restaurant does have roasted bone marrow listed on its menu of toppings. They didn't have any during either of my visits. Nor did they have the starter of fried chicken livers. I have, however, sampled pickled eggs, collards and chicken croquettes. The croquettes were hot, chewy, crispy globes served with cranberry-apple chutney. The egg had turned as red as the beets with which it was lightly pickled. The collards were vinegary and sweet, maybe a bit too sweet.

Hand-cut fries are available for $1.50 with your burger. They're not the best I've ever had – a bit limp for my taste – but the beer-battered onion rings are as good as any in town.

The only desserts are ice cream floats, from house-made "ginger farmade" to hibiscus and cinnamon. I haven't tried one, because I've left the restaurant stuffed each time. Don't be thinking, by the way, that Farm Burger is particularly cheap. Our bill at our second meal was $32.

The restaurant does serve beer and wine.

Pizza on Cheshire Bridge

When I asked the two owners of Rusto's Pizzeria & Pub (2100-A Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-325-4104) why they'd opened a pizza joint, they looked at me like I'd insulted them. I explained that I was wondering just because so many pizzerias have opened in the city in recent months.

"It's something to do," one of them said. One partner has a background in fine-dining management and the other loves to cook.

The menu is quite brief. You can assemble you own pie or choose one of the restaurant's specialties. I chose a small Margherita, the usual test of a pizza kitchen. It arrived at the table bubbling hot, about the size of a dinner plate (for only $7) and was competent enough.

It featured a thin, very charred crust, house-made mozzarella, a San Marzano sauce and scattered fresh basil. I was alone in the dining room and felt under surveillance by the two owners after I took a photograph.

The new pizzeria, which is located a few doors from the Red Snapper, uses only biodegradable service materials and the food is free of preservatives and trans fats. At this writing, it was still awaiting its pouring license. Meanwhile, enjoy the house-made ice cream instead of a beer. I'll be investigating that at a later date.



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