In the last year, including this trip, I’ve eaten at:
- Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ grand experiment which kick-started the American farm-to-restaurant movement;
- Tilth, James Beard award winner Maria Hines’ Seattle restaurant certified by Oregon’s organic organization;
- Restaurant Nora, “Power Chef” Nora Pouillon’s showcase for organic food;
- AR Valentian, Jeff Jackson’s take on farm-to-table California cuisine.
The winner is: MorMor, hands down.
Take the dinner we had on Friday. We walked in and were seated immediately. On a normal weekend night with no special events planned the dining room was full. Our server took our order immediately and brought bread to the table within minutes. This came with a dish of olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar, as it ought; the bread was crusty, soft, and sliced thinly, serving as an appetizer rather than a course in itself.
In New York I read a piece by a restaurant critic summarizing forty years of experience, who offered his top tip: ask the sommelier which wine to pair with your food! When we asked for a wine list, Dorian Woodson glided over and offered suggestions, and delivered the wine to table seamlessly.
The Soup of Yesterday was smoked ham with vegetables. I work with smoked ham, and it’s easy to let that strong flavor overpower the other ingredients, but this soup was balanced and complex.
For the entree I had Scandanavian meatballs, for a couple of reasons. The beef was supplied by a named-on-the-menu Kingston farm. Also, recently I’d eaten Chef Nora Pouillon’s take on ethnic cuisine. MorMor’s meatballs aren’t ethnic for the sake of being experimental, they’re grounded in Poulsbo Scandavian tradition. The sauce tastes right, the lingonberry jam is the traditional tart compliment to the rich sauce, the toast provides crunch to an otherwise soft dish. The broccolini was grilled, adding both crunch and a welcome touch of bitterness to the plate.
There was no amusee and no after-dinner candy, no shave of truffles, no gold leaf. This isn’t a fine cuisine establishment, not precious, as some farm-to-table eateries can be. It’s a place to eat regularly, bring the family, drop in, listen to Ranger and the Re-Arrangers, unwind and relax.
While we ate we talked about what this place gets right. MorMor works on multiple levels: service, atmosphere, food. Dorian Woodson is a world-class sommelier of course. Chef John Nesby is one of the best chefs in the country. But there’s something extra here, something essential that many farm-to-table restaurants neglect – it’s embedded in community. Of course John knows local farmers, but he also supports the local food bank, has served on the farmers market board, and is quietly donating dessert proceeds to a local school. None of this shows up on the restaurant’s website, the staff doesn’t brag, they just do the work. I think that’s the secret of the restaurant’s success.
There’s only one restaurant I’ve visited that can rival MorMor – Claire’s, in Hardwick, Vermont. The meal we had there a few weeks ago felt very much like the meal we had at MorMor. There was the relaxed atmosphere, the table of women getting together to spend an evening talking, deft service, and grounded-in-place cuisine.
Chef Steven Obranovich has a distinct advantage. Claire’s is situated in a Northeast agricultural tradition that has survived industrialization and is revitalizing as regional food re-emerges. The restaurant sources most of its ingredients in a 15 mile foodshed. The plates we tasted reflected that in an immediately recognizable way.
Chef Nesby supports local farmers and goes out of his way to source food locally. Kitsap’s agricultural tradition has thinly survived the get-big-or-get-out period of policy making. The real lack in the Kitsap foodshed is not farmers or chefs but an educated citizenry supporting and demanding local food. Vermont cooking is identifiable and rooted in place; Kitsap cuisine is still emerging.
MoMorMor is our Claire’s. Or maybe Claire’s is Hardwick’s MorMor, our restaurant has been around longer. In any case we are all lucky to have it. Friday night the boys and I were happy to eat in our own foodshed again. There’s no place like home.