I'm sure some folks see The Shops at Canton Crossing, the glitzy new 325,000-square-foot retail center on Boston Street, as a troubling sign that the tastes and attitudes of the suburbs are encroaching on our treasured city ways.
Not me, friends. I say, encroach away.
For instance, just a few weeks ago, I went to Canton Crossing for about an hour and came away with a pack of socks, a cake carrier, three cheap polo shirts, and three boxes of Nabisco's Famous Chocolate Wafers. Before Canton Crossing, it would have taken days to find all that stuff in the city.
For weary shoppers, there are places at Canton Crossing where they can fortify themselves, or maybe calm down — fast-casual cafes, burger stops and barbecue joints, some of them, such as Samos and Atwater's, with true and loyal local followings.
But the centerpiece restaurant for Canton Crossing is Farmstead Grill, which occupies a 6,000-square-foot free-standing structure on the shopping center's public park.
Designed by Brown Craig Turner architects, Farmstead Grill is easy on the eyes, inside and out. You can see what they were striving for here — a space that subtly evokes the rusticity associated with farm-to-table cuisine but is furnished with a contemporary attitude.
The interior consists basically of one big, high-ceilinged rectangular dining space with a bar at the back. Over the bar is a small loft space, which was not in use when we visited. But for a big space, it has been broken up cleverly and attractively. The nicest touch by far is the alternating orange, cream and olive color blocks on the banquettes, which give Farmstead Grill a slightly glamorous "Mad Men" feel.
It is all very pretty, but Farmstead Grill feels a little contrived. You can't quite put your finger on it, but it's there. I can only tell you that we all felt it, and strongly. It has something to do with how Farmstead Grill feels like it was produced from the concept down, instead of its concept emerging from passionate planning.
The feeling continues when the food arrives, which amounts to something of a sad surprise because the chef of record at Farmstead Grill is Galen Sampson. The food at his now-closed Dogwood Restaurant in Hampden was, if nothing else, all about passion and originality and feeling.
You keep waiting for something engaging to show up on Farmstead Grill's pretty dinner plates, which are emblazoned with the restaurant's logo, a white-and-orange chicken head in an olive green circle.
Dinner at Farmstead Grill delivers neither the interest of chef-driven cuisine nor the direct, earthy pleasure of simply prepared farm-to-table food.
Much is underseasoned; some things taste weird. Among the entrees, the slow-roasted, honey-glazed chicken breast was pale and barely salted. A crunchy fennel slaw and flavorful dirty rice weren't enough to redeem a cornmeal-crusted wild Virginia catfish, which was moist but had the looks and flavor of a packaged product and was accompanied by an off-tasting, acrid red pepper remoulade. The best of the entrees was a brisket, which was very tender, with some nice crackling bits along the apricot horseradish-glazed edges.
Appetizers, snacks and salads fare better. They are mostly farm-to-table staples like a salad of kale and radishes, which had an assertively tart horseradish dressing; a plate of smoked bluefish, which needed more seasoning; and a not-bad soup made from sweet potatoes and carrots, flavored with cardamom and ginger.
Among the starters, the best was a roasted head of sweet garlic, served very prettily with olive oil, herbs, balsamic vinegar and toast. The worst was the Carolina shrimp and grits, which looked and tasted as though the shrimp had been tossed onto the plate at the last second. Right in the middle was an open-face spinach-basil ricotta tart, topped with roasted cherry tomatoes. This one was pretty but just a bit bland.
Desserts such as a chocolate layer cake with sea salt caramel ice cream and a berry cobbler sound better than they ended up tasting.
I think Farmstead Grill has good intentions. One of the restaurant's stated missions is to make locally sourced cuisine "everyday affordable." In other words, a meal at your local farm-to-table dining restaurant doesn't have to be a major rite of passage. It can just be, you know, dinner.
Even so, if you name yourself Farmstead Grill and talk on the menu about your sourcing principles, then you maybe don't want to have Miller High Life and Miller Lite among the 11 bottled beers on your menu. It makes diners' heads hurt.
Not helping matters are a too-sweet cocktail and a generic wine list that doesn't seem attached to either the restaurant's stated mission or its menu.
The danger with making things approachable is that it ends up feeling patronizing, or even condescending. The staff ends up losing interest, or moving on. When we visited, they were hanging in there.
I'd much rather have seen Farmstead Grill come out swinging.
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 3721 Boston St., The Shops at Canton Crossing
Contact: 410-762-2100, farmsteadgrill.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$14 ; entrees: $18-$26
Food: Contemporary American food
Service: Pleasant and accommodating
Parking: Free parking on the shopping center's lot.
Children: A children's menu is available on request.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in most dining areas. There are three televisions in the bar with their volume turned off.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4 ; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]