Summer in Howard County means just-picked corn, juicy peaches, fresh-from-the-fields Swiss chard and other locally grown ingredients. Christopher Lewis, chef at the Iron Bridge Wine Company, builds his menus around this bounty, keeping the dishes simple so the freshness of the ingredients can shine.
His ingredients, including a whole pig he plans to roast, come from local farms including Clark's, which is right across Route 108 from the restaurant, and Discovery Farm in Glenelg, where he grows many of his own vegetables.
In the past few years, the food world has developed an increasing fondness for locally grown fare, which many believe is fresher, tastier, more beneficial to local farmers and economies, and better for the environment since it doesn't travel far. But the concept of local sourcing is hardly new to local chefs and restaurant owners, or to Howard County Tourism & Promotion, which assigned a "Farm-2-Table" theme to its first summer Restaurant Week five years ago.
The tourism office organizes Restaurant Weeks twice a year, with an international theme in winter and farm-to-table in summer, said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism & Promotion.
"We sat there and said, 'What do we have in our backyard?' " she recalled. The answer was farms, and the fresh food they produce.
During the summer Restaurant Weeks, which this year runs July 18 through Aug. 6, chefs are encouraged to use local ingredients as often as they can, Bonacci said. And "if they can name the local source on the menu, "that's a win-win-win," for the restaurant, the farm and the customer, she said. During the promotion, restaurants offer fixed-price deals between $10.12 to $40.12.
This year's event will begin with the county's third annual "Film Feastival," scheduled for July 17 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Clark's, with a screening of the documentary "American Meat," which examines both industrial meat production and smaller-scale meat sources. Food will be available for purchase, and local farmers, restaurant owners, chefs and other Howard County food people will be there. The $5 admission price benefits families in need, who will receive coupons for fruits and vegetables at county farmers' markets.
This year, the Farm-2-Table event will take place over 20 days, up from two weeks in the past, Bonacci said. As in past years, about 20 restaurants have signed up. Some, like Iron Bridge, have participated since the beginning, while others are new this year, including El Hidalgo in Elkridge and Baldwin's Station, which is participating even though it is in Carroll County.
Farms that supply local restaurants are also being highlighted. Restaurant Weeks has been instrumental in bringing the growers and the preparers together. Since Restaurant Weeks three years ago, for example, Woodcamp Farm has been supplying beef to Bistro Blanc, said Jason Hoogh, whose family has been farming the 60-acre Mount Airy property since 1948.
"I also take them honey and eggs," he said. "We've stuck with them a pretty long time now. It's been good. I like working with them."
The Town Grill, which opened in a Citgo station in Lisbon 2007, will be participating for a third year, said owner Howard Lasky.
"We do only summertime," he said. "We're big on the farm-to-table movement. We're out here surrounded by farms."
Because it is in such a rural area in the far west of the county, many in Howard County don't know about Town Grill, Lasky said. Restaurant Weeks brings in new customers.
The restaurant, really a take-out barbecue joint with a few tables, gets meat from the Mount Airy Locker, he said. Prices are already low, but Town Grill will offer platters and other specials to give customers better-than-usual deals during Restaurant Week, he said.
For Lasky and other restaurant-owners, the Restaurant Weeks promotion is good for business.
"For that short period, everyone is focused on going out and trying new things," Iron Bridge owner Steve Wecker said.
For Restaurant Week, Iron Bridge is offering a two-course $15 lunch. For dinner, customers can choose any appetizer, entree and dessert on the menu for $35.
"We participate twice a year, every year," said Brennan McCoy, manager of Victoria Gastro Pub. Owners Randy and Mary Marriner grow produce and herbs for the restaurant, including tomatoes and basil that went into a recent soup, Randy said.
For Restaurant Week, Victoria will offer fixed-price lunch and dinner menus. But the focus on locally grown ingredients won't change.
"That's a philosophy we try to follow all the time, when we can," he said. "We try to do as much sustainable, local stuff that we can."
For a list of participating restaurants, go to http://www.visithowardcounty.com/howard-county-restaurant-weeks.