At The Mainland Inn, Dinner Is an Organic Process


Whether you think of it as an ethos, a business plan, a marketing ploy or some combination of the three, there is no disputing that the farm-to-table concept — which has seen restaurants of all denominations commit to buying as much local, sustainably produced comestibles as their clientele will support — continues to pick up a momentum that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

Chipotle has become one of the most admired, successful companies in America in part by serving humanely raised meats from respected producers like Bell & Evans and Niman Ranch; newer fast-casual chains like B. Good base part of their appeal on the local farms and bakeries supplying them; and even the 800-pound gorilla, McDonald’s, just publicly committed to using only chickens raised without antibiotics within the next two years.

And there is nothing wrong with that — on the contrary, in a time when hospitals across the country are reporting a disturbing rise in cases of patients testing positive for so-called “superbug” bacteria — including eight cases at Jefferson Hospital — any reduction in antibiotic-treated food is welcome news. But in an era when restaurateurs leave space on their menus to give shout-outs to their local suppliers and their green bona fides, the question must be asked: What is the next step in the evolution of this philosophy and practice that has benefited farmers, restaurateurs, diners and the environment alike?

If a recent experience at Mainland Inn is any indication, the answer leads in the direction of vertical integration. Expanding on the efforts of Jose Garces, who supplies his restaurants with produce from his own Luna Farm in Bucks County, and Wyebrook Farm’s lauded “table-to-farm” en plein air dinners featuring chef-prepared interpretations of the season’s bounty in the Honey Brook-located operation, this new restaurant in an old building has a focus unlike any other in the area.

Located just a few minutes off of the Lansdale exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Mainland Inn’s circa-1700s building has been completely renovated and updated since its 2013 foreclosure purchase by Sloan Six, the woman responsible for saving a 110-acre tract of land from real estate developers six years earlier and turning it into Quarry Hill Farm. Six’s plan: to use the farm to supply the restaurant with everything from fruits and vegetables to poultry and other meats.

To be sure, there are nods to the past throughout the inn, including reclaimed wood floors, an exposed fieldstone wall in the lower level bar area, an absolutely stunning bar from the early 20th century — complete with small taps that belie its probable origin in an area “tappie” — now used as a server station, and even refinished captain’s chairs from the inn’s previous run, which ended almost five years ago.

Similarly, the kitchen, led by chef Ezra Duker, acknowledges numerous culinary heritages throughout the menu.

The 32-year-old Duker, who attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, worked at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the United States and the world, including stints at London’s Orrery, Morimoto Napa and The French Laundry, before returning to the area to take the reins at the inn. Here, he has managed to establish a menu that is not only local and sustainably driven, but all-organic, from the spices to the breads, soup to pine nut frozen yogurt.

While a late-winter meal lacked the surfeit of locally grown produce that will be regularly featured come the warmer months, the evening’s menu was still studded with offerings from Quarry Hill and other farms. This included the pickled egg that was the star of one of the relishes — Duker’s pickled and fermented bites designed to stimulate appetites. As our engaging and informed server, Shay, explained, the egg — pickled, dusted with pastrami spices and nestled into caraway-perfumed ribbons of red cabbage — had been gathered from Quarry Hill chickens earlier that day. Not hard to do, considering the farm easily satisfies the “100-mile” requirement many locavores prize when sourcing their ingredients — it’s only a mile and a half up the road from the inn. Other relishes include a bracing take on piccalilli, with a tumble of crisp-tender pickled root vegetables, each vinegary bite competing for identification; and a ruby-tinged little bowl of beets, globules of salmon roe and crème fraiche clamoring to be scooped up with razor-thin toasts.

As with the egg, Duker clearly has fun reworking the Jewish flavors of his youth into new compositions that serve as both homage and departure point. A soup of brisket, pumpkin, carrot and semolina dumplings, with a spiced beef broth poured tableside, was like nothing so much as a hybrid of tsimmes and pho. And another appetizer not only starred duck liver luxuriating in a double fat bonus of gribenes and schmaltz, but was strewn with silky pearl onions and the ancient grain freekeh doing its best impersonation of kasha.

Duker’s cross-cultural blending works equally well when he moves beyond Ashkenazic traditions as well. One of the most successful dishes of the night, a large bowl of potato gnocchi with smoked sunchokes and kale, was brought together by a poached egg that, when gently prodded, merged with a generous infusion of miso to create an umami bomb of sauce.

As befitting March in Pennsylvania, there was only one salad on the menu. The young lettuces didn’t come from Quarry Hill — no greenhouses are set up yet, according to Evan Oxenfeldt, the general manager who came over from R2L, Daniel Stern’s Liberty Place aerie in Center City — but were hardy enough to stand their own against a tangle of shaved root vegetables glossed with apricots and a headily bitter almond vinaigrette.

Another indicator of Duker’s commitment to his sustainable mission: the frankly unusual sight of a restaurant of this caliber and price point serving only one fish entrée. Sourcing sustainable and responsibly caught fish has become increasingly difficult, especially in the colder months. The Virginia-caught black bass had no problem in the spotlight, though: two ivory fillets were napped by a brown butter goosed with a citrus twang from the blood orange segments that accompanied the fish.

If you go to the Mainland Inn with three or more people, be sure to get one of the roasts. On the night we were there, two were offered, one of them titled simply, “beef.” Don’t be dissuaded by the lack of description.

What appeared was more than enough for the two to three people the menu says a roast can feed. Luxuriating across the expanse of a wooden carving board was a delicious tutorial in nose-to-tail cuisine, including roasted ribeye, smoked short rib, braised shank, grilled heart, marrow bone, tongue done corned beef-style and cottage pie with trimmings. Seven different preparations, all done expertly, and with an admirable adherence to the increasingly popular style of butchery that has the restaurant buying whole steers in order to use every part of the animal at some point.

Duker brought the inn’s pastry chef, Sandy Tran, from Morimoto Napa, and she works wonders here with everything from the addictively salty-sweet oblong dinner rolls to a short-but-sweet roster of desserts. With only four options, decisions are easy to make, especially when there are choices like a hot fudge sundae with scoops of dark chocolate, cookie dough and winter spice ice creams drizzled with caramel, hazelnuts and whipped cream. The table favorite was an eye-catching tartelette that had a layer of gelee-like beet candy hiding beneath a cloud of goat cheese cream and accompanied by little snowdrops of mint meringue and a quenelle of that tartly earthy pine nut yogurt.

The Mainland Inn is one of those rare places that abides by its vision no matter how small or large the detail. The tables? Handmade by Donald Fine Furniture in Chester Springs. The amazing assortment of earthenware used to present everything from the relishes to the outstanding coffee roasted by Harleysville’s One Village Roasters? Crafted by Black Sheep Pottery in Skippack. The wines and beers are all organic and biodynamic — although, sadly, with these criteria, no local breweries are represented — and there is even a hard-to-find selection of organically sourced spirits.

Driving through yet another snowy weekend, we were looking forward to the arrival of spring already; after tasting the promise of what the staff of the Mainland Inn will be able to do once Quarry Hill Farm begins supplying them with heirloom produce and meats, we’re even hungrier for its arrival.

17 Mainland Rd., Harleysville; 484-704-2600

Dinner for two: around $200 with drinks


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