Caroline Simmons photo
Editor's note: This is a more detailed review than the one published in the December issue of Richmond magazine.
If you've been to a gourmet coffee/sandwich shop in a farming community, then you have a good idea what the Urban Farmhouse Market & Café looks like. Pickle-washed wood cabinets, simple shelves stocked with trendy gourmet snacks and household needs, and an array of soft, low-slung chairs and couches in addition to wooden farm chairs around simple tables. But this is not the country, it's bustling downtown Richmond. Still, the eatery doesn't manage to look out of place on the brick-lined historic blocks of Shockoe Slip. Huge floor-to-ceiling windows add to the charm, especially when fully opened to let in a cool breeze — on the four or five days a year that Richmond isn't snowed in or suffering under blistering heat.
The menu isn't too different from what you would expect from its rural cousin — high-end coffee drinks, breakfast and lunch sandwiches, hearty soups, and fresh salads. What really caught my attention, on my first breakfast visit, was the price. Nearly $6 for a breakfast sandwich is, for me, a bit much. However, the bacon-and-egg sandwich that came out changed my mind on that point. Instead of a tired old English muffin or soggy toast, this was the size of a panini, and it was even grilled on a panini press, the hearty bread holding in a thick layer of egg topped with bacon. Add the roughly cut apple, pear and orange, and you've got a dish that is definitely more interesting than your normal coffeehouse fare.
Even the rustic look of the plate was interesting. Simply plating the sandwich and the fruit with no garnish and the uneven slices of fruit, it comes off as homey rather then sloppy. The panini press added the perfect crispness to the bread — any harder and the soft egg would tend to squirt out at the first bite — while the local free-range eggs and Virginia bacon brought freshness with a familiar home flavor. The saltiness of the bacon, though, didn't quite overcome the fact that the eggs were a tad underseasoned.
The soups and salads continue the rustic country theme without being predictable. Adding roasted butternut squash to a salad is nice touch, but add white beans to your tomato soup and you've got my attention. Too often, after being told what style of restaurant you're dealing with, you can guess the five or more soups du jour they serve in rotation. That's not the case here. Serve me an Irish Yellow Broth soup (new enough to me that I had to look it up) — chicken stock, onion and vegetable thickened with, of all things, oatmeal — and you've got the attention of my soup fetish.
The lunch and evening sandwiches put the panini press to hard work. Some sandwiches, such as the Virginia Ham Cubano, use local ingredients, while others, such as the Farmer's Grilled Cheese (with Granny Smith apple and New England cheddar), do not. Regardless, all the ingredients are natural or organic, with the majority coming from small, independent sources rather than from over-processed food factories. All that effort shows in the freshness and vibrancy of the flavors, but the rustic nature does create a small problem. While the Cubano translates well to the use of the Virginia products, and the pickle and mustard were spot-on, the inherent unevenness of the café's cutting techniques led to uneven heating, with cold and hot spots in the sandwiches — a problem that was repeated in several dishes. While this style quirk doesn't quite warrant sending a dish back, it does seem to be something to expect with some of the restaurant's sandwiches.
Service is, well, self-serve, although the staffers are a very friendly lot. Pick up your food and drink (there's a small selection of organic beer and wine in addition to the coffees) at one counter, utensils at another, then bus your own table. You don't, however, get left high and dry. One visit found me with my two young boys in tow. Staffers were happy to bring the food to my table without asking while another noticed that my older son had finished his carton of chocolate milk and offered to make him a fresh glass, from scratch. A clear step up from the service at similar café shops.
Open from early morning till mid-evening, Urban Farmhouse is a great place to catch a quick bite or to sit and take advantage of the Wi-Fi — you can even get one of the $6 glasses of wine for $4 during happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. — try the Argentinian Rosé Malbec for a crisp, refreshing drink. Parking in the area can be a bit problematic, but there is a somewhat reasonably priced parking deck behind The Tobacco Company, and the walk is quicker if you take the restored alleyway behind the building rather than walk back out onto Cary Street. Or, if you time it right, snag a free spot just as it becomes legal in front of Siné at 9 a.m. Regardless, a genuinely friendly staff and basic, honest food using only natural and organic ingredients seal the deal for me, making it worth the trip.
1217 E. Cary St., 325-3988
Prices: Breakfast $4.75 to $7; soup $4.50 or $5.50; lunch/dinner salads and sandwiches $7 to $11; cheese plate $12.
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; and 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.