As food trends go, farm-to-table shouldn’t ever fall out of favor.
Using fresh and local food to build a menu is doable nearly anywhere, and in northern Indiana and southern Michigan, the options are actually pretty good.
Earlier this year, Kurt Janowsky took over the former Tilted Kilt property in Granger and opened Rocky River Tap & Table, a slick restaurant with chalkboards showing where the food comes from.
Mornings with crunchy frost and lake-effect snow will cut down on what’s available this time of year, yet there’s always northern Indiana duck, chicken and pork.
But isn’t most of our food supposed to be coming from farms? You don’t want all your seafood to be farm-raised, but the vegetables, fruits and livestock should be something that was raised there, right?
The question is where there is. Is it a feedlot in Colorado? Is it a massive field in southern California? Or is it a place where our neighbor grows the most amazing greens you’ve tasted?
Farm-to-table eating capitalizes on the latter and the number of chefs or restaurant owners who tout local, fresh ingredients should only continue to grow.
The trick is getting customers to understand how ordering food purchased from a local farmer may cost a bit more than the industrialized ingredients they replaced. Telling a diner about the farm where the kale comes from could be pretentious if not done with care, but not telling the story means you don’t separate it from the places that aren’t taking the care to buy local.
Which brings us to Rocky River, a restaurant that’s been busy since opening in July.
Janowsky said you need a hook in the restaurant business, and farm-to-table is it for Rocky River.
Janowsky said it “started out with a bang” and then leveled off, but business is climbing again. The restaurant is serving 8,000 to 10,000 meals a month, which is strong, he said.
“It’s going pretty well,” he said.
With sales of that scale, there’s not much for Janowsky to complain about.
He demands excellence and has high expectations, and he knows how hard it is to replicate the experience for diners time and time again.
I’ve had some really good food at Rocky River. I’ve heard a lot of other people gush about the place, talk about how much fun they had and how many times they’ve been there.
Yet others haven’t grasped what Rocky River is about. A reader told me Thursday he wouldn’t go back.
When I explained it was farm-to-table, that it used local ingredients and the prices are in line with that, he said he’d give it another chance.
The chalkboards in the restaurant show the sources of ingredients, but the menu doesn’t do it except for the beers. So then it falls to the staff, particularly the servers, to tell the story of the concept, the ingredients and the dishes. Janowsky said the regulars don’t always want or need to hear the story repeatedly after six months.
The restaurant’s many regulars may not need to hear the story, but others do. Call me a food geek, but I want to know whether the duck comes from Culver or Maple Leaf.
Rocky River has a strong new menu, which is the work of Jason Kuszczynski, who was the sous chef at Cafe Navarre, and Ryan Shriver.
The pastry-wrapped brie with candied nuts, apricot jam and beer caramel ($10) is fun and a nice take on a home party dish. The way vegetables are being used in the roast, stack and salads is laudable even as winter takes hold. The pan-fried walleye is nicely prepared.
The dinner menu is balanced nicely between salads, sandwiches, large plates and pasta.
The range of beer and wines is impressive and the cocktails put together with Jay Fields of Indiana Wholesale Wine & Liquor Co. add fun new twists to classics. Pterodactyl Milk made with bourbon, bitters and New Holland Dragon’s Milk Stout syrup is a glorious glass of flavor, though I’m not sure why one came to our table with crushed ice and another with a large cube.
Every restaurant has growing pains and Rocky River is no different, according to Janowsky. He’s made adjustments along the way to continue to make it better.
Rocky River is like a teenage boy. There are times when it’s slick and polished and you’re impressed with and proud of what it’s becoming. There are other times when something slips and you’re reminded that youth is still a factor.
In this economy, finding good servers and staff is difficult, but Janowsky has been pretty good at that and a getting the staff to consistently talk up the local ingredients will help it compete not only against Corndance Tavern and Evil Czech Brewery, who are also using farm-to-table concepts, but also against the chains that don’t buy local.
“There’s still plenty of people who would rather eat at a local place than a chain,” Janowsky said.
He’s right. It’s his job to dial in the details. He’s doing that and I look forward to my next visit to Rocky River.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
If you go
Rocky River Tap & Table
1032 E. University Drive, Granger, 574-272-5458
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 to midnight Friday and Saturday, 11 to 9 Sunday
Details: No smoking, credit cards accepted, handicapped accessible