“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
-Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
Pollan put forth these words as advice on how to eat sensibly (for those on a diet), but on a larger scale, these words also provide guidance on how to eat consciously. As busy people living busy lives in an urban city, we tend to lose touch with where our food comes from. So, to “eat food,” meaning to eat real food, can help bridge this gap. Eating unprocessed ingredients such as fresh produce, naturally raised meat, and whole grains can bring us more awareness and appreciation of where and how that food was produced.
The “not too much” part is the hardest one for all of us, and it means slowing down. Eating on the run or while watching TV is a mindless act that disconnects you from your food, and tends lead to overeating. If again, we have real food in front of us, we can begin to truly value flavor more than convenience or cost, and eat to a point of satisfaction rather than being stuffed.
Eating mostly plants can be a challenge in many countries, including the U.S. and many Asian countries, where meat protein is a primary source of energy, and often, a sign of status and wealth. But there are many agricultural, ecological, and political implications to commercial meat production that we don’t think about when we bite into that burger. Eating more plants, in the long run, is less taxing on the system, and more importantly, on our bodies.
Far be it from me to preach eating according to any set of rules. I often, and happily do, break any one or combination of these 3 rules when I make food decisions. Who doesn’t like a corn dog or an Oreo every now and then? But, as Pollan also suggests, to eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake can afford great satisfaction, compared to the fleeting pleasures of eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world, which is to say eating in ignorance.
When I heard there was a restaurant in Tokyo serving up farm-fresh vegetables, I knew I had to go experience this player in the farm-to-table movement, which I believe is still nascent in Tokyo as a whole, but will evolve quickly. Mr. S was surely not skipping and hopping out the door like I, who was beaming at the thought of plates and plates of kale and broccoli. I’ve been known to down a whole platter of veg as quickly as he can eat a burger.
Located on a quiet side street near Yoyogi Uehara station by the park, We Are The Farm looks like more of a casual café than a pioneer of natural, organic, and sustainable cooking. WATF’s vegetables come primarily from its own farm in Chiba, as well as sourced from other local farmers and purveyors. So, the globally-inspired, seasonal menu can change daily depending on the climate and harvest. In this sense, the restaurant’s focus is more on freshness, quality, and flavor, rather than on shelf life.
Owner Furumori Keisuke is an unlikely looking farmer, radiating with youth, and dressed in a crisp white button down. But he is a man worn wise in the manner of one who has been raised close to the land, with fresh soil under his finger nails. He was a fountain of knowledge, as he explained the vegetables in each dish to us through the help of his brother, one of his staff.
WATF restaurant and farm are proudly founded on several key principles: (1) only naturally produced vegetables, without use of pesticides or fertilizers, are grown and used; (2) vegetables are grown open air (i.e., not in a greenhouse); (3) only vegetables in season are used; (4) vegetables picked the same day are used; and (5) heirloom varieties of vegetables are grown and used (rather than those from F1 generation seeds). The staff’s unwavering adherence to these practices is manifest in the quality and integrity of the dishes that emerge from the WATF kitchen. Below is a menu from our dinner in early May:
Up first, we tried the “Mozzarella Cheese with World’s Best Tomato and Basil.” (¥1350, or $12.55) The Italian flag, manifested in edible form, arrived on a pristine white canvas of a plate. Minimally plated, the dish showcased a generous portion of hand-formed mozzarella perched atop a light tomato confit of sorts, and pesto with olive oil.
The dish would do better being called World’s Best Burrata, Tomato, and Basil, as this was some of the best tomato-mozz-basil combo I’ve had. The mozzarella gave way to a creamy, milky center that was balanced out by the concentrated sweetness and brightness of the tomatoes. With a dish of this quality, we easily overlooked the fact the mozz was an import from Italy.
Next was the “Arugula Salad with Bacon and Mustard Dressing,” (¥980, or $8.15) which was served family style. Three simple elements–arugula, thick-cut bacon, and pickled mustard seeds–the marriage of which became a perfect union of flavors. The arugula, peppery and crisp, paired beautifully with the smoky bacon (which was more like a pastrami) that had a crust of black pepper. Pickled mustard seeds are incredibly addictive to eat–each seed is like a flavor burst of yellow mustard in your mouth.
On a whim, Mr. S ordered the “Baked Turnip with Additive Free Miso,” (¥730, or $6.08), an unlikely selection for someone whose most beloved root veg is the starchy potato, and who does not enjoy miso soup. No regrets here. The presentation was simple and rustic–a medium sized turnip, quartered and nestled on a large dollop of miso the consistency of a jam.
The turnip, an heirloom variety from Miyama in Kyoto prefecture, is quite literally a winner, having won a prestigious turnip contest there for at least the past 10 years in a row. Devoid of any turnip judging experience whatsoever, I, at the very least, tasted a strong earthiness that mellowed out into a delicate, sweet finish. The texture was tender and surprisingly juicy, like a pear.
The best discovery of the entire evening had to be this “additive free miso,” which we ventured to guess is a natural miso, made from organic soybeans. Soy and sugar are mixed with the chunky miso (from Sendai in Miyagi prefecture) to yield a jammy sauce that is deeply complex with strong umami, salty, and sweet flavors. Reminded me very much of da jiang soybean sauce from Chinese Dong Bei cuisine. If WATF will pleeeeeease bottle this sauce for sale because I will buy you out. . . Dip a crusty old shoe in this and it would be frickin’ delicious.
As we waited for the next dish to arrive, our server dropped by with 2 small wooden cups of a pureed stuff. “We got too many sweet potatoes yesterday, so here is a sweet potato soup while you wait,” our server said. Hell yeah, free soup! The concoction was simple–thick, liquefied sweet potatoes with not a hint of anything else. It was rich in a vegetal kind of way, without being too heavy, not to mention sweet and creamy.
I had heard that WATF is known for their grilled vegetables, and a signature dish of theirs is the platter of grilled and roasted veg–whatever is fresh that day. On the English menu, it’s titled: “Today’s Harvest: Grilled Bomber Bagna Cauda,” which makes little sense, but don’t let this deter you from ordering what you will discover to be a vegetable lover’s wet dream. We only ordered the half-portion (¥1800, or $15), but what arrived was enough to feed a family of Hobbits for an entire winter. The wild cornucopia-like presentation belies a well-executed, creative, and whimsical arrangement. The team at WATF thought this dish through much like a cheesemonger would in arranging a cheeseplate. They considered numerous elements: variety (a variety of root vegetables and greens), color, texture, varying height in the presentation, and pairings (sauces).
From top left, clockwise: Shredded kale (raw) with a sesame dressing, grilled carrot, grilled broccolini, turnips (raw), Oushu onion (baked), miso sauce, salt, baked Miyami turnip, baked taro, roasted sweet potato, and baked taro again. Cream sauce (top) is served as a dipping sauce, but really isn’t necessary at all.
Each veg was delicious, but some standouts were the raw turnips, the baked onion, taro and sweet potato. The turnips, having a pure turnip flavor, were tender and crisp, edible from the greens to the whites.
Grown in Oushu (Iwate prefecture), the onion boasts a sweetness that is even more concentrated after baking low-and-slow for 90 minutes. The result is a caramelized exterior with steamed inner layers that are so tender they fall away from each other.
The taro and sweet potato, roasted in the skin, are earthy–the taro having a mildly sticky texture while the sweet potato a creamy one.
For the main dishes, the focus of the menu shifts from vegetables to meat. Duck, chicken, pork, wagyu beef, and even foie gras are the star players here. We ordered the “Grilled Chicken: 63°C Vacuum Packed Pouch Cooking” (¥2150, or $17.90), which we presume is a chicken cooked sous-vide and then flash-grilled over high heat right before serving.
The chicken is an organic, free-range variety from Daisen in Tottori prefecture, which is an area well known for their excellent chickens that taste, well . . . like chicken! Indeed, the sous vide process, slow cooking the chicken in its own juices at a low temp, produces a meat that is evenly cooked and tender throughout, while the skin is more dry from the grill’s high heat. Simple is best–the chicken is served plain, with just the proper amount of salt and black pepper.
Of the 3 choices from the Rice and Bread menu section–toasted bread, garlic rice, and kale friend rice–we ordered the garlic rice (¥980, or $8.15) which was a fried short grain sticky rice with chunks of sweet, toasted garlic throughout. The dish was heavy on soy, which enhanced the umami factor, and the addition of coarsely ground black pepper gave way to a nice aromatic element as well. Overall, this dish could stand on its own as a main dish because it is so well seasoned.
As a drink, the Raw Ginger Moscow Mule (¥900, or $7.40) had a mellow sweetness and spiciness, with thick slices of fresh ginger in the glass. At the expense of sounding trite, this reminded me of a cool breeze on a warm summer night–refreshing and welcome beyond words. Highly recommended.
So, should you go eat consciously (and deliciously) at WATF? Absolutely. Because think about it, this whole farm-to-table thing is much more than just that. Rather, it is first, farm-to-kitchen (i.e., the sourcing of ingredients), and then kitchen-to-table (i.e., the execution by someone who understands those ingredients). Here, the kitchen at WATF has a deep appreciation for flavor, freshness, and seasonality, and all this is translated into the dishes with an elegance that is impossible to miss. Doing good for the environment and for our taste buds, We Are The Farm is well worth the visit.
We Are The Farm, 3-24-10 Nishihara, Shibuya, Tokyo