Farm-to-table dining has become so mainstream that Levi's is collaborating on a T-shirt collection with Alice Waters, the gastronomic icon who pioneered the movement when she founded Berkeley's legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in 1971.
These days, big cities like New York and Chicago are choked with farm-to-table restaurants that promote Waters' mantra: Fresh! Local! Organic! Farmers are given shoutouts on menus as though they are superstars. ("We only get our produce from Dungaree Bob.") Customers can be overheard quibbling about the merits of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef. ("It tastes... grassier.") Yet here in South Florida, the movement is — depending on your perspective — either just gaining traction or a luxury for lucky bastards spared from worrying about bills, decreased home value, or job security.
Sure, South Florida embraced its first Whole Foods way back in 2001. But restaurants specializing in local, organic eats have been slow to take hold, with only Cafe Boulud , Market 17, and Max's Harvest operating with a hardcore farm-to-table ethos. Delray Beach's DIG — which stands for Doing It Green — followed in June.
In its former life, the space where DIG resides was home to Greenfield's on Atlantic, a five-course concept catering to early birds. Its time had passed, owner Robert Greenfield decided. Inspired by farm-to-table dining outside of South Florida, Greenfield approached Joey Giannuzzi — owner of the Green Gourmet market and one of the few local militants of the movement — about partnering for DIG. Greenfield said he intended for DIG to "lead the way" in "the revolution" of how we eat.
But operating an authentic farm-to-table eatery is no simple task. It takes tremendous effort just to procure ingredients. Whereas bigger cities have farmers' markets that sell only organic produce and a slew of distributors specializing in artisan ingredients, that's not the case here. As a result, the cost difference in sourcing ingredients is staggering, and the time it can take is maddening. "I spend hours on the phone with each of my purveyors — individual farmers — every day," said Giannuzzi.
In fact, the strain led to Giannuzzi's breaking off his partnership with Greenfield in August, just two months after opening. No bad blood; Giannuzzi just found it too difficult to stay on at DIG while continuing to run the Green Gourmet.
A friend and I first visited DIG in the wake of this shuffle. The restaurant is located on Atlantic Avenue, Delray's main drag — but west of I-95 rather than in the restaurant-dense downtown stretch. Foodies might find it an odd choice, but Giannuzzi told me later that the location was initially a draw for him. "I know the area very well," he said. "I know the patterns here. And I know what people here like to eat."
Translation: This area caters to retirees.
Confirmation? A salad bar.
In conversation, Greenfield proudly described the salad bar as a selling point, pointing out that it is stocked with all-organic greens, seasonal produce, tabbouleh, and hummus.
But its physical presence — a formidable wooden box — essentially splits the room in two. DIG, with its dim lighting and hotel-ballroom chairs, is low on ambiance to begin with, and the fact that the salad bar looks like a casket doesn't help. Having ingredients languish in bins detracts from the fresh, artisanal, and made-to-order dishes at the heart of farm-to-table dining.
In any case, on one side of this salad bar sit retirees who are here for the $13 soup-and-salad special. On the other side sit those who have come for the concept. A lanky guy in business-casual duds tends to his lady on what appears to be a second date. A pair of women catch up at the bar.
There are some cool elements: Plate-glass windows lend a view of the vegetable garden on the lawn. Organic booze is lined up on shelves. But I couldn't shake the feeling that we were dining in a Friendly's.
Thankfully, in the kitchen was chef Wilson Wieggel, a dark-haired Swedish Adonis who spent the past two years in New Mexico working at Old House restaurant in the El Dorado Hotel — Santa Fe's Best New Restaurant of 2008, according to Zagat. He had known Giannuzzi from years working together at five different Burt Rapoport restaurants and took over DIG's kitchen July 8.
It was Wieggel I had to thank for some beautiful dishes. Take the eggplant rollatini ($9), listed as a small bite. Four cigar-sized rolls of grilled eggplant with crisped edges coddled an herbed goat-cheese filling. They were presented on a plate dressed with olive oil and purple pesto that's made with basil from the garden outside. A lovely chicken satay ($9) came with charred exterior, and a umami marinade was presented on a bed of bright-green seaweed.
East meets Southwest tuna ($13) was, likewise, a pretty plate. Seared rare and served with avocado, the medallions looked bright but tasted wan. "I never thought I'd say a fish was undersalted," said my friend.
On the menu, the mains are divided into three sections: pasture, farm, and water. I steered toward the farm section for vegetable lasagna ($14), delicate layers of eggplant, squash, peppers, yams, and portobellos. Heirloom pork, combined with creative accompaniments, makes the Iowa-based, Eden Farms center-cut pork chop ($22) a destination dish. The chop — from a Berkshire breed coveted for its marbling and flavor — came flanked by mashed yams and vegetables. A complex chili sauce is a souvenir from Weiggel's tenure in Santa Fe.
As the case was with my tuna, my fish entrées were disappointing. Diver scallops ($24) were still translucent and offered bleachy past-prime aftertaste. Lump crab cakes were mostly filling and not enough crab ($24) and saddled with a heap of mashed potatoes, a redundancy.
The seafood, sourced from Florida's Finest, might be coming in fresh, but if it's not moving, it's not going to stay that way. And despite the name, the fish isn't necessarily local. "It's pretty tough to get local fish," Wieggel told me later. "It's really an issue." Although fish on the menu comes from Vietnam (tuna) and Idaho (trout), seafood on the special board is local and sustainable. "It's really been a bit of a learning curve," he said.
Which brings me to the sides. Oh, the sides. Raisin caper cauliflower ($6) was addictive, roasted and seasoned with nutmeg and clove. A 12-hour slow-roasted tomato ($6) is a hot mess of succulent summer flavor. Ninety-nine percent of DIG's fruits and vegetables come from Global Organics out of Sarasota, but Wieggel says he's working with Farmer Jay — a well-known local farmer in organic circles based in Boca Raton — to source produce from local farmers for the coming fall and winter seasons.
Wieggel has made a few tweaks since Giannuzzi's mid-July departure, primarily by changing the menu to feature more American comfort food classics — such as pigs in a blanket ($10), meatballs ($9), and veggie quesadilla ($10) on the small plates menu — yet adhere to Giannuzzi's recipes that sell, like the vegetable lasagna ($14) and turkey meat loaf ($16).
I tried to go back to sample from this amended menu, but on that attempted third visit, a Tuesday at 8:50 p.m., the manager frowned when I walked in. "The kitchen's closed," she said, although several tables lingered, and guests sat at the bar. "If you hurry, maybe the kitchen can make you an appetizer." When I called the next day to ask her about it, she defended her position: "We close at 9 during the week," she said. "And we hadn't had anyone come in for the whole hour before you."
I have to say, I was taken aback. This is the cutting-edge dining room that's going to lead the South Florida food revolution?
I think the answer is going to be up to Wilson Wieggel. Sure, the vibe at DIG is a little weird, but he's doing his part at the stove. If the new menu plays to his strengths, if farm-to-table keeps gaining traction, and if patrons will pay as fair a price for food as they do for T-shirts from Levi's, DIG just might take root.