The dining room and lounge area meld together at City Farmhouse Kitchen & Bar. The new restaurant inside the Sheraton at Sable Oaks opened over the summer. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

City Farmhouse Kitchen & Bar is a decent South Portland restaurant whose success or failure does not depend on your business. That’s because you’re probably not its target customer.

I say “probably” because there is a vanishingly tiny chance that you are a business traveler, a member of a flight crew on an overnight stopover from the Jetport, or someone who lives or works near the Sheraton Portland Hotel on Sable Oaks Drive.

“Let me get this right,” my Lyft driver asked me last week. “You live in Portland, but you’re going to a hotel near the Maine Mall for dinner?” When I confirmed, he shook his head and gently tried to talk me down from what he clearly considered to be a disastrous choice. “Listen, there’s a lot of good stuff in Portland. Are you sure?” Then, as we pulled up to the newly renovated former Marriott hotel, he backtracked, but just a bit. “Oooh,” he exclaimed. “It looks nicer than I expected in there.”

Once a generically corporate hotel restaurant/bar called Fire & Water, City Farmhouse has been renovated to evoke what executive chef Chris Merriam calls “a barn feel,” with an enormous colorized photo of a tractor, reclaimed wood, mixed-texture panels of dried moss and grasses, and a host station made from a gnarly tangle of barbed stump roots. These rustic elements are offset by the linearity and edges of manufactured materials like poured concrete, tempered glass and steel.

“The thought behind it is a fusion,” Merriam said. “It’s city girl meets farm boy, then (she) goes back to the farm and brings that city appeal with her.”

But often, the two ideas run parallel without ever connecting. Much of the dining room, with its juxtaposition of plaid tweed upholstery and rough boards against clinical white subway tile, feels mismatched – like a Rocky Mountain ski chalet built inside a hospital bathroom.

The Asian pear martini is among the hit-or-miss cocktails at City Farmhouse Kitchen & Bar. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cocktails on the rambling beverage menu are also a bit haphazard. Some, like the Dirty Rotten Scoundrel ($11), a savory, caper-sprinkled riff on a dirty martini, and the incendiary (both in terms of spice and flammability) Maine-Ga-Rita Shine ($11), showcase the bar staff’s skills with a Boston shaker. On the other hand, a trio of ginger-based cocktails – the Daisy Duke Mai Tai ($11), floral Farmhouse Elders ($11) and Asian pear martini ($13) – barely qualify as alcoholic and seem to have nothing to do with the menu or setting. They, like the syrupy Smoked Old Fashioned ($12), are also far too sweet.

Food at the casual, New American restaurant often does a better job of bridging contemporary and traditional rural foodways, despite a couple of outright bombs like the distributor-sourced chocolate “popover” that turns out to be nothing more than a misidentified lava cake baked until stodgy and plated with a scoop of sticky vanilla gelato and a smear of torched marshmallow. Or deep-fried Brussels sprouts ($11) tossed with roasted root vegetables, crunchy candied walnuts and drowned in enough maple syrup to qualify them for a spot on the dessert menu.

Italian-inspired dishes are, by and large, much stronger. While the dough for the stone-hearth pizzas isn’t made in-house, pies are rolled out and baked to-order, producing light, blistered crusts that work well with the kitchen’s homemade pomodoro sauce. That’s especially true of the roasted-tomato-topped smoky tomato pie ($13), which on my second visit to City Farmhouse, my server set down with a flourish as she proclaimed, “You’re lucky you ordered this. This and the pasta are my favorite things on the menu.”

I had been lucky enough on my prior visit to sample the pasta and knew she was onto something. My guest and I devoured our half-order of the fresh (from frozen) garganelli tossed in a cream-fortified, veal-and-beef ragu that came topped with a ball of burrata that wept cream and tendrils of cheese as it warmed through ($12 half/$21 full).

Farmers garganelli, fresh pasta in a ragu topped with burrata, is a highlight of the food menu at City Farmhouse Kitchen & Bar. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The bruschetta-esque triptych of Farmers toasts ($12) are also solid, if portioned a little stingily for the price. Both the roasted red pepper with olive oil and whipped ricotta, and the sautéed wild mushrooms with burrata, white balsamic and thyme are appealing enough, but the best of the bunch is the tomato with basil, garlic and balsamic vinegar “pearls” created in the kitchen’s spherificator. It reminded me of a molecular gastronomy remix of Spanish pan con tomate.

Not all the kitchen’s best dishes trace their roots back to Italy. The French-cut chicken ($23) is a classic American dish: juicy, skin-on roasted breast and drumette nestled into a generous mound of frothy, whipped sweet potato puree and plated alongside a tiny hillock of tender carrots and turnips. But the real star of the dish is an apple chutney that whispers in steamy curls of fragrant star anise and cinnamon.

And no modern American menu would be complete without a burger. City Farmhouse offers four, all featuring hefty, beautifully grilled Angus-and-chuck patties and toasted brioche buns. “Go for the Homestead,” my enthusiastic server urged, pointing with her pen to its location on my menu. “It has an egg on it. Eggs are the way to my heart.” Mine, too.

It, like the pizza before, turns out to have been a wise selection. The runny, sunny-side-up egg (griddled in a ring mold to retain its size and shape) lends the Homestead ($16) a breakfast-like quality that gets a boost from a muscular tranche of applewood-smoked bacon.

On my first visit, at an adjacent table, six prosperous-appearing bachelorette-party attendees in town from suburban New Jersey ordered a few Homesteads of their own, adding several Ketel One-fueled Cosmopolitans ($12) for good measure. “You’re such a Carrie Bradshaw,” one said to the bride as drinks arrived. “Sure, but she wouldn’t eat a burger like that,” the bride responded. “Neither would I normally. But I’m in a random hotel, and that guy’s (i.e. mine) smells so good. Forget Carrie Bradshaw.”

I couldn’t help but wonder: In a region with so many restaurants, isn’t there room for just one designed mostly for tourists?

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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