The flavors of France and the distinctly European atmosphere influence the fare at both of Chef Manuel's restaurants
By Susan Frampton
Just a few stops off the North Augusta Greeneway is a plot of land that might easily be mistaken for a slice of rural French farmland. Tiny Pygmy goats stick pink noses through the fence, bleating out their insistence on a quick head rub, and colorful chickens cluck contentedly alongside a bossy rabbit. Cabbage, onions, and Swiss card stand awaiting harvest, rosemary and mint scent the air, and the leaves of fruit and olive trees rustle in the breeze. Welcome to Blue Clay Farm, Chef Manuel Verney-Carron's sustainable community garden at Hammond's Ferry.
The gifted chef started the farm more than a half-dozen years ago, creating raised beds of vegetables, flowers, and herbs within the fenced area just beyond the community's home sites, and a bona fide farm-to-table arrangement for Manuel's Bread Café and The Larder, the two restaurants he owns within the development.
Though he grew up around farming in Lyon, France, he was not a farmer. Chef Manuel admits, “It was a challenge at first – staffing the garden and getting things to grow. But gradually, we built very rich soil using the compost created from the restaurants’ recyclable products.” He points out the garden’s composting area. “We reduced our trash output by nearly 60 percent.” His kitchens also boast strategically placed buckets that collect kitchen refuse to feed the animals.
Manuel’s Bread Café, the more formal of his two Hammond’s Ferry eating establishments, is reminiscent of an intimate French dining spot, replete with small, candle-lit tables, fine wines, and luscious desserts. Though many of the diners walk or cycle from just down the block, the restaurant draws guests from far and wide, and all are greeted as neighbors and friends. One glance at the menu options makes it easy to understand why reservations are recommended for dinner and Sunday brunch.
The restaurant's Steak au Poivre for two comes highly recommended. Served on a wooden cutting board, the dish features a 30-oz. Certified Angus beef pepper-crusted ribeye, cognac-peppercorn sauce, au gratin potatoes, and farm fresh vegetables. But save room for dessert-and if you can't decide on a favorite, choose the sampler option of three types of cake, each as beautiful as it is delicious.
Just a few blocks away, Chef Manuel's newest venture, The Larder at Hammond's Ferry, has the more casual feel of a favorite delicatessen and neighborhood bar. The bicycles parked out front are available for rent to those looking to enjoy a leisurely ride and a custom-made picnic, packed and ready to go. A wall of beautifully labeled local and imported delicacies await those with a taste for something special. Tapas-style small plates, charcuterie, and cheeses, empanadas, giant meatballs, sandwiches, salads, and pastries are all on the French and Mediterranean-inspired menu.
The bar tucked into the back corner serves up familiar favorites alongside beer, wine and craft cocktails made with farm-fresh ingredients, and the restaurants relaxed atmosphere quickly makes old friends from new acquaintances.
Naturally, the flavors of France heavily influence the far at both of Chef Manuel's restaurants, as does the romantic, distinctly European atmosphere enjoyed by guests. The offerings change seasonally at both eateries, and daily specials feature an eclectic array of tastes and styles. When asked of his specialty, the talented chef is thoughtful.
"For me, it's more about the flavors than one specialty," he says. "I have the gift of being able to recreate the flavors of my mother's kitchen, and that is what I try to bring to each dish."