Mid-November is the projected opening date for Brick Farm Tavern, the long-awaited restaurant from Robin and Jon McConaughy, the folks behind Hopewell’s Double Brook Farm and Brick Farm Market. In October, as the last major piece of restaurant kitchen equipment — a dishwasher — was being rolled into place, their newly hired chef, Greg Vassos, and general manager, Mike Lykens, discussed the team’s hopes and plans for the American farm-to-table restaurant taking shape in farmhouse on Route 518 that for many years was home to the Lemmerling family.
Both men left analogous positions at The Broadmoor, the historic, five-star luxury resort in Colorado Springs, to be part of the launch. Jon McConaughy says that he and his wife, Robin, had considered many potential partners and chefs over the course of the last three years, as the circa 1812 farmhouse was being transformed into a 120-seat restaurant.
“When we met with Mike and Greg we were immediately impressed with their energy and their passion for letting local ingredients shine,” McConaughy says. “There are a lot of farm-to-table destinations — and perhaps the tag is overused — but in this case it is entirely appropriate. Greg genuinely wants to incorporate every ingredient we have to offer from Double Brook Farm and from our partner area farms to establish a sense of terroir in his menu.”
Lykens, who is also an accomplished sommelier, has the same passion for local food, McConaughy says, but also “has a sense of how to put together the service and management piece as a dining experience to which people will connect.”
Enabling and strengthening that connection between guests and the farm is a theme that Vassos and Lykens also speak to, starting with what will be a communal chef’s table, which faces the large, semi-open kitchen — a bright, white space with vaulted ceiling, gleaming subway tiles, and state-of-the-art stainless equipment.
It will have two wood tables running down its center for plating. All activity will be visible from the chef’s table, which can also be reserved for private parties.
“We really want that table to be full every evening,” Vassos says. “Just as the chefs here will have a direct relationship with the produce and animals coming from Double Brook Farm, we want that relationship to extend to the guests.” In terms of ambiance, he says, “we’re aiming for that marriage of fine dining yet unpretentious, comfortable service.”
That marriage extends also to the restaurant’s design, which, Lykens says, blends the charm of the historic farmhouse with a level of refinement. Many of the farmhouse’s original fittings and fixtures have been kept and refurbished. Every dining space includes at least one fireplace with wood mantel (the main dining room on the second level has two); large, deep-set windows, some with original glass panes and each providing a different vista of the bucolic surroundings; and tons of original woodwork trim, built-in bookcases, and cabinets. These, along with pumpkin pine floors on the upper levels, provide the shell for what will be subtly modern furniture and fittings.
The centerpiece of the lounge, for example, is a long bar newly handcrafted from wood reclaimed from the Charles Lindbergh estate. Light pendants with modern glass globes hang above it, while the lounge area features black leather sofas, chairs, and ottomans facing the room’s huge fireplace and soaring walls of fieldstone and brick. “We’re repurposing of a lot of things,” Lykens says with pride, pointing to a space on the lowest level that will be a private room with a prix-fixe tasting menu of its own. “The table will be made from this room’s original ceiling beams that had to be taken down, as will chef’s table upstairs,” Lykens says. Running along one side of this room is a glassed-in wine storage room.
Both Vassos and Lykens say the decision to leave The Broadmoor for a relatively small startup restaurant in rural/suburban New Jersey was not difficult. Lykens, who just turned 30, has settled in Lawrenceville, and says he’s found people in the area to be very friendly, not much different from the small Colorado community he left.
“I mean, the Broadmoor is a beautiful place with a lot of tradition. It’s the largest five-star hotel in the world and also the longest running five-star. But leaving something so massive for something so small is refreshing,” he says. “The hardest part was leaving my family, because I grew up in Colorado.” Lykens’ wife, who works for a food distributor, will join him in early November.
It was similarly easy for Greg Vassos, but for different reasons. “I have my daughter, who’s seven years old, out here. I was in Colorado for the last year and even though she spent the whole summer with me, it was still difficult. Yet I didn’t want to move just to move. So when I got connected with Jon and Robin and saw the project, it was just a natural fit.” That’s because before he started with the Broadmoor in 2014, this Massachusetts-born graduate of Johnson & Wales, who has also worked at The Breakers in Palm Beach, had been chef/owner of Racine, his own 30-seat, fine-dining farm-to-table restaurant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
Although Racine was well received, it closed after two years. “Racine was extremely farm-to table focused, but running around to all the farms was really difficult. Brick Farm Tavern is the true farm-to-table experience. Jon and Robin’s philosophy fits right in, and they’re great business partners. We’re not looking at using purveyors. It’s us and, secondarily, local farmers, and that’s it!” Vassos, 36, is currently living in the Pottstown property he owns that housed Racine, but plans to move to the Hopewell area soon.
The restaurant will open with a four-course tasting menu. “But what we’re doing is kind of different,” Vassos says. “ It’s a four-course menu, yes, but each dish is priced a la carte, kind of to encourage people to put together their own tasting menu.” Dishes will be described only by their ingredients. “It reflects that we’re very ingredient driven,” he says. “So, for example, it’ll read, ‘pork belly, Jonagold apple, burnt honey, and mustard.’ I think when we all sit down in a restaurant [and read a menu] we get a preconceived notion of what that dish is going to look like. Our approach really doesn’t; it will be a bit of a surprise when it arrives.”
He also plans what he calls “some fun stuff. For example, we’re going to have egg-in-a-nest, which is a dish surrounded in toasted hay with a bowl in the middle holding a sous-vide egg, toasted polenta, pea foam, and larded mushrooms. The egg actually arrives tableside in the shell and guests get to crack it open — kind of like putting the egg back into the nest.” A vegetarian dish, called Brick Farm Landscape, will have potato puree on the bottom of the plate (“because potatoes grow under the soil”) and porcini mushroom “soil” on top that will look like dirt. “Then we’ll have all these vegetables sprouting out of it,” he says, “ kind of showcasing the hard work farmers do. “We’ll have a lot of fun in a very warm, relaxed, welcoming setting.”
In addition to the four-course menu, the restaurant will also offer five- and eight-course tasting menus. The bar and lounge will have its own menu.
“We want to capture people on a regular basis,” Vassos explains. “One day they can come in and sit in the dining room have an elegant meal, and another day come in, sit at the bar, have a couple of beers and a burger, or a pasta dish, or charcuterie — something like that.” Eventually, lunch will be added.
For the beverage program, Lykens is developing craft cocktails that, he says, “mirror what the chef is doing with the menu. They’ll be ultra-local and ingredient driven, using as many local ingredients as possible.” And when the distillery and brewery that are under construction on the Brick Farm Tavern property are launched in the coming months, their products will also be incorporated.
“As far as the wine program, for me it’s all about focused, small production boutique wineries, and growers that share the same philosophy we do when it comes to how they approach their vines and vineyards,” Lykens says. “We’re going to represent all of the wine regions of the world in an extensive by-the-glass program, and have some fun and interesting selections. Specifically, we want a bar program where people don’t have to feel they have to reach deep down in their pockets to get a great glass of wine, or even a great bottle of wine.”
A greenhouse that’s on the opposite side of the restaurant’s bluestone patio will supply greens and microgreens for the restaurant’s team of cooks to select and use as garnishes at their whim. “We also want to get the whole team out on the farm once a month,” Chef Vassos says. “We’ll have harvest days, and we also want the folks who handle the animals and grow the vegetables to talk to the cooks and the servers. The servers can then pass that knowledge and enthusiasm on to the guests.”
Conversely, at least one of the partner farmers who grow vegetables on Double Brook Farm land will work in the kitchen two days a week. “It’s an opportunity for him to see what the final product looks like when it goes out to the guest, and to get a better idea of what we need him to grow. We just sat down the other day and worked out a 2016 growing plan for the year,” Vassos says.
When people who work in the business socialize together, Lykens says, they often talk about what kind of place they would open if they could do anything they wanted. Farm-to-table concepts are high on everyone’s list, because it gives restaurateurs complete control over the process. When he saw what the McConaughys were looking to do with Brick Farm Tavern, he knew he had found the right project for him.
“I came out and saw the farm, the scope of the project, the focus on being local and on doing business the right way, the decision became easy,” he says.