by Len Lear
In the 1990s Jim Coleman was a virtual one-man media conglomerate and one of the hottest chefs in the country. The burly native Texan who once owned three restaurants in Dallas was executive chef of the Rittenhouse Hotel, cookbook author, host of a call-in show, “A Chef’s Table,” on the local National Public Radio affiliate, host of “Dream Meals” for visiting celebrities like Bruce Willis and Robert Redford, and the only local chef to break into Channel 12′s imposing Saturday afternoon lineup of cooking shows with his “Flavors of Philadelphia,” and he was featured on the CNN show, “On the Menu.”
But the thing I will never forget about Jim (which he related to me in an interview about 12 years ago) was the fact that he was an eyewitness to the Tienanmen Square murder of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing, China, in 1889 by the Communist government. Coleman, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was there because he was executive chef overseeing five restaurants in the Great Wall Hotel, a 1,000-room behemoth close to Tienanmen Square that hosted diplomats, heads of governments, corporate executives, etc., from all over the world. “The demonstrators were jovial and having a good time,” Coleman told me, “so it was a complete shock when the soldiers started shooting and killing them.”
Coleman left China because occupancy at the hotel dropped by 70 percent after the massacre and the mood among his employees was relentlessly somber. He returned to the U.S. and in 1992 joined the Rittenhouse Hotel, which he eventually left to open “Coleman,” an upscale restaurant in Normandy Farm, a hotel and conference center on Route 202 in Blue Bell, right across the street from the Blue Bell Country Club.
Last year, however, Coleman left his eponymous restaurant in Blue Bell and his radio show on National Public Radio, spent about a minute and a half at World Cafe Live in University City and is currently “between jobs.” (A more accurate expression is probably “burned out.”) Meanwhile, Normandy Farm spent four months renovating Coleman restaurant and reopened it as The Farmer’s Daughter on Feb. 25, expanding it to include a 2,100-square-foot bar with 90 seats, hand-blown chandeliers and a 40-foot fireplace. The dining room has a farm chic ambience with dark woods and exposed beams; is beautifully decorated with a color palette of slates, blues and creams, and the reclaimed wooden farm tables are well spaced apart from each other.
Chef Corey Fair, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, grew up on a ranch in central Texas (he rode bulls, which could come in handy with unpleasant customers) and therefore believes in supporting local farmers. He insists he is on the phone two or three times a day with farmers like those from Birchrun Hill for cheese made with that morning’s milk and Living Hope Farm, which he says provides nearly 90 percent of the vegetables he offers. Some of Fair’s menu staples include grass fed beef and lamb, local produce and fresh seafood. Appetizers range from $7 to $16 and entrees from $19 to $30, although you can also opt for a three-course, limited-option dinner for $35, and you can even BYOB if you’re willing to pay a corkage fee of $10 for a regular-sized bottle of wine or $15 for a magnum.
Dinner begins with a basket of great breads from Metropolitan Bakery along with braised kumquat marmalade, blackberry puree and apple slices in mustard sauce. Nice touch.
A rock shrimp appetizer with hearts of palm and cashews was divine but too small for the $13 price tag and was not served hot enough. Cobb salad was a wonderfully fresh cornucopia of lettuces, cheese, marinated vegetables and more, reasonably priced at $8. All dishes are aesthetically presented.
A diver scallops entree, accompanied by housemade bacon, capers, apple salsify puree, sea foam and other good stuff, was another tasty mix of tastes and textures but was not served nearly hot enough ($26). An entree of Virginia striped bass with red beet risotto, brown butter parsnip puree and braised leeks was another taste treat, but the portion size was too modest ($24).
Pastry chef Colleen Winston and her assistant, Tia Bennett, are national treasures, as far as we are concerned. Each of us tried a different trio — small portions of three different sweets for $9 — and all six confections were sublime. Our favorite was the caramel gelato over pop corn. It may sound a bit decadent, but this is definitely one for the space capsule. The jasmine pear sorbet is not too far behind. Our server, Matt Greene, is a Temple U. grad who knows the menu inside and out and has a great personality.
There is a huge wine list, and in addition to wines by the glass, there are wines by the flight: three glasses of different wines, three ounces each, for about $15 to $19. I tried two flights; a Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa, Mulderbosch, was magical, with strong citrus notes, but the other five whites sampled were nothing special. A Kir cocktail was sensational while a “Lemonade” cocktail was way too sugary. There are also 12 microbrews available on draft.
The Farmer’s Daughter is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Normandy Farm Hotel & Conference Center is located at Route 202 and Morris Road in Blue Bell, PA. Call 215-616-8300 or www.normandygirl.com for more information or reservations.