There's something just a little too perfect about Serenbe.
The community, which lies on 900 acres just outside Palmetto, is certainly appealing; a beautiful, walkable community in the middle of bucolic natural surroundings. And it's fun to imagine Steve Nygren and his wife Marie, the owners of the land and founders of the community, sitting on their gorgeous farm and saying to one another, "Everyone should have a chance to live like this!" Apparently Marie came up with the name Serenbe, which is a melding of the words "serenity" and "be." Excuse me while I reach for the anti-nausea medication.
Given the name, it seems that to live in this community one would need to be happy to live without irony. Poverty, crime or much diversity to speak of, economic or otherwise, would also have to be low on your agenda. The place is seductive, there's no doubt about that. But is it ... real?
A real community needs real places for people to eat, and the Hil is the third such place to open there in recent years. The first was the Blue Eyed Daisy, a bakeshop and cafe in the heart of the village, and the second was the Farmhouse, which is located in the grand old house that was part of the original farm and now serves as a bed-and-breakfast.
While the Farmhouse sits beside the road as part of an old inn, the Hil is in the township of Serenbe. That is to say, to get to it, you must drive in through the farm and some woods, where you come upon the township abruptly. Brand-spanking-new houses grouped closely together materialize out of the landscape as if by magic, flanked by stores, and now, a high-end restaurant.
The Hil's decor reflects the personality of Serenbe well. It's part nostalgia, part country-living fantasy, with a pressed tin ceiling, columns flanked by palmy foliage, wicker chairs and vintage accessories. A large set of antique wooden bowling pins sits at one end of the room, and various country-themed prints adorn the walls. The patio wraps around the dining room and is a calming place to sit and listen to the cicadas chirp on these early fall evenings.
Chef Hilary White's most recent position was with Buckhead Life, where she headed up the kitchen at 103 West, a private-functions facility used mainly to cater large parties. Her cooking reflects the mass-appeal aesthetic that is a necessity for catering. Like the Farmhouse restaurant up the road, the Hil relies heavily on the organic farm at Serenbe, tailoring much of its menu around what's in season and available.
There are places where this reliance on the farm's produce yields fun surprises, such as the bracingly fresh radishes that appeared on last week's antipasto platter. Many recent dishes utilized tiny field peas, and the short time from farm to plate shows. But White still seems to be trying to fit fresh veggies into her old standards rather than allowing the produce to dictate the menu.
And so, while quality remains high, taste sometimes suffers. Eggplant Parmesan, made from heirloom eggplants, tasted much like any standard version of the dish. The stacked presentation was visually pleasing, but a tad plain. The dish lacked any particular artistry, or brightness from fresh herbs.
Worse was "Hilary's chicken pot pie," a watery and bland disappointment of a dish. It doesn't matter how fresh your veggies are; if you put them into a weak sauce and cook the crap out of them, no good thing will result.
While the pot pie was the only true train wreck of a dish I encountered, other dishes simply lacked much sparkle. A salad of arugula with figs and blue cheese turned out to be a plate of barely dressed greens next to two figs that had been slit and smeared with cheese. The presentation seemed lazy and didn't allow for the flavors to interplay in any interesting fashion. A sweet-corn veloute sang with outrageous late-summer sweetness, but had no flavor counterpoint to truly set it off.
Fish dishes seem to be the place where White's creativity comes to life, and a recent swordfish entree served with baby turnips and chanterelles had a woodsy balance and composure to it. Likewise, halibut with tomato and fennel-braised calamari was warming and bright.
There are kinks to be ironed out in terms of precision, both in the kitchen and the front of the house. A few times things were simply left off the plate, from the shiitakes on my quail appetizer, which might have been the only component that would have livened the dish up, to the cheese, which should have been the anchor of the $14 antipasto plate.
Service is warm and laid-back but a tad amateurish. At the end of one meal, our table was a jumble of dessert plates, empty wine glasses and dishes from courses long gone. Servers haven't been trained on wine service or many of the finer points of table service. These are capable people; they just need some professional direction.
As for the food, White would get the incredible produce she has at her disposal to shine more if she were bolder, and if she let go of the tendency to tone things down to suit the masses. That tactic might work well at the weddings of Buckhead debutantes, but Serenbe, in all its beauty, is going to need a lot of authenticity to overcome its artifice and become a real community.
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