In the last few years, fueled by best-selling Michael Pollan books and documentaries like "Food, Inc.," more and more restaurants are touting a farm-to-table approach to their menus and an ever-conscious public has sought out such fresher fare in force.
What better town than Palmer, the center of Alaska farming with its record-setting giant vegetables as proof, to open a restaurant that keeps the distance your food travels from field to fork to a minimum?
Local cook and gardener Alex Papasavas has embraced the concept with her restaurant Turkey Red.
Named after a winter wheat used by Mennonite bread makers, Turkey Red focuses on spending money locally, lowering energy use and using fresh, organic ingredients to increase the flavor and nutrition of its dishes. Its success, evident by positive feedback online and word-of-mouth praise, is fueled by house-baked breads and pastries, fresh Alaska seafood and a thoughtful menu with a Mediterranean lean.
Upon entering the restaurant for a late lunch on a Monday afternoon, my dining companions and I were greeted by a server and, more importantly, the smell of fresh-baked breads, cookies and pastries. The server escorted us to a table in the small dining area, which features honey-colored walls decked with a rich, red wainscoting and unpretentious tables covered in earth-tone linens. While not full, the restaurant still had the welcoming hum of happy diners.
After perusing the lunch menu and deciding to dine family style, we settled on the gyrokopita ($7) and portobello mushroom salad ($12) to start. We followed with the turkey sandwich ($10 whole/$7 half) and lentil burger ($12) as our main course.
The gyrokopita didn't survive our fork attack for more than a few minutes. The perfectly flaky phyllo enclosed cinnamon-ginger ground beef, accompanied by a tangy tzatziki sauce with extra-large chunks of peeled cucumber.
The portobello mushroom salad fell a bit flat. The sauteed portobellos, while tasty, wilted the local greens, which were already doused in a bit too much balsamic vinaigrette for my taste.
If our dining spirits flagged, they were lifted by the arrival of our superb sandwich and burger duo.
The thin-sliced turkey, with grilled zucchini bits, nutty Gruyere cheese and an exceptional roasted red pepper, feta and basil spread, formed a delightful melange of flavors between two slices of focaccia.
Typically, I get a burger because I crave some Grade A beef, but the lentil, walnut and mushroom patty, while crumbly, was filling, especially with sauteed onion and zucchini. All that said, the star of the burger was a sinful jalapeno-feta spread that the restaurant should bottle and sell commercially.
Our main-course sides produced split results: The petite green side salad was again holding too much dressing but the minestrone-esque chick pea and cabbage soup was hearty and flavorful.
While stuffed, we couldn't resist dessert and asked our server to help us choose between the flourless chocolate cake with raspberries ($8) and the Greek yogurt topped with figs, walnuts and a drizzle of honey ($6). She steered us toward the cake, and the petite but dense wedge covered in a thick ganache was a definite hit with our party. Despite being full, we left nothing on the plate, as the tartness of the raspberry coulis and sweetness of the fresh whipped cream married perfectly with the bold cocoa flavors of the cake.
A future trip for dinner is likely in order, given the enticing variety of the menu: four organic chicken dishes ($18-$22), four pasta selections ($14-$20), five pizzas ($14-$18), moussaka ($16), spinach crespelle ($14), a New York strip steak ($28) and fresh seafood of the day (market price).
And while this late riser doesn't anticipate passing through Palmer early in the morning, breakfast looks creative and reasonably priced: four types of omelets including a caprese style option ($8-$10), polenta and poached eggs with sausage gravy or mozzarella and marinara ($12), eggs Florentine ($10), French toast with berries and Greek yogurt ($9) and a quiche of the day ($8).
Also of note are the beyond reasonable prices of the beverage menu: Sixteen varieties of tea ($2 half pot/$3 full pot), 14 different wines by the glass ($4.50-$7.50) and six beers from Alaska breweries Glacier Brewhouse, Silver Gulch, Kenai River Brewing Co., Midnight Sun and Kassik's are on tap ($5 per pint).
The food at Turkey Red shines for its freshness and flavors, which should make it a destination in Palmer for years to come. It's worth the trip, and when you arrive, remember you likely traveled farther than your veggies did.
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