‘Farm fresh’ is a growing dining trend

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Local farmers are selling and promoting their fresh meat, fish and produce with the help of a series of dinners hosted by restaurants, some as far away as Tampa.

It’s a dining trend that seems to be growing, according to organizers of the events, which feature locally grown products served at various restaurants, with those who raise the food on hand to help educate diners about the source of their food.

The Suncoast Food Alliance calls its series “Who’s UR Farmer? Tour,” or “The Hoosier Farmer Tour,” while Lakewood Ranch’s Polo Grill & Bar calls its events “Farm to Fork” dinners, organizers said.

The food alliance’s program involves 11 events that began in November and are slated to continue through May, according to John E. Matthews, a senior forager for the food alliance.

Restaurants participating this year include the Ritz-Carlton’s Vernona Restaurant, along with Mattison’s Forty-One and Mattison’s City Grill, all in Sarasota; and Harry’s Continental Kitchen at Longboat Key, according to Matthews. The alliance Web site is at www.suncoast

Among the program’s highlights is one scheduled for Feb. 5 at Sarasota’s Hi Hat Ranch, Matthews said.

“Customers? They’re finding out more from the farmers, how they raise their product,” said Matthews. “They’re enjoying knowing the farmers, having a personal conversation — we have the chef and the farmers here.”

“I work with all farmers, King Farm and Hunsader Farms, Mitchell’s Natural Produce in Ellenton, the majority of them are in Manatee County,” said Matthews.

Matthews arranged a recent dinner at a cafe in Tampa, and plans another one at a different restaurant there Jan. 23.

A similar event planned for Jan. 30 at the Polo Grill, 10670 Boardwalk Loop, at Lakewood Ranch, is designed to showcase locally grown tomatoes, assuming there are still some left to eat after a recent cold snap of record-setting freezes, said executive chef Damon Vogell.

The menu calls for a first course of tomato gelee, tomato water and gazpacho; the second course calls for tomato-braised rabbit, slow-braised mustard greens and crispy potato nuggets paired with chicken paillard, heirloom tomato and local greens salad, Vogell said.

A final course entails the Italian-style salad called Caprese, goat cheese gelato, basil gelato, sweet tomato chutney, olive oil powder, Peace River bee’s honey and balsamic syrup, he said.

The cost is $30 per person, plus tax and tip, according to Sarah Balcueva, event and marketing director for the restaurant and its affiliated Fete Catering & Ballroom.

“There’s something to be said about getting a tomato that just came from the ground,” said Vogell. “The flavor is superior when you get them in warm.”

Specialty items produced in Manatee County make very elegant fare, he noted.

“If we get good stuff in the door, the food comes out better,” he said.

Bradenton resident Tim Simpson, owner of T.S. Farms, is among the Polo Grill’s suppliers.

On his Arcadia farm, he raises organic vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe and watermelon, he said.

“This is the first year restaurants have been buying some of my product,” Simpson said.

“It does help. ... The majority of my stuff still goes up north, to the eastern seaboard, Canada, but yeah, they’ve been helping out.

“I like to sell local. It helps the restaurants out as well,” he said. “More people are starting to be more aware of where their produce is coming from.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031, or at