I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Farmer's Hand one recent blissful day. One of my dining companions was oddly silent as we feasted and I gushed; later, she said, "I think that was the best ham sandwich I've ever eaten."
Was it the beer bread from the Mother Loaf in Milan? The white cheddar from Fluffy Bottom Farm in Chelsea? Maybe the curry mayo made in-house? I know only that I went back for a loaf of the bread the next day, making sure to arrive early, as the weekly deliveries usually sell out within 24 hours.
Online publicity about the Farmer's Hand, open since Sept. 30, has concentrated on the fact that everything in the store and cafe — produce, meats, dairy, jarred goods, sit-down meals — is grown, raised, or at least processed in Michigan, and as much as possible inside Detroit. This review will too — but let's not lose sight of the just-as-welcome news that the food proffered by partners Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes, whether raw vegetables or exquisitely garnished cooked salads, is delightful.
Louya is Rosedale Park-born and bred, while Foulkes' heritage is the Torres Strait Islands between Papua New Guinea and Australia. Both had extensive restaurant backgrounds before opening the Farmer's Hand. Each independently had conceived such a venture, and the farmers they were visiting separately suggested that they meet.
When describing the store's mission, Foulkes consistently emphasizes the producers. "There was a big increase in urban farming here," she says, "and a lot of small-batch products made in Detroit, but you couldn't find them in one place. Kiki and I thought it was a great opportunity to provide access to those products but also to give back to those producers and farmers."
The majority of goods in the store are sold on consignment: Farmers deliver regularly, and when their kohlrabi or carrots or frozen whole ducks are bought, the partners return to them 70 percent of the selling price. Foulkes was proud that in their first two weeks of operation, the Farmer's Hand had paid $5,000 back to producers.
Those producers were carefully vetted; farms were visited to look for organic processes and to check on working conditions. At Black Oak Farms in Byron, for instance, heritage-breed pigs spend time in the woods and eat only vegetarian food raised on the farm.
High standards can mean high prices, such as $6.75 for a dozen eggs from John Harnois' antibiotic-free, hormone-free, free-range happy hens. Thick pork chops from Ernst Farm in Ann Arbor are $6.99 a pound.
Pushing the know-your-producer envelope, Louya and Foulkes offer their farmers a cup of free Hyperion coffee, roasted in Ypsi, so they'll hang around the store and chat with customers. They sell retail bags of Hyperion and Madcap (from Grand Rapids), and Bay City's Populace Coffee has developed a Farmer's Hand-branded bag that will be in-store in time for the holidays.
The cafe has already garnered a loyal lunch clientele for its menu that changes daily, depending on what's coming through the door. "Whatever's coming into the market we like to showcase," Foulkes says, mentioning a delivery of potatoes from Tantre Farm in Chelsea.
It resulted in a three-potato salad (blue, French red, and Yukon) with a peanut-coconut sauce, Indian spices, pickled raisins, and sweet peas. I never would have thought to pair coconut or raisins with spuds, but it works fantastically well, producing a sophisticated and complex — yet homey — potato salad.
A pasta salad — with a rosemary-parsley pesto, heirloom cherry tomatoes, pea shoots from Fisheye Farms in West Village, and bocconcini (fresh mozzarella balls) — is substantial enough to be satisfying, and yet feel light because of its freshness.
For breakfast most days you'll find egg-and-meat sandwiches and a couple of parfaits. One is yogurt from Fluffy Bottom with wattle seeds, maple syrup, poached seasonal fruits, granola, coconut, almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds, and pepitas. Wattle seeds? They're grown in Australia. "Some of the ingredients in our prepared foods are not from Michigan," Foulkes says in her charming accent, "but they're something special to us."
Another parfait is in-house muesli with yogurt, rose petals and dried figs, apricots, and dates. Golden calendula, the poor man's saffron, is sprinkled on top. Every dish I tried at the Farmer's Hand was lovely to look at and well thought out.
Louya and Foulkes have a wholesale arrangement with some producers, such as Lisa Ludwinski's eastside Sister Pie. I liked her $1.50 peanut-butter-paprika cookie, with the spice providing both visual and culinary interest. Detroit's Warda Patisserie supplies tarts, such as a $6 pear-walnut-frangipane, with a tender, melting crust and delicate almond flavor.
Jarred goods include Food for Thought marinara, H&H Sugarbush maple sugar, Street Eatzz 313 Foodie Sauce, Naturally Nutty peanut butter with flax and hemp seeds, Beau Bien herbed red onion marmalade, and Terra Cotta mouthwash and toothpaste.
The partners are also working toward ready-to-cook meals à la Blue Apron — where measured ingredients are boxed up for cooks short on time — which they hope to have on hand for the holidays.