KIRBY: A man can't give up his business.
GRANDPA MARTIN: Why not? You've got all the money you need. You can't take it with you."
– George S. Kaufman, You Can't Take It with You
I can't help but wonder if a version of these lines ran through Mark Frank's mind six years ago when he left a successful career as a corporate president in the health care world and decided to buy a B&B on the Bucks County estate once owned by legendary playwright and Marx Brothers collaborator George S. Kaufman.
Having just turned 50, Frank longed to return to the people person hospitality days of his youth, when he ran some cottages on Cape Cod where he grew up. And it's hard not to imagine the wistful dreams swirling in his eyes when he first drove down the long and winding gravel drive fringed with 150-year-old sycamore trees, arrived at a trickling fountain and saw miniature horses grazing in a meadow beside the stately stone farm house that was, aside from its distinction as a literary landmark, the oldest B&B in Bucks County.
In so many other cases I've witnessed, this mid-life crisis storyline does not end well. The old manse turns out to be a crumbling money pit. The farm is an unmanageable burden. The kitchen staff is jaded and uninspired from the banquet grind of life as a wedding factory. And a more likely outcome for the naïve newcomer who aspires to transform such a scenario into an actually relevant destination for ambitious fine dining could be summed up by Kaufman's quip after watching one of his musicals bomb in Philadelphia: "Satire is what closes on a Saturday night."
But if the gorgeous blood orange butter-poached lobster tail and tender lamb loin with green chickpeas, nettles and house-made harissa I savored here recently are any indications, Saturday nights at the Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm are anything but a satire. Instead, they have become part of a feel-good restaurant story of the best-kept secrets in country inn dining, with the potential for a successful and enduring run as long as chef Joshua Homacki is running the show. Even with little name-recognition beyond the borders of Holicong in Buckingham Township, Saturday nights are already booked-out three weeks in advance.
Admittedly, Frank and his wife, Deena, were savvy shoppers and lucked into a property that was already primed for a next-level push when they purchased the 31-acre farm in 2013. With 16 B&B rooms for rent in the cottages, house and barn, which recently had a major party space expansion, the wedding business has continued to grow. The old stone farm house from 1740 where Kaufman once played bridge and croquet with Harpo and Groucho (not to mention John Steinbeck, Irving Berlin, Lillian Hellman and Alexander Woollcott) had also been recently renovated by previous owner Christine Soderman Figueroa, who laid a flagstone floor in the airy sun-porch dining room and painted its ceiling with a fresco of butterflies flitting across a moody pink spring sky beside the open kitchen. It's elegant without feeling stuffy, and the perfect setting for a special-occasion meal.
But the Franks' greatest luck, it seems, was inheriting a kitchen talent in the transition who had the potential to become their starring chef. Philadelphians may not yet know Homacki's name – but many have already eaten his food when he worked behind the lines at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, Snackbar, and Chifa. Barley Sheaf has been an opportunity for the Bucks-born Homacki to return to his roots, and he's making the most of it under the new ownership, which has let him bloom with a New American menu that draws on wide influences, but is guided by solid grasp of modern techniques that showcase seasons and good ingredients.
A small carafe of warm raw milk from Birchwood Farms in nearby Newtown is poured tableside over a crisply seared pad of foie gras, moistening a "carrot cake granola" in the bowl below into a sweet-and-savory pudding I could just as easily have eaten for breakfast or dessert. The lush flesh of pan-roasted scallops is dusted with coriander and powdered seaweed pressed against the pop of pickled mustard seeds and silky cream of parsnip puree over a tangy bourbon glaze. A meaty arm of tender octopus draws both contrasting textures and Japanese umami from kombu-pickled shiitakes and daikon radish. A stunningly moist rabbit is all delicacy, the juicy white medallions of sous-vide poached saddles enriched with a dab of hazelnut pesto, shallot jam and a tangy-sweet sauce of caramelized whey.
Unlike a lot of restaurants these days with "farm" in the name, Barley Sheaf makes no pretense of growing its own ingredients. Even the goats, sheep and pigs that Frank plans to add to the meadow where rescued miniature horses Snap, Crackle and Pop graze just beyond the parking lot will reside there for a peaceful retirement – not to become dinner: "I get too attached to the animals," Frank says. "Plus, we have so many great farms nearby – Nonesuch and Blue Moon to name a couple. We'll leave the expert growing to them."
Homacki certainly does their art justice. The spicy crunch of lacto-fermented kohlrabi is one of the keys to the luxurious tartare of minced Painted Hills beef, glistening with the zing of mustard oil and frilly yellow shavings of cured egg yolk. Red bourbon heirloom turkey is ground into a resonant red wine Bolognese and spooned over delicate puffs of semolina gnocchi. And I've encountered few greater homages to the onion than Homacki's beautiful tart, an individual pastry shell layered high with caramelized cippolinis, pickled red onions, and a creamy tan emulsion of caramelized white onions at the bottom, all covered in a snow of grated farmhouse cheddar.
Tender lamb loins from Border Spings (among other farms) starred in different seasonal preparations at both my dinners. Baby hakurei turnips and snappy black trumpet mushrooms gave an earthiness to the early spring version. More recently, poached nettles and a vivid orange swipe of harissa spice paste with a toothy green garbazo ragout gave an aromatic North African lift to the sweetly gamy meat. A special of seared arctic char featured spring onions, perfect artichoke hearts and a Thai green curry that was present, but not overwhelmingly spicy. The poached lobster tail, meanwhile, was a beautiful reminder of just how wonderful this once-tired trope of luxury fine-dining be. A hearty quarter-pound fan of moist lobster meat, poached sous-vide in blood orange butter with prosecco, coriander and black lime, had a lusciously complex savor, at once briny, sweet and fruity, that was heightened by the roasty addition of sunchokes that had been slow-fermented to a deeply caramelized blackness in the same manner as black garlic.
It was such a fascinating dish without being overwrought, like so many savory plates here, that I could not help compare it to the desserts, which were fine, but less skillful riffs on cakes (try the pistachio financier), chocolate pudding, ice creams and house-made petit four sweets. They were more than adequate, but also showed the limited staff resources of a BYOB still cultivating its dinner service, with plenty of room to grow. Likewise, the Inn's multi-course weekend brunches are more notable for their all-you-can-eat generosity than their finesse or anything particularly innovative about the cooking.
Every plate, though, was graciously served by a professional and outgoing staff who certainly would not have inspired Kaufman's famous epitaph for a dead waiter ("God finally caught his eye"). They presented the menu well, and when there was an unknown detail, they diligently went and researched ingredients for potential dietary limitations, and took care of us with a genuine warmth. That included Mark Frank, who lingered in conversation with guests who'd clearly returned for multiple meals, and then walked through the rooms full of other diners – not to mention multiple clusters of families planning weddings – with the pep of someone who'd tapped his youth for a passion project he relished.
If measured only by Maggie Cutler's line to Mr. Whiteside in Kaufman's The Man Who Came To Dinner – "I think you're incapable of any emotion higher than your stomach!" – my satisfying meals at the Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm tell me this Bucks County destination is already well worth the drive. But in the bigger picture of life where, as Grandpa Martin said, "you can't take it with you," Mark Frank's big investment and career shift here has also paid more lasting dividends, lending this legendary property and its notable history a promising future, too.