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Orford diner brings the table to the farm

  • Dave Eagle and Melanie Gregg, who cook at Isaac B's Diner, which is owned by Peaked Moon Farm in Orford, look over their menu on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, in Orford, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Poblano peppers are grilled at Isaac B's Diner in Orford , N.H., on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Melanie Gregg picks herbs outside the front door of Isaac B's Diner in Orford , N.H., on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Gregg and her partner are experimenting with what they are calling a table to farm diner. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dave Eagle works on the menu of Isaac B's Diner in Orford , N.H., on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 7/2/2019 10:00:22 PM
Modified: 7/3/2019 5:45:23 PM

Dave Eagle, half of the team bringing Upper Valley eaters an exuberant fusion menu at Isaac B’s Diner on Route 10 in Orford, likes to reverse the cliché about bringing the farm to the table. Isaac B’s ethos is not farm to table, he said, but table to farm.

The reason is easy to see. Look out any window in the 28-seat restaurant and you see hills, fields and gardens. Eagle and his partner in life as in food, Melanie Gregg, started work at Isaac B’s in early March, in the space that used to house Ariana’s restaurant, after moving from the West Coast.

“We were so done with Southern California,” said Gregg, who grew up there and prior to coming east worked as Director of Edible Agriculture at a farm in Costa Mesa that raised produce for area chefs.

Eagle is originally from Huntington, Long Island. “I was raised by two people from Brooklyn: Our farm to table was called vacation.”

Eagle had also been working as a cook in Southern California. Prior to that he lived in Brattleboro from 2006 to 2017, and worked at a farm in Guilford, Vt.

Gregg and Eagle, both in their 40s, saw an ad for the restaurant jobs on Craigslist last fall and acted quickly. They were hired in the late fall and Eagle moved to Orford in December. Gregg came this March, after making a few trips back and forth from California to help set up, Eagle said. Despite both arriving in the dead of a northern New England winter, they are still here — and enjoying themselves.

“It’s nice to be able to walk outside into the fields and gardens. Everywhere you look it’s nature,” Gregg said.

The diner is named for Isaac Bickford, who built the handsome red brick Greek Revival-style house in 1835. Next to the house is an old carriage house, which in recent years has been a restaurant. The property had belonged for decades to Forrest Bunten, who grew pumpkins and raised a dairy herd. After his death, in 2005, his daughter Chris Bunten, one of seven children, came back to the farm with her then-husband Bruce Balch. Apart from making cream, cheese, yogurt and ice cream from their herd of Devon cows, they also opened the Bunten Farmhouse Kitchen.

After the Balches decided to concentrate on the farm rather than the diner, they leased the restaurant space in 2011 to chef Martin Murphy, who opened Ariana’s, a fine-dining restaurant.

In 2014, Bradford, Vt., dairy farmer Paul Knox bought the property from Bunten and Balch, after there had been discussion about subdividing it. He leased it to Hal Covert and Rebecca Golding of Peaked Moon Farm, who renamed the property the Bickford Homestead. Murphy left the site and reopened Ariana’s at the Lyme Inn in January, 2018. Peaked Moon took over the restaurant space and went in search of cooks.

Enter Eagle and Gregg.

The diner, which is closed Monday and Tuesday, has an open kitchen plan, so that both diners and bar patrons can see the duo prepare meals and watch Eagle make bread from scratch.

The carriage house still has its original lines, and broad wooden beams. “Every piece of wood (in the carriage house) has been standing there since 1835,” Eagle said. During their tenure, the Balches also built a small addition to accommodate more diners.

Peaked Moon Farm supplies the diner with produce, pork, cheese and eggs. Gregg and Eagle try to source as much food as they can from local farmers.

The plan, said Gregg, was always to offer a lunch and dinner menu, but after surveying customers, they added breakfast.

“Let’s do breakfast at an affordable price. Let’s provide something during the day that everyone can afford,” said Gregg.

Apart from the usual suspects — eggs and hash browns — Gregg and Eagle offer The $3 Bill, a smaller plate costing $3, which the duo use for what Gregg calls R&D purposes, experimenting with ingredients, flavors and spices. If customers are enthusiastic Gregg and Eagle add it to the menu, which changes weekly according to what’s in season, what’s on hand and what they feel like making.

“We think about food in a way that’s fluid between us,” Gregg said.

The “Chicken from Turkey” dish, aka shawarma, started out as a $3 Bill. It consists of grilled chicken thigh with Middle Eastern spices served on homemade naan bread, topped with sauteed onions and greens, and augmented with garlic spread and tomato cucumber salsa.

The Gringo Burrito offers a grilled tortilla filled with scrambled eggs and homemade chorizo, while El Especial is an explosion of flavors: shredded chicken with salsa verde, refried beans, roasted poblanos, cotija cheese, fried egg, chipotle crema, a roasted garlic hot sauce, pickled onions and fresno chili peppers, and cilantro on a tostada shell made by the Burlington-based tortilleria All Souls.

A side order of French fries, called Bluetine instead of the French-Canadian poutine (fries, cheese curds and gravy), came from a customer’s suggestion to combine fries and blue cheese.

Somewhat to Gregg and Eagle’s surprise, such dishes, which are inspired by myriad world cuisines, including Korean, Thai, Indian and Lebanese, have proved enormously popular.

“We didn’t realize how people in the area were craving ethnic food,” Gregg said. One customer, who hails from Texas, comes to eat tamales and other Mexican dishes.

The diner has become, Gregg added, a “bigger thing than we could have imagined. A community thing. … We are more connected to our customers and our work.” People bring them flowers and art, and diners come from throughout the Upper Valley, and even the White Mountains region.

There is a nice irony at work in Isaac B’s. Both Gregg and Eagle were hyper-finicky eaters as children. As he grew up, Eagle wanted to have a different perspective on what he ate. “I became obsessed with trying food, I got off college meal plan and cooked for myself.”

For her part, Gregg said, “I have a very romantic relationship with food now.”

It was not always thus. She had her kids at a younger age and was initially, she said, a “terrible cook.” Thrust into adulthood while trying to feed a family, she had “to figure out how to do that. I got curious, I wanted to eat good food.”

Cooking is one of the best parts of Gregg’s life. “I’m process oriented; it’s creative. I would rather cook than eat,” she said.

On a recent Friday, the couple were closing up the lunch service. They would have just a few hours to prepare before opening again for dinner.

A table of six women finishing up some kind of committee business lingered. One of them addressed the other women: “I don’t even know how to answer a question like that: Are the chickens pregnant?” They conferred on when to meet again. The following week?

There was no question as to where. As they exited single-file through the door, they waved at Gregg and one called out, Until next time.

For information go to www.isaacbdiner.com or call 603-316-0885. Hours are: Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dinner is offered Wednesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.

Correction

Hal Covert and Rebecca Golding, of Peaked Moon Farm in Orford, own Isaac B’s Diner in Orford. Covert placed an ad on Craigslist last fall looking for restaurateurs. Dave Eagle and Melanie Gregg, the cooks at Isaac B’s diner, responded to the ad and are employees of Peaked Moon Farm. Also, the “Chicken From Turkey” dish is a variation on shawarma. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on these points.




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