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Neo-soul with a touch of style

Inconspicuously nestled on the somewhat undesirable corner of Market and Mason, farmerbrown is a new destination spot that merits the area’s recently acquired moniker, Trendyloin. Classic upscale southern food is served with urbane style and a socially-conscious slant.

Chef-owner Jay Foster has been around this block before, in the form of Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack and Blue Jay Café, so hip and tasty are his forte -- reliable if not entirely innovative. Here the dishes offer local, sustainable ingredients and produce is garnered through Mo' Better Food, an organization that connects restaurants with Northern California African American farmers.

The scene is dark with a surprisingly warm industrial feel. An inviting bar lines one side of the space, and the oxidized-copper walls and tables lend an edgy element to the design. Large works of art by Berkeley artist Keba Konte adorn the walls. The cocktails ($7) are a draw; we started the meal with a theme-consistent mint julep and a refreshing citrus cooler. Friends have since recommended the fresh watermelon margaritas with cayenne salt.

The devil’s in the details, and farmerbrown has them covered. Each table has its own carafe of water, adorned with lime slices and a sprig of mint. Servers wear handmade dark brown aprons with DIY deep orange stitching; it doesn't hurt that the waitstaff are all gorgeous. Beer is served in jars, in keeping with the southern motif. Instead of the ubiquitous loaf of bread to start, guests are served small buttermilk biscuits and miniature corn muffins with a chili jelly -- sweet, spicy and extremely tasty -- giving a hint of things to come.

The starter menu is full of fresh choices, and though it was hard to pass up the gumbo of the day ($6, recommended highly by the Food Editor) and my favorite salad, crisp wedges with blue cheese dressing ($6), we went with items a bit more specialized. The baked crab imperial ($9) is a must. The lighter-than-expected soufflé is served with crispy triangles of toast in a portion large enough to enjoy the taste, but not so big that it fills you up. We also tried the poached prawns served with a kicky roasted jalapeno cocktail sauce ($8).

On to the entrees. My guest waged a battle of indecision, but never one to pass up a steak, he turned down the Fulton Valley fried chicken ($12), in favor of the Niman Ranch sirloin ($19), served with mashed potatoes and wild mushrooms. The dish was hearty, and the potatoes were thick and buttery, though the dish arrived sans mushrooms.

As a pescatarian with only a few options to choose from, I went for the blackened catfish po’boy of the day. Normally served with coleslaw, it came instead with overly salted wedge French fries. Mark my words, I’ll be back for the hearty vegetable jambalaya ($12). We couldn’t say no to a side of mac ‘n’ cheese ($4) that was sharp, creamy and very satisfying.

The dessert menu is made up of simple, classic choices at $5 each. The dark chocolate cake is served in a puddle of crème fraiche, perfectly moist with just the right amount of frosting and a puddingesque layer in the middle. But it was the key lime pie that really caught my fork by surprise, with a texture more like cheesecake than custard and a crisp graham-cracker crust. Coupled with a cup of Blue Bottle coffee, it was a delicious cap to a solid meal.

Southern soul food

Reservations Essential? No