The locavore/slow food/sustainable movement in food has brought some great things to the American dinner plate. In particular, the rise of restaurants that go out of their way to source local meats, grains and vegetables for their menus. I think of Empire Brewing Company, Moro’s Table and the restaurant at Elderberry Pond as leaders of this in Syracuse. In Washington, the name Founding Farmers stands out.
Every so often, one of my longest and dearest friends, Mary Kate, would tell me how I need to go to Founding Farmers with her. She would post photos of dense, vegetable packed stews or rich soups and say that I was missing out. Finally, my annual work trip to Washington arrived. Saturday night was free and we reunited after not seeing each other for a couple of years.
The waiting area at the D.C. location was jammed when I arrived at 6:15. Located in the IMF building in Foggy Bottom, it doesn’t have the kitschy farm implement decor of the Potomac storefront. The D.C. shop is more urban with exposed steel and duct work, with towering windows that look out at the street.
Founding Farmers’ bar is something to behold in and of itself. The rotating selection of draught beer is first-rate, but the show happens when the person next to you says, “I don’t know what I want.” The team of mixologists conduct an interview to determine what the person likes and dislikes, before recommending a drink that hasn’t been made since the Coolidge administration. The guy next to me ended up with a Saratoga, which has some long history attached to it (the bar is loud) and includes artichoke liqueur. The old school approach to drink construction was a sight to behold.
When we did sit, we were greeted with a massive menu of starters, stews, entrees and other dishes that are very specific to the farm-to-table movement. The eclectic array of food is what pleased me the most. How many restaurants feature a popcorn of the day for $2? I don’t have the answer, but the surprisingly large bowl of freshly popped kernels took us the entire evening to finish. It might be the best value in the city.
Mary Kate started with a salad, which was described as about one-third the size as the entree salads that anchor the menu. The massive array of greens gave me an inkling of what I was in store for. My flatbread came out on a two-foot long paddle. Four crostini were hot from the oven and topped with Granny Smith apples, a medium Brie and onion jam. I love onion jam, but never seem to have enough reason to make it. Of the eight flavors, this combination stood up and grabbed my attention. The earthy cheese, tart apple and sweet onion was such a complementary blend that it could not be ignored. And for $8, it would have been enough food for 3 to 4 to share.
The service was okay, but the courses were spaced out well enough that dinner was delivered just as we were finishing the first plates. My chicken pot pie was more chicken and biscuit, with a thick chicken and vegetable stew topped with a dense black pepper biscuit. The bowl was deceptively full, with a portion size that was much greater than the price tag.
The same applied to Mary Kate’s Yankee pot roast, which carried about a pound and a half of meat served over mashed potatoes. The rest of the dinner offerings run from steaks and a fish of the day, to signature dishes like shrimp and grits, meatloaf, rotisserie chicken, and a chili with house-ground meat and blue cheese muffins. A selection of stews went from traditional Brunswick to a pork and lentils stew with cilantro, lime, avocado and egg. Served with a side salad, the $13 price tag is quite a value.
Most dinners come with sides, which changed based on availability of ingredients. The maple mustard and collard greens cooked in ham looked great, but never actually made it to the table. Not that I needed another thing to eat, but it would have been nice to try.
Dessert seemed out of reach, but Mary Kate’s wherewithal was inspiring. She ordered a plate of cookies, cut in the shapes of farm animals, and served warm. My bananas foster milkshake lived up to its menu title of The Very Best Milkshake. Frankly, I don’t mind a milkshake that requires the use of a fork to pick out the sliced of bananas and white chocolate shavings.
Founding Farmers is located at 1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Foggy Bottom. There is a second location in Potomac. Reservations are accepted by phone and on their website. Dinner for two, with dessert, was $67 before tip.