By Elana Schor - 01/08/09 06:25 PM EST
As Barack Obama takes power this month, Washingtonians are abuzz with talk of “green jobs” and sustainability — and now the wonks charged with greening the nation can put their mouth where their money is thanks to Founding Farmers, an environmentally friendly new restaurant three blocks from the White House.
One look inside Founding Farmers proves that a gold energy efficiency rating and compelling design aren’t mutually exclusive. With a spotless cellar of biodynamic wines and glass table dividers filled with blades of grass, the restaurant is at once soothing and thrilling to the eye.
The menu is designed to change alongside the seasons as chef Graham Duncan procures a new complement of organic and regional ingredients. Its current incarnation is a greatest-hits parade of American comfort food — large enough to accommodate the 42,000 local growers who share ownership of the kitchen through the North Dakota Farmers Union, which helped open the restaurant.
Founding Farmers’ menu may be daunting in size, but diners are advised to trust their instincts. If you grew up on fried chicken, it is available in steadfastly traditional style (waffles included). If it’s fresh fish you long for, a rotating cast of seafood can be served in any of four sauces, from the buttery Meuniere to the capers-studded Napa Provencal.
The dazzling invention of the décor, which employs reclaimed North Carolina wood and low-voltage lighting to spectacular effect, is largely missing from the menu. But that marriage of unique ambience and conventional cuisine works at Founding Farmers, thanks in large part to its friendly and knowledgeable servers.
The cocktails, as said servers will warn you, are “pre-Prohibition-style,” mixed slightly stronger than the average libation. The fresh, unfussy ingredients make for an enlightening drinking experience — I found myself craving a Dark and Stormy after sampling the old-school blend of dark rum, lime, and ginger beer.
The gorgeous glass-fronted bar downstairs at Founding Farmers appears to be turning into a happy-hour spot, judging from the satisfied 20-somethings who were sipping blueberry-chamomile gin until 11 p.m. on a recent weeknight. And drinkers who need to wet their whistles are free to order off the appetizer menu.
In fact, the appetizers and cheese plates offer the kitchen’s most compelling flavors, most in portions enormous enough to make a complete meal. The Prince Edward mussels, served in a pesto-white wine broth, strike the perfect balance of hearty texture and palate-tingling spice. Miniature cheeseburgers have become the new standby on most pub menus, but Founding Farmers takes the slider to a new level with ground beef so tender it melts on the tongue.
The cheeses are not strictly local, with a few hailing from as far away as Georgia, and most lack the sharp snap of a good Spanish or Italian variety. But one in particular — the semi-soft Chapelle, from nearby Easton, Maryland — is subtly sweet-and-sour enough to make any cream cheese-hater into a believer.
A note about the Founding Farmers salads: Their ingredients are not always exactly as advertised on the menu. My server was unable to explain the discrepancy when the Belgian endive in one mix was mysteriously swapped for hard-boiled eggs, but it became a pattern on a subsequent visit when olives were added to a salad also containing grapes and sweet dates. If any peculiar combination emerges, however, servers will happily return it to the kitchen.
Much of one’s experience at Founding Farmers depends on the motivation for visiting. Those who seek out sustainable fine dining are likely to appreciate the small benefits that take place behind the scenes, where the kitchen staff separates waste into recyclable and compostable pile and used frying grease is recycled to make biofuel for vehicles.
Those less intrigued by the “green eating” concept are likely to see only salmon and mashed potatoes where the restaurant’s owners see a new format for linking high-end chefs with local farmers. That admirable vision is worth a look — with the similarly themed farm boîte Agraria already open in Georgetown, Founding Farmers may just be the vanguard of a new dining revolution in the Obama era. Not to mention that the ample portion sizes provide an unexpected bargain in stressful economic times.
One appetizer of fried green tomatoes became a satisfying lunch the day after my visit, and my companion used his peppered pork chop — nearly as large as his head — to make soup for nearly an entire week.
And one course where big portions are always welcome is dessert, at which Founding Farmers truly excels. The 1950s-style cakes and pies are straight from Mom’s proverbial kitchen, with the marshmallow-topped lemon tart and red velvet cake particularly delightful.
Save room for a sweet paired with French-press coffee, made by Chicago-based Intelligentsia, and you just might leave the table believing sustainable living is within reach.