A taste of history

What’s hardtack? Have you ever had wheat berries? What does turtle taste like? These are likely to be some of the questions you might hear, or have yourself, when investigating the menu at The Federalist restaurant. Recently overhauled in design and concept, the establishment is The Madison hotel’s flagship culinary oasis. Its aspirations to resurrect 18th-century Mid-Atlantic dishes are lofty and seemingly in step with a trend to look inward for epicurean inspiration. 

On the menu, regional farms abound, including many from Pennsylvania — the Amish country in particular — and beef from Martin’s Angus Beef in The Plains, Va. Chef de cuisine Harper McClure, most recently from acclaimed local restaurants Marcel’s and Vidalia, makes it a point to take advantage of the Mid-Atlantic’s bounty. He does well in terms of local sourcing but could do more to highlight what exactly is a reinterpretation of early American dishes. Perhaps it’s a matter of better training servers to educate the diners, but it would go a long way to tell the story of some of the dishes — explaining their origins or the source of inspiration — and how they found their way onto a 21st-century menu.

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In lieu of that, hardtack is a crunchy flour-and-water cracker (historically used to sustain sailors and soldiers). It was the starchy accompaniment to the Martin’s grass-fed strip loin tartare, which was hand-chopped into ruby morsels, dressed delicately and paired with crisp house-made pickle rounds and an unfortunately overcooked quail egg. It had a clean taste to it but wasn’t remarkable. 

Turtle does not taste like chicken, if you were wondering; it tastes like veal or beef, especially in this take on the classic beef and barley soup. Snapping turtle soup was, and in some areas still is, a popular dish in Pennsylvania and Delaware. In Chef McClure’s version, the meat was stewed with barley in a sherry and tomato broth until extremely tender; the end result was hearty, deeply flavored and very filling. 

Virginia peanuts, a vastly underutilized ingredient, came in the form of a pureed crème and were partnered with Pennsylvania-raised beets and a sweet-tart reduced vinegar syrup, called gastrique, in the roasted rainbow beets starter. The barely beige colored legume puree offered just a hint of peanut flavor — this is no peanut butter — and added a soft depth of flavor to the composed salad. 

Homage was paid to Maryland’s crab heritage with a hefty jumbo lump cake. The hunks of meat were definitively jumbo and delicately held together. In fact, there was nary a breadcrumb in sight, other than the fine brioche tuile. The sweet crab meat was allowed to shine on its own, but its bed of thickly julienned celery root slaw with Romesco sauce could have used a more delicate hand for slicing. 

The ale-braised short rib was a favorite at the table for its thick cube of ultra-tender meat topped with a dollop of sweet and zingy onion mostarda. Its braising liquid, reduced into a rich sauce, pooled in the serving bowl and coated the kohlrabi and chard vegetables. It cried out for sopping up with the thick slice of sourdough bread. 

Equally delightful, but in a very different way, was the Amish chicken roulade stuffed with a black truffle mousse and delicately cooked to tender perfection. The dish’s Path Valley carrots, described by the server as “incredibly sweet,” and the potato puree, “made with some butter and cream,” were marvelously so. These two dishes alone are worth going back for. 

The roasted Atlantic cod entrée featured the well-known fish in two forms: as a fresh fillet and as a salt cod in the brandade cake. The fillet was aptly cooked to moist flakiness, but the brandade suffered from an overly thick and crisped exterior, though it had a satisfactory taste. What posed as a chervil salad was just a few strands of wispy herb sprouts, and the whipped herb oil could have done a lot more to brighten the dish. 

The one dish that had no saving grace was the rum-braised duck leg. It came to the table looking parched, its bones perched on the sides of its bowl suspending the meat over the cranberry beans, pickled salsify and spiced consommé. Sadly, the meat was indeed dry and uncharacteristically bland. The muted broth and mealy beans further damned the poultry dish. 

Dessert offered some curious revivals of dishes of yore. Syllabub, a traditional English thickened cream dessert, was served in a footed sundae dish with soft and sugary caramelized bananas tucked into the bottom and a sweet thickened cream on top. It fit the bill — a cream lover’s delight. The panna cotta, made particularly interesting by the toasted amaranth bar (amaranth is a type of grain) and lime-espelette granita (espelette is a pepper; granita, like a shaved ice), was a bit of a misnomer. The flavor and texture combinations, ranging from creamy to crunchy, tangy and spicy to sweet, were lovely. But the ratio of gelled cream to grain bar was off — too little panna and too much grain. The blood orange Bavarian, however, was pure delight in every way: cool, refreshing, luscious, tart, honeyed. It had great contrast between the soft mauve-colored blood orange mousse, sponge cake base and crumbly candied zest. 

Despite unreasonably uncomfortable dining room chairs, there was a lot to be enjoyed at The Federalist. The service was attentive and friendly, and the beverage list offered both traditional and signature cocktails and interesting wines at a range of price points. Although you might leave as naïve about 18th-century cuisine as when you came in, you won’t head out without a good sampling of what the Mid-Atlantic region has to offer.