Does "Local" Have to Mean Mediocre?

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Photo by Michael Moran, Courtesy Founding Farmers

I went out with some high expectations. A colleague mentioned the restaurant, Founding Farmers, and said it was owned by a collective of family farmers and used fresh and local ingredients from family farms, ranches, and fisheries (as the web site proudly proclaims).

My date was excited: it was a "hip" restaurant. Which I understood when I tried to make reservations and there were none to be had. Thankfully, so I wouldn't be too embarrassed, there would be tables available that night. When we arrived at 6:30 on a Saturday night, the wait was expected to be a little over an hour. (Fortunately, it turned out to be a mere 40 minutes, which we were able to spend at the bar talking.)

I regret to inform you that this was a disappointing meal. After the wait for a table, we were escorted to the table and noticed a nice, eclectic mix of ages and dress: everything from suits and cocktail dresses to jeans and some guy in an eye-catching, sparkling gold metallic coat. Being an oldie, I liked the gentle '70s music that played all night, like James Taylor's "Mexico." The waiter noted that all the materials were made in a sustainable manner and the lights used energy efficient light bulbs. Indeed, Founding Farmers might be the only DC restaurant to meet the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Standard.

I love the idea of Founding Farmers. The fact that the actual dining experience--the food--did not match pains me.

But the Farmer's salad of baby lettuces was notable only for the luscious avocados, with their buttery consistency. The rest could easily be made at home with lettuce from any farmer's market. I ordered a boneless rib eye steak. I almost never, ever order steak in a restaurant unless it is somehow super special--Kobe or Wayue--but the other entrees seemed solid, reliable, and uninspired.

There was Southern pan-fried Chicken, chicken pot pie, Yankee pot roast, crab cakes, scallops, and various beefs. While the steak was very large--enough to cause a cardiologist to worry and recommend an aspirin--the medium-rare order came bloody-rare, as if it had been cooked about a minute on each side. The accompanying red cabbage and Yukon gold mashed potatoes were good but hardly noteworthy.

The two big hits of the evening were the homemade ginger ale and the dessert. The ginger ale was refreshing, with just enough sting of ginger at the finish to perk you up but not burn your throat. The apple turnover was crusty, not my usual preference: I like a little crust and a lot of cooked apples. But this crust was home made and had a rich, buttery flavor. Even better was the accompanying vanilla ice cream. It was filled with the flecks of vanilla beans, with a delicate, ever so slightly spicy flavor that was not overpowering to the palate. The combination of vanilla with the apples redeemed an otherwise mundane dinner.

I love the idea of Founding Farmers: the environmental sensitivity, the support of family farms, the eclectic mixing of diners. So the fact that the actual dining experience--the food--did not match pains me. Go there to support the ideal of energy efficiency and sustainable design, family farms, and local produce and a solid, reasonably priced diner. But not when you want to be inspired or moved by a meal.

1924 Pennsylvania, NW in Washington DC