Personality on the Plate
At C.F. Folks, it's impossible to resist the shtick with your lunch
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Half the thrill of going to lunch at C.F. Folks is the chance that the owner is going to mess with you. Art Carlson knows just what to say to simultaneously embarrass and endear a customer to his shoebox next to the Palm. Especially if you're a guy.
Consider the gray day I took a colleague and two umbrellas to the place. "What a bunch of [wimps]!" Carlson bawled as we sheepishly positioned ourselves in front of the beige Formica counter where the 66-year-old restaurateur has held court during weekday lunch hours for the past 28 years. Throwing out his chest and pretending to barrel heroically through a storm, Carlson asked aloud, "Whatever happened to ... ?" His mugging suggested that the rest of the unfinished question was "real men."
Something as routine as a carryout request for a tuna fish sandwich comes with a side of shtick here. When a customer mentions that the sandwich is for a colleague back at his office, Carlson wants to know, "boy or girl?"
Girl, the customer says.
"Multi-grain" bread, the owner jots down. Had the recipient of the sandwich been a man, Carlson says, he would have written "white" bread on the slip, "and [the guy would] want a milkshake, too," even though milkshakes aren't on the menu here.
But red beans and rice are, at least on Mondays. Seemingly forever, this tiny kitchen has promoted the New Orleans staple as a Monday feature. By now, regulars also know that Tuesday means a Latin American special, Wednesday alternates between an Italian and an Indian dish, Thursday brings something American, and Friday highlights a Mediterranean-flavored entree. There are more than a dozen sandwiches, too, and they're perfectly respectable, but visiting C.F. Folks for a sandwich is like going to Starbucks for tea or a wine bar for a brew.
Besides, there's a new face in the kitchen, the talented and nomadic George Vetsch. The Swiss native has done time at a lot of Washington restaurants -- among them the Oval Room, Circle Bistro and the late Etrusco -- but to hear him talk, his latest gig might be his best yet. "I don't have to manage people," he says, and for the first time in years, "I have Saturday and Sunday off." Better still for customers, "I'm cooking what my mother used to make" -- cabbage rolls, peppers stuffed with lamb -- "and what I loved as a kid." Plus, it's no secret that his boss, who suffered a stroke three summers ago, is mulling retirement and would like nothing better than to hand the reins to a chef who shares his philosophy of good food at a good price.
Lunch counters are hard to come by in Washington. Good ones are scarcer still. It would be easy to applaud C.F. Folks just for being there, but Carlson and now Vetsch don't play the nostalgia card to fill the 11 green stools, 8 indoor tables and 24 al fresco seats. Instead, they win us over with equal parts eccentric charm and plates of food that taste as if they should carry more than a $13 price tag, which is the average cost of the six or so main courses that change daily.
A glance around the 600-square-foot interior of C.F. Folks (the name combines the initials of Carlson and his business partner, Peggy Fredricksen) shines a light on the host's interests. One shelf sags under the weight of a small library's worth of serious cookbooks; another is a showcase for old campaign buttons -- and also cans of Alpo and Cheez Whiz. Alongside a display of potato chip bags hangs a paper "mood meter" that starts at "Beloved" and ends with "Postal." The last time I was in, the sign's marker was set to the middle: "Like We Care."
The phrase is a joke within a joke, because Carlson and company so obviously do care about what they're doing. Those irresistible french fries with your entree come from potatoes cut by hand and twice-fried in flavorful duck fat. It's a small but telling statement, especially given the closet known as the kitchen. Its size prevents Vetsch from doing two things he likes: baking his own bread and making pasta.
One afternoon I find myself slicing into a piece of mahi-mahi that could pass the fish test at Pesce, Dupont Circle's sunny seafood spot. The fillet is perfectly cooked, lapped with a creamy herb sauce and served with skinny green beans tossed with bits of bacon. Another day, I feel as if I've been transported to a French bistro, thanks to rosy slices of duck arranged over a bed of wild rice, halved grapes and bits of mango. Tasting Vetsch's homey roast chicken draped with a winy gravy, I imagine I'm back at his childhood home near Zurich. Like most entrees, this one comes with a small, well-dressed salad, a chunk of decent bread and a foil-wrapped pat of butter.
There are few subjects Vetsch can't nail, although Carlson jokes otherwise: When the chef was hired over the winter, "he couldn't spell India," an allusion to the dal (lentils) Vetsch now makes as an occasional Wednesday special.
The crab cake is described on the menu as "Washington's Best!" I wouldn't go that far, although I do appreciate the generous round of crab, mayonnaise and mustard patted down with fresh bread crumbs and cooked so that the surface develops a dark golden crust. The filling of a pork barbecue sandwich includes crisp edges of meat and a tangle of fried onion ringlets, but the sauce is too sweet for my taste. Both sandwiches come with a bit of coleslaw that emphasizes cream over cabbage.
The guys and gals who help Carlson take orders and deliver food are a chip off the old block. "Can I hustle you for dessert?" one asks me with a straight face after he clears my plate (plain white china, of course). If peach cobbler appears on the chalkboard, go for it. The fruit is canned ("We're a diner, okay?" sighs Vetsch), but it comes in a cover of warm white cake that makes up for that fact. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to the deal, and you'd better have time in your afternoon schedule for a nap.
Lots of questions swirl around this pint-size institution as I type. Will Carlson successfully negotiate terms with his landlord that allow him to serve alcohol, and thus afford the cost of renovating the gently faded interior? Will Vetsch stick with the game and eventually take over the show?
"I don't know what's going to happen," the chef tells me on the telephone. "For the moment, I'm very happy." And so, when I ask him, is the boss.
Here's hoping these folks stay put at Folks.