If you sow so much, you risk being so-so
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Mother Nature gave Farmers Fishers a new lease on life.
After the spring 2011 flood darkened the restaurant in Georgetown’s Washington Harbour area, the owners used the misfortune to rethink the concept. Basically, they started from scratch. When the establishment reopened last November, diners found a longer name, a menu that left no appetite unmet (sushi, anyone?) and one of the most whimsical dining spaces around.
The fun actually starts outside Farmers Fishers Bakers, with a fire pit for warming cold winter hands, and moves through the doors, where your eyes can’t decide where to focus because there’s so much vying for attention. The vastness is broken up by themes, or what the restaurant calls “microclimates.”
To the right of the entrance is a private eight-seat room with walls lined with rolling pins, a design that hits us over the head with the idea that this kitchen does its own baking. Beyond that arty nook are a bar and a dining hall lined with enough Mason jars of corn and other vegetables to open a farmers market. To the left of the host stand are scores more seats, including booths set in wood-tiled insets that from a distance look like giant showers.
Regardless of where you sit, there’s something to distract you from your iPhone, be it silhouettes of barn frames or miniature dioramas of sanitized farm life that find, among other scenes, tiny workhands shoveling teensy piles of raw sugar from a life-size sugar packet. (All is goodness and light until you hit the men’s restroom, where the decor includes four shiny bull castrators, prompting lots of, well, head scratching and a change of topic back at the table.)
Big restaurants with something-for-everyone menus are a formula for failure. Even with an army of cooks (this kitchen employs 40), it’s difficult to execute everything well. Farmers Fishers Bakers confirms that generality. But if you know how to sift the silver from the silt, you might leave this sibling of Founding Farmers in Washington and Potomac with plans to see it again.
From a place with “farmers” in its title, I expected better salads. They sound appealing, but “shaved cauliflower and Asian pear” is mostly ordinary greens with some pine nuts thrown in, while a clumsy mix of “spinach, mushroom and fennel” makes the mistake of omitting bacon from its list of ingredients; meat is not something a diner necessarily expects in a salad. The best of the crop finds trendy kale, both purple and green, in a lemony toss with grated pecorino, date bits and toasted hazelnuts.
There are nearly a dozen sandwiches. The kitchen does a terrific burger with blue cheese and sweet onions, packing seven ounces of house-ground beef in a tender, lightly toasted bun baked not far from where you’re eating it. Like all sandwiches, it comes with a choice of sides. The fries are forgettable. Potato salad with pickled vegetables is a joy.
So is a main course of short ribs, gutsy from its marinade of soy sauce, ginger and lime and shored up with a tamale cradling sweet corn puree. The turf-and-turf is my favorite memory of Farmers Fishers Bakers. Close behind is the juicy brick-cooked chicken, shot through with thyme and lemon.
The restaurant’s plastic menu can be a metaphor for what sometimes shows up on the plate. Having recently eaten around New Orleans, I can report that the seafood jambalaya at Farmers Fishers Bakers is not an edible postcard from Louisiana. The strapping plate of rice, seafood and timid andouille sausage lacks the classic’s layering of flavors. As much as the servers talk up the raw fish, sushi is the least obvious content on the American-themed menu. The simpler, the better, in my experience. Salmon nigiri presented on a slate slab is as easy on the tongue as the eyes; amberjack painted with tropical accents isn’t bad, but the sauces mask rather than enhance the fish.
Ultimately, however, “fishers” may be the least convincing part of the extravaganza’s title. A mound of uniform fried bay scallops looks and tastes closer to something you’d catch at a fast-food chain. And a crab cake shaped with stringy seafood tastes less than made today; the dish’s oily, undercooked carrots and other vegetables only make me want to ask for the check.
Hold on. Whipped up in a dedicated dessert “studio,” sweet things are portioned as if Goliath were their recipient. Plan to share. And be sure someone orders either the tangy Key lime pie or the lofty lemon pie set on a shortbread crust, both restrained in their sweetness and models of their kind. Coconut cake, on the other hand, is moist and sweet but otherwise flavorless.
Service is — well, it depends. I’ve had clingy waiters, staff who interrupt so often they become part of the table, and not by the customers’ choice. I’ve had careless waiters who deposit food not on the table but on the booth beside me. But I’ve also encountered servers so poised and friendly, I wonder why Nordstrom hasn’t snapped them up. Does the bartender personally deliver all of his (ace) drinks to customers? Forgive me if I sensed I was recognized as a reviewer at some point during all four recent meals at Farmers Fishers Bakers.
Beneath the restaurant’s many layers, there’s a pleasant place to graze. But the plot could use some pruning.