Fresh but Flawed: Tom Sietsema Reviews Founding Farmers in Foggy Bottom

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 31, 2009

Founding Farmers
1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

* (out of four stars)
Sound check: 86 decibels (Extremely loud)

Founding Farmers deserves a big round of applause for turning trash into treasure. Designed to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification, the eco-friendly showplace within the IMF building embraces recycled barn wood and high-efficiency lighting. No detail is too small. The menu uses recycled paper and ink made with soy.

The two-story restaurant has been such an attraction since it opened in September that the only way a diner is likely to get a dinner reservation a day or two ahead of the desired date is if he's willing to eat at 5 p.m. or after "Larry King Live" goes on the air. In all my visits, I've never been to the restaurant without encountering a swarm of people in the entrance, waiting beneath floating "clouds" of fireproof fabric for face time with the hostess.

Now, with four meals under my belt, I'm eager to point the crowds in other directions.

Travel & Leisure recently listed Founding Farmers as one of 50 "best new" restaurants in the country, an inclusion that made me curious about what the kitchen did to make the magazine's editors gush. The lone pick for Washington couldn't have been inspired by the roasted mussels, served in a tomato broth so wan I would have sworn it was mere hot water with my eyes closed. Nor would the meatloaf, a slab of dull ground beef with cold Swiss chard and a blank cream gravy, have impressed any discerning palate. The "flatbreads" are a misnomer if what you think you're getting is anything resembling pizza or even a cracker; these are just thick slices of bread with different toppings. And espresso as poured by Founding Farmers is as sour as my mood after I sipped it. (Maybe the Travel & Leisure deciders just drank? Founding Farmers also employs an "executive bar chef" whose libations are up-to-the-minute and tasty.)

Your arrival at the table is followed by a thorough and enthusiastic briefing on the restaurant. (Its name is both a play on "founding fathers" and a reference to the big collective of farmers that owns the venue.) Yet the lines sound rehearsed, as if the staff is reading from a carefully crafted script that doesn't allow for improvisation or interruption. When a waitress ends her epic introduction, she smiles and asks, "So, can I start you off with any drinks or appetizers tonight?," seemingly oblivious to the cocktails parked in front of us and the snacks on their way. At another dinner, a waiter proudly informs us that Founding Farmers is one of only eight LEED-certified restaurants in the world, a claim to (green) fame that prompts a skeptic in my group to inquire about the other seven. Ruffled, the waiter shakes his head, says he doesn't know and shames the inquisitor: "Now I lost where I was!"

The service suggests that of a corporate chain. So does much of the cooking.

The setting, on the other hand, makes a more personal statement. Founding Farmers aimed for a contemporary farmhouse look, and that goal is accomplished with the likes of comfortable, silo-sized booths, overhead pendant lights shaped like birds and a soothing palette. Never mind that the homey carrots, peaches and beets beckoning from big jars on display shelves don't reflect much of the food that comes to the table.

"This menu is all over the map," a friend comments as she navigates the giant document in her hands. Sure enough, there are deviled eggs, Southern fried chicken and beef stroganoff crowding the page along with "popcorn of the day," lobster rolls and cheese plates (one category of cheeses is described in print as "a little distinction, but nothing scary.") The choices pack in every conceivable food trend with the exception of foam. Pork being the rage these days, that means bacon "lollis," which are exactly what they sound like: thick bites of candied bacon affixed to a little stick. While I expected the worst, the snack was more smoky than sweet: Minibar for the masses. The flavor of the appetizer, which comes 10 to a plate, is similar to that of bacon dredged through breakfast syrup. Not bad, in other words.

There's an abundance of "not bad" on the menu. Oysters on the half shell are thin and accompanied by thick dips that completely overwhelm the seafood if they are used, but the oysters themselves are sea-sweet. What looks like a barge sailing toward the table turns out to be my chicken pot pie. Its thin crust is pleasant enough, but it hides a soupy mix of chicken, carrots and onions that all could stand stronger seasoning. A salad that I would be willing to spear again involves cubes of raw tuna, shredded cabbage, tortilla crunchies and a zesty sesame vinaigrette. The delightful jumble sits in the lower third of a glass mixing bowl.

There's plenty that I wouldn't want to see again, too. Founding Farmers' prime rib is juicy enough but void of any beefy flavor. Served upright in brown wax-paper jackets, the fried green tomatoes are notable for their crunchy breaded covers, period. Pastas tilt to the heavy and overwrought. Aggravating those situations is a sound level that, when the place is full, rivals that of a rock concert.

When the entrees are cleared, the sales force at Founding Farmers springs into action again. "And next," one of the waiters announced, just like his colleagues before him, "I'll be back to tell you about our homemade desserts made right upstairs!" The best are probably the Everest-size cakes. The tang of goat cheese in the cheesecake keeps the decadent dessert from slipping into overkill, while the carrot cake impresses us with its exceedingly moist texture and generous icing. Steer clear of the apple turnover, however, which finds sparse fruit entombed in an industrial pastry. Hostess wins that contest.

Founding Farmers strives for "American Gothic." Unfortunately for diners, it settles for Cheesecake Factory.

Open: breakfast Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.; lunch and dinner Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. All major credit cards. Metro: Farragut West. Street parking. Prices: appetizers $5 to $18, entrees $11 to $35.

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