7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase. 986-5255 Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, noon to 2 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m., Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. V, AE, MC. Reservations for dinner suggested. At lunch appetizers $2.75 to $4, entrees $5 to $8.25; at dinner appetizers $3.50 to $12, entrees $12.50 to $15.25. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $35 a person. Smoking is permitted throughout the restaurant.
WHAT HAPPENS when a restaurant critic is recognized? Here are the two sides of it at La Ferme. I had beautifully orchestrated dinners. Service was a touch too eager, maybe a little awkward in its anxiety to please, but the waiters here clearly know how to serve expertly. Dishes were presented for my inspection, then arranged carefully on the plates. We received what we needed without having to ask, and finished plates were removed promptly but unobtrusively. We had all the service we wanted but not too much. Not only did the waiters know how to do their work suavely, but the busboys were just as smooth and quietly attentive.
It is not surprising that a restaurant would try so hard for a restaurant critic, but many restaurants couldn't serve so well even with the trying.
Still, in such a situation I work at seeing what is happening elsewhere in the room. That is difficult at La Ferme, for it is a very large room carved into spaces that shield one part from another. That's appealing for the diners but didn't allow me to observe the whole. Around my table all was well; in fact, one evening the ma.itre d'h.otel showed extraordinary thoughtfulness to the diners at the next table. And other people who had dined there that evening reported that the service was decent -- if slow -- to very good.
A few days later I got a call from a friend who had heard that I was reviewing the restaurant. She had dreadful service the next night, a Saturday; "I have never had such a bad experience," she declared. A crowd waiting for tables even with reservations, slow service -- these were her complaints and were reiterated by others with whom I checked.
All I can say, thus, is that La Ferme has the capability of performing as well as France's most beloved country restaurants. Its staff can make you feel as if dining is a seamless process in which food appears when you want it and disappears when you don't want it. It can be personalized, and friendly without being overbearing. It can be the best of neighborhood restaurants.
And that's what La Ferme needs to capitalize on, for this is a restaurant whose main asset is its environment. It is in a neighborhood where there are no other restaurants but where there are plenty of neighbors who like to eat out. It has a dining room that has been refurbished wonderfully from its former magic-show/dining format. The room is mostly ivory, white and gray fabrics and unpolished woods; small trees add touches of greenery.
The food is traditional French, fairly simple and straightforward. You might find noodles but not squid-ink pasta, and your fish won't be teamed with fruit any more exotic than lemon. Occasionally the food is wonderful, but more likely it is down-to-earth good, with a fillip added by the environment. And prices are moderate, though the fixed-price menu has apparently been changed to an most appetizers are less than $4, most entrees around $14, so you could keep your bill under $25 and dine fully. The wine list is not so long or interesting as to tempt you to splurge.
The best first course I have tried at La Ferme was a feuillete of seafood, the puff pastry very buttery yet light and flaky, a model of a puff pastry that reminded you why that complicated dough has survived all these years. The seafood was perfectly cooked -- juicy and flavorful shrimp, supple scallops -- and bound with a light cream that had a pearly rich taste without being heavy. Unfortunately it was not on the revised menu. The farm-raised duck p.at,e was, and it is a good job, neither too fatty nor dry, its coarsely diced meat clearly tasting of duck. I have also had a good, solid rendition of crayfish nantua, the lobster sauce full flavored and creamy, the crayfish meaty; and a decently made onion soup. The little terrine of fresh goose liver -- at $12, the extravagance of the menu -- is a lovely, silky and perfectly simple preparation, though a touch too salty. In fact, the only real disappointment I found among appetizers was the crab flan. Its texture was delicate, and though the broccoli adds a pretty green and white dapple, it was flecked with bits of shell and tasted excessively fishy. Other appetizers are the French standbys: lobster bisque, mussels with garlic, seafood crepe, linguini with wild mushrooms and cold cuts.
Salads are strictly the tossed green variety: caesar, spinach with bacon, endive, cress and mixed greens. And La Ferme shows how delicious simplicity can be in a salad.
Main dishes, though, are a
mixed blessing. I would opt for the
simple: grilled fish, browned and
crusty and cooked through but not
overcooked, or steamed shrimps
and scallops in a delicately briny
saffron cream with the crunch of
finely cut vegetables. The best of
the main dishes was a daily special,
a well-crusted tournedo with a rare
red interior, the glorious piece of
meat cooked skillfully and glossed with a faintly sweet foie gras-enriched port sauce. It was indeed a classic, and would lead me to seek the pepper steak, rack of lamb or chateaubriand in its stead. More complicated dishes didn't fare as well. Duck was fat free, but its skin lacked crispness and indeed the meat wa so soft it had lost its resilience, as well as its flavor. Even its lime-flecked brown sauce was toneless. Sweetbreads also had little taste, though more texture than one would want. And its wild mushrooms had been disappointingly tamed. Otherwise, the vegetable accompaniments are highlights at La Ferme. You might find three or more vegetables on a single plate: a subtle cauliflower flan or buttery braised leeks, with perhaps a timbale of white and wild rice that is crunchy and flavorful.
Desserts are at least as good as the appetizers. G.ateau marjolaine is deeply rich chocolate buttercream alternating with nutted layers. Grand Marnier souffl,e -- ordered when you place your main course order -- is an airy fluff crusted with sugar and intensely liquored, with an eggy, silky cr.eme anglaise spooned into it. It is the ideal liqueur souffl,e. Chocolate mousse is dark, dense and silken. No less fine are classics such as floating island, sorbets or raspberry charlotte. Finally, there are choices of coffees from filtre to espresso to decaffeinated espresso. And tea comes in a compartmented wooden box for you to choose your flavor.
La Ferme serves food that is solid and real and not a stage show. The restaurant looks soothing and warm. The staff seem highly capable. If La Ferme can settle into calm and consistency, it will be an admirable country French restaurant just outside the city limits.