If I were to tell you I recently ate German, Chinese, Swiss and American for dinner, in the shadow of a distillery, an indoor treehouse and a portrait of George Washington reimagined as a hipster — complete with a man bun — you would be forgiven for thinking I was describing a week’s worth of meals in multiple restaurants.
Not so. The debut of Farmers & Distillers in Mount Vernon Square brings together all those cuisines, and all those whimsies, under a single roof. Sibling to Founding Farmers near the White House, and part of an expanding brand under the aegis of the North Dakota Farmers Union, Farmers & Distillers revels in big numbers: 220 employees, more than 300 seats, 12,000 square feet of space spread among “microclimates” and a price tag of $7 million.
The cowhide-bound menu, an astonishing 132 dishes long, lands on the table with a soft thud, the dining equivalent of shock and awe.
The awe is short-lived. Even the best of kitchens would be challenged by the prospect of executing so vast a script. This one seems to think that ginormous portions equal good taste. A maiden dinner finds three of us facing family-size servings of pork schnitzel (fear not, Munich), cumin lamb noodles (nicely numbing) and a raclette offered with a balloon of bread but only a suggestion of cheese and pickled vegetables. The far-flung dishes are explained as connected to either the community (Chinatown is nearby) or the first U.S. president, who owned a distillery and supposedly was a fan of European food.
“Is everything delicious?” an especially perky but inattentive server asks on a repeat visit. She overlooks the fact that I’ve already surrendered an entire plate of spring rolls, having taken a bite of one that released a geyser of grease and only a hint of sweet potato when I tried it. And never mind that one of her colleagues introduced a companion’s first-course chicken broth as the “dip” for the spring rolls.
Are you sure? we pressed him.
He was certain, he said.
Wrong, countered the original server.
“Salt bomb,” declared the recipient of the brown liquid.
Fried chicken is decent. Less pleasant are the nearby sides: collard greens and fried rice, both strangely sweet. A vegetable pizza takes so long getting to us, a manager practically insists on taking it and other food off my bill, an offer I appreciate but decline. The peppers on the pizza are crisp; the three melted cheeses add up no discernible flavor. If you’d gotten it from the freezer case at 7-Eleven, you might think well of it. In a restaurant, not so much.
As at Founding Farmers, the best way to experience Farmers & Distillers is through the bar. The crew behind the poured-resin counter couldn’t be happier to pour you a sample of house-produced rye when you ask, and at least one of the bartenders breaks out in a grin when you order an amaro daiquiri at brunch. “My favorite cocktail,” she says (and her balanced drink demonstrates). Virginia’s Copper Fox Distilling initiates the process of making the spirits, including vodka and gin; the restaurant finishes them.
Save for its industrial-quality desserts, including a cruller with as much oil as the Arabian Gulf, brunch proves the most reliable meal. On display are carved meats, lots of salads, scrambled eggs to suit diverse appetites, meatballs with tang and swagger and . . . “Fried shrimp?” a roving waiter asks, extending a gratis sample, springy and crisp, from the kitchen. Steer clear of the gloppy pasta, however.
The biggest hurdle for Farmers & Distillers is the size of its menu. (It would take months for me to eat my way through the inventory — breakfast sandwiches, dumplings and cauliflower “steak” included.) The easiest way to address the problem would be to scale back ambitions.
Maybe omit a country or two? Diners don’t need the world on a platter.
600 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-464-3001. farmersanddistillers.com. Entrees, $10 to $49.