The innocents in the onslaught of new restaurants are old ones that get passed over in favor of shiny baubles. Especially if you live in the District, where diners enjoy an embarrassment of riches, the tug of novelty tends to beat the sentiment of Throwback Thursday.
In a step toward remedying the situation, I’ve been looking around the landscape for restaurants that haven’t been written about in a long time and discovered a major oversight: A country-French inn a mere seven miles from the White House that hasn’t seen an update in this forum since 2001 — 16 years after it started serving grilled Dover sole and dessert souffles in Chevy Chase. The subject’s name is La Ferme, a restaurant I don’t recall ever visiting, and it deserves your attention for more than just its elder status.
Are you as tired of noise as I am of yelling about it? La Ferme, owned by French native Alain Roussel for its entire 33 years, is one of the area’s most pleasant places to catch up with friends, do business or toast a big day; precious few dining rooms can trumpet a decibel count of 61, as rare as a triple axel on ice. Conversation is easy, in other words.
Unless, of course, you’re seated near the piano, another long-running feature at what translates from French as “the farm.” Carlton Saunders is only the second person to tickle the ivories here, and he’s likely to stroll through the dining room to elicit requests, which run from the expected “New York, New York” to the vaguely familiar theme from “The Odd Couple.”
There’s also a fireplace in this restaurant, plus a peaked ceiling, lace curtains and pale yellow tablecloths (remember those?). Winter was made warmer, in every sense of the word, because of the fieldstone hearth. At the request of his clientele, Roussel, a one-time chef at the French consulate, turned a private room into a small bar 1½ years ago. Some of the most sought-after seats are the two perches for two on the balcony overlooking the main dining room. Roussel figures 250 men have proposed from on high, mostly to the tune of “yes,” but not always. “We’ve had drama, too, screaming and crying,” he recalls. Good thing there’s a private room, just a step away, for timeouts.
The food at La Ferme? We’re talking onion soup, coquille St. Jacques, even chateaubriand for two. The menu isn’t so old-fashioned that it doesn’t acknowledge trends, but the list is by and large a roll call of oldies (some of which are also goodies). The art is knowing what to order, and if my multiple dinners and decades-old reviews are a gauge, seafood should be on your radar.
“We’re not trying to be perfect,” says Roussel, La Ferme’s opening chef. “What we do is not for everybody.” A sense of routine and (let’s be honest) a big parking lot in the back of the restaurant — no small detail in these parts — have helped draw several generations of diners to La Ferme, whose building was a house of magic and a girls’ school before the restaurant opened. (Chef Scott Chambers has been with his employer just a few years shy of Roussel’s time at La Ferme, a favorite of Nancy Reagan, who enjoyed the alcove table, No. 34, when her husband was in the White House.)
Dinner opens with warm crusty bread, which turns out to be a great mop for every drop of oysters fricassee. The oysters, plump and tender, luxuriate in a bath of cream in the company of crisp bacon, soft potatoes and chopped leeks. Add a crack of pepper, and life is swell.
Lobster bisque calls for some of that bread, too. It’s a bowl that gets its richness from lobster shells that have been roasted with mirepoix, but also from cognac and cream. Tomato paste adds depth; tarragon lends a hint of anise. Come to think of it, the onion soup, made with chicken stock and a blistered cap of Emmental, is happy-making, too, like the first few notes of “The Pink Panther” theme song that inserts itself from the pianist into your table conversation.
A couple of meals in, I’m inclined to make a meal of just appetizers. They conspire with the service and the ambiance (okay, and the big stiff drinks) to make you glad to be in such a cozy environment. The reinforcements include the aforementioned scallops, their sweetness underscored in winter with butternut squash ravioli, and a little herbed casserole of mushrooms and snails.
Apply my fish rule to the main courses and spring for the trout amandine. The butter-kissed fish comes showered in toasted slivered almonds along with simple boiled potatoes and green beans that retain some resistance. The pleasure is such that I half expect to see a brook outside. Dover sole is good eating, too, if a little smokier (from the grill) than I prefer.
With the exception of liver and onions, shored up with good whipped potatoes, and the occasional special (sausage-stuffed quail), meat selections usually make you wish you were eating something else. The choucroute has abundance in its favor, but once you pick out the lesser parts (mute sausages, tinny sauerkraut), you’re left with a thin smoked pork chop and a pot of mustard for $32. The worst record scratch is venison, thin slices of meat slicked with an institutional-tasting brown sauce. Should you augment a meal with a side, make it the soothing potato gratin instead of the limp Brussels sprouts, which go down like leftover leftovers.
You’ll be asked at the beginning of the meal if you want a souffle, and if you’re a classicist, the height will be more impressive than the sometimes soupy interior. Creme brulee is about what you’d expect: sweet, soft, served with an almond tuile — and easy to finish.
“This is where we come for birthday lunches,” I overhear a bejeweled woman tell the man across from her. She’s sipping chardonnay, he’s drinking a martini. She opts for the trout, he gets liver and onions. Their server doesn’t deliver any mission statement from the chef, and the nearby fire helps everyone forget it’s raining cats and dogs outside.
My predecessor, Phyllis C. Richman, concluded her 1989 review of the restaurant with this: "I recommend La Ferme to people who want festivity without grandeur, warmth without presumption, good food that is familiar but still special." Her long-ago conclusion holds up pretty well. For richer or poorer, La Ferme is a time capsule. Whether you feel trapped in amber or wistful for kinder, gentler days hangs largely on your response to "What can I get you tonight?"
7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase, Md.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $8 to $14, main courses $24 to $85 (chateaubriand for two).
Sound check: 61 decibels / Conversation is easy.