Wherever I go, I always try to find the farm-to-table restaurants -- in fact, my annual top 10 farm-to-table restaurant list is coming up in November! So I had to check out Founding Farmers in Washington this past weekend. The idea is appealing: a casual, family restaurant that's supplied and owned by a collective of American family farmers.
The first sign that something was unusual about the place was that on Open Table (a website where you can make online reservations), Founding Farmers was listed as the most booked restaurant but didn't make it onto any of the "good food" lists. The second thing was that the concierge at the hotel mentioned that the restaurant got some negative reviews, but he liked it anyway (although, he confessed, the staff there always tries to impress him). He was able to get us a table, for which I am very grateful.
I realize I am not the average restaurant-reviewer type -- in fact, I was immediately put at ease by all the loud noise, since I didn't have to worry about shouting at my three-year-old to "Stop licking the table and do not rub your food on the wall and then put it in your mouth, for Lord's sake!" And also, "Do not put your feet on the table and punch your sister." Whew! So my first test of a good restaurant was passed with flying colors. There is a reason all those shopping-mall restaurants are loud, chaotic, and crowded.
The menu was very appealing. Lots to choose from. Even my husband was impressed. He's a snob in reverse. If a restaurant is too fancy, he hates it before he's even tasted anything, and can't enjoy something even if it is really good. He's a good eater, just hard to please. I over-ordered, of course -- my excuse being that since I am a blogger it was my duty to try as much food as I could, to share with my readers. So, I confess, by the time our entrées came, we were too stuffed to eat any more. And due to three-year-old craziness, I didn't even get to read the dessert menu.
But what I had was really good! Really, really good, in that casual, family-restaurant sort of way. But without the gross-out guilt factor that comes from thinking about how factory-farmed food is produced. We ordered the mini-cheeseburgers, which were totally yummy (fries were awesome, too). The New England clam chowder was fantastic. The salads were okay. They got the wrong dressing on mine (blue cheese -- which I just can't eat). I have to admit the main course was fairly generic and did not live up to my expectation; I had the rotisserie chicken, and the skin was not crispy. But the highlight was a "flatbread," which was really just a superfresh piece of home-baked bread, spread with ricotta cheese, salami, and a light pesto ... it was both delicious and memorable. One of the ways I judge a restaurant's worth is whether or not there was something I can take home and make myself, or can figure out how to make just from tasting. Something I want to make because it tasted so good and is so unexpected or different. That flatbread was it. Bread with ricotta, salami, and pesto.
So, while Founding Farmers might not be on a par with some of the best farm-to-table restaurants I've been to, it's a model worth replicating around the country. I would much rather go to a place like it once or twice a week with the whole family, knowing I was supporting organic family farmers with my choices, than eat anywhere else (other than home). And the giant crowd of people waiting and trying to book tables must agree.
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com.