If you could magically have one job in the world, what would it be? For me, it would be food critic. Getting paid to eat - what could be better? With the source of food, especially animal meats, becoming more and more a question on people’s minds, I decided to start an on-going series on farm-to-table restaurant reviews fulfilling my need to constantly find places I feel food is safe to eat and where the local farmer has an important role with what’s on the menu. And, of course, to also fulfill my fantasy of having Frank Bruni’s job. This won’t be a hard core critical look at food, but my humble opinions on what’s cooking.
The motivation for this series started when I planned a trip to the Washington DC/Baltimore and Charlottesville, Virginia area. I know my local haunts and going into uncharted territory I wasn’t sure where to plan our meals. How does one find a restaurant that strongly believes in supporting small local farms? Surely, this is where I want to spend my tourist dollars and to experience the terroir of the region in the food and wine. I found, like many other things, that if you just google "farm to table" and the city in question, you’ll find a smattering of suggestions. More specifically, the website Local Harvest, can locate farms, restaurants, and Farmers’ markets by zip code and is an invaluable website when doing your research.
Located minutes from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, Founding Farmers, a play on the rich “founding fathers” history of the area was our first destination. This is farm-inspired eatery serves “scratch-made traditional American classics inspired by the heartland” all in a certified eco-friendly Green Restaurant. From the energy efficient and reycled building elements to the use of filtered water and low-fume paints, this dynamic space was obviously the hotspot of DC. The mission of the restaurant is to buy from family farmers whenever possible, some local, some not. From their menu:
“The difference between institutional/corporate farming vs. family farming affects everyone: our health, our land, and our lives.”
We first started with a few cocktails with the most memorable one called “Bone” - a combination of Knob Creek whiskey, lime juice and tabasco garnished with a sweet bacon lollipop! A stiff drink, the bacon made for an interesting pairing that took the edge off the hard liquor element. I enjoyed it for the novelty but wouldn’t go back for seconds.
For appetizers, we had the popcorn of the day - Rosemary-butter, which was shockingly addictive. There were raw oysters from Maryland that were absolutely perfect and skillet roasted Mussles with Chorizo in a white wine pesto broth that was so good we drank the broth after wolfing down the mussels. For dinner, we had the Southern Fried Chicken Salad which was buttermilk-marinated fried chicken on top of iceberg lettuce, bacon, avocado and cheddar. Not usually a fan of iceberg lettuce, this came together to feel both satisfying and somehow light at the same time. The piece de resistance was the Fresh-ground Cheeseburger. The meat, tender, tasty, perfectly cooked had a sauce reminiscent of the secret sauce in a Big Mac. This burger made our top 5 hamburgers of all-time. Don’t miss this one.
This was our first experience with a farm-to table restaurant with a comfort-driven food feel. Expecting to feel our energy plummet after eating the heavier comfort foods, we surprisingly felt fine. A reflection, I’m sure, of the high quality sourced ingredients.
Located about 50 miles north of DC in Frederick, Maryland, VOLT was our second night’s dinner adventure. Being a huge fan of Top Chef and the Voltaggio brothers, I was excited to see Bryan Voltaggio’s menu. The restaurant is located in a 19th century restored brownstone mansion. The decor was an interesting mix of natural elements with a strong undercurrent of the 1980’s from the abstract artwork and the white seating with black accents to the Converse sneakers worn by all the waitstaff. A fun theatrical element was a wide-screen TV at the bar showcasing the kitchen in action so that all patrons could partake in the culinary spectacle.
The close proximity of VOLT to the area’s numerous artisanal farmers and ranchers drives the menu. Meats were sourced from nearby Shenendoah Valley specifically the heritage breed Red Wattle Pork and Border Springs Lamb.
Overall, we were pleased with the service, and the food was excellent with a few extraordinary dishes that were highly memorable: Cherry Glen Farm Goat cheese ravioli with butternut squash, maitake mushrooms, toasted pumpkin seeds and celeriac . Artic char with carnival squash, pumpkin leaves, black forbidden rice, matsutake mushrooms in brown butter. Both of these dishes were second courses.
Maine Avenue Fish Market
There is nothing more local and seasonal than crabs in Washington DC. I always follow the simple rule: If the month ends in the letter “r” i.e. October through December - that’s when crabs are in season. One of the last remaining open seafood markets on the east coast, the Maine Avenue Fish Market has been in operation since 1805 - older than the Fulton Fish Market in NYC. DO NOT MISS this destination if you are ever in the area. Freshly shucked oysters and clams were almost for the taking but my main mission was to get messy with some steamed Maryland crabs seasoned with Old Bay spices.
Right before your eyes, crabs were selected, brought back to the kitchen and presented to you in a brown paper bag. It’s advisable to bring some towelettes since there are no washrooms available and your fingers are the only utensils needed for good crab eating. Standing looking out over the water I made a bib out of a bunch of napkins and chowed down until my hands hurt. Crabs were sold by the size and were a bargainous $20 for a dozen. The meat was plentiful, succulent, and as flavorful as can be. When crabs are in season the eggs located in the head of the crab are sublime. I sucked them all dry and dream of them as I write this blog wishing I could teleport back for just another taste.