I sat, cross, my arms crossed. I had pushed away my plate with an expression that echoed my repugnance. It was a betrayal so grand as to be inconceivable at first. I looked around for signs that this was all a practical joke, that I had unknowingly fallen victim to the candid camera. Surely this hadn’t really been the Founding Farmers experience, a night at the place that once pioneered farm-to-table in D.C. before it was cool to be conscious of that sort of thing. The restaurant was packed to the brim with excitedly chattering patrons, their smiles exuding enthusiasm. Were they all just actors in some parody?
Rewind an hour and a half. My dinner companion and I shuffled awkwardly through a mob crammed into the foyer to wait for late reservations. As we checked in at the stand, the hostess warned us that our 8:30 would be pushed at least 40 minutes. Her first suggestion was that we go somewhere else and come back. Could she call us when they’re ready? No, they don’t do that. My first impression, then, – a rude shrew who clearly wanted to get rid of us and did very little to hide it. I asked if they checked coats, so that I at least would not have to stand around with my arms around a pillowy cloud of down. They don’t do that either, but there’s one 4-foot high rack (shaped like a tree!) near the door that I can risk leaving it on or just perch next to for 40 minutes. And, well, standing in the waiting area with ice cold wind blowing in every time the door opens has its perks too. A man comes around with a tray of complimentary sugar-dusted beignets to appease the impatient. I wasn’t impressed. I guess I’m the only one who does not crave fried balls of sweet dough before dinner.
Having decided not to idle helplessly in the fish tank of strangers, we approached the bar. We judged it a slightly less stressful environment. Reading off the menu, I got some berry flavored sparkling thing, which came with frozen blueberries and a tower of ice so high that it nipped my nose every time I took a sip. I get enough frost on my face just by going outside without a ski mask these days; I certainly don’t need it from my cocktail. I also got a Bone with Knob Creek, lime juice and Tabasco. It came with a “bacon lolly”, which was actually a thick slab of hard bacon, over-seasoned with cinnamon and maple, sticky and as tough to chew as jerky. When my dinner companion asked for less ice, our bartender (let’s save the designation “mixologist” for those who deserve it!) barked back that less ice means a glass half full. The Bourbon was overpowered with Tabasco and a “little heat to it” translated to a burnt tongue with taste buds too damaged to taste anything for the next few minutes. (Had I known what was to come, I would’ve ordered two of these.) I also got a Farmer Jon with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, orange curaçao and lemon juice. Citrusy and light, but nothing special. Assuming that a Southern type place with a good reputation was bound to offer a decent version, I ordered the Fried Green Tomatoes, which came with a ramekin of herbed goat cheese and one with Green Goddess to dip into. The cornmeal crust would have been the perfect crunchy contrast to the thick slice of green tomato, had the thing been fried for maybe a minute or two longer. As it was, the cornmeal was dangerously light in color, and the flour-egg batter underneath appeared raw and white, adding an unpleasant slime to the bite. How it’s possible to screw these up is beyond me – the crust practically screams out “I’m done!” when it gets golden brown. These were pale blonde, underdone. The tomato inside was juicy enough, a nod to the farmer rather than the kitchen. The dips were nice, with a thick and glossy texture, and plenty of piquant flavor. What a shame there was nothing edible to spread them on!My dinner companion ordered the Yankee Pot Roast, a colossal mound of roast chuck and veggies drowned in a pool of gravy and topped off with that all too cheap a thrill, fried onion strings. Apparently there were some slimy mashed potatoes somewhere at the base of the dish, also suffocated by the weight of the wet beef and the thick soup of jus. The dish looked like a regurgitated pile of something that had already been eaten. The beef was tender but to the point of falling appart too readily, and the dish was over-seasoned, particularly with celery salt. Crunch and freshness were missing and there was nothing to offer textural contrast to a big bowl of warm, wet, mushy stuff. $16? I’d choose my own Crock Pot creations. For my entree, I ordered what the restaurant is perhaps most well known for, the Southern Pan-Fried Chicken and Waffles with maple syrup, white gravy and a side of macaroni and cheese. When the dish came out I was impressed by the size and eager to tear into what looked like a juicy bit of dark meat. One bite of one wing was enough. A crust that was otherwise fried to a nice color and speckled here and there with bits of black peppercorn, was over-salted to the point of being inedible. The crust was slimy and raw on the inside, causing the fried coat to slide off the chicken flesh, leaving behind a starchy, white film of uncooked batter much like the one present on our appetizer. The chicken itself was undercooked, even for me, and as I peeled the meat off with my fingers, I caught a glimpse of pink flesh near the bone. The thick, starchy “gravy” on the side didn’t help much, as it just added more salt and a goopy glaze to an already soaked through and salty bite.
While the chicken threatened salmonella, the waffles made me reach for my Bourbon to delete the flavor of them from my conscious entirely. Either the batter was literally rotten or it just had too much yeast in it to bear. The flavor was rancid, the texture soggy. I would’ve honestly preferred my pothead college boyfriend’s sloppy midnight Eggo’s. I didn’t even try to salvage them with maple syrup because, again, one bite was more than enough. Still hungry, and foraging wildly through my plate for something edible, I came across a vile puddle of neon yellow mac-and-cheese. Rubbery macaroni curb-stomped onto the plate by an aggressively salty, processed-as-all-hell queso that somehow managed to simultaneously be watery and lumpy.
Back-lit pantry shelves lined with oversized jars of pickled vegetables greet diners at the door at Founding Farmers, with the intention of forcibly hammering home the concept of farm-to-table, rather than hinting at it with modesty and grace. Being a lover of all things briny and tart, and curious about these jars, I chose the Pickled Veggie Potato Salad as my side. What I got was a bowl of starchy, grainy, cold Yukon golds drenched in red wine vinegar with a few limp and tired slivers of red onion, celery and cauliflower folded in. The lack of cohesion between these ingredients became painfully evident as the “pickles” slid off the clammy potato chunks, the skins of which peeled lazily away from the mealy spud flesh. Maybe a waxier potato, such as a fingerling or red bliss, would’ve been a better choice for this preparation. Maybe substantial chunks of pickled but crisp carrots and cucumbers would’ve stood up to the potato more so than did the phlegmy strands of tired brussel sprout leaf and onion. I imagine the kitchen was going for “a lighter take on backyard BBQ potato salad” but what it achieved was a cold, damp bowl of sludgy, sour potatoes. I never thought anything could make me crave Paula Deen’s artery cloggers. I would’ve traded this stuff in for her mayo-coated comfort food version in a heartbeat.
My dinner at Founding Farmers, just like any other tragedy would, left me in shock for a few days. After recovering in silence, I became verbal. I plan to remain outspoken about just how great a disappointment this experience was, just how duped and foolish I felt as we walked out on that bitter cold evening. A few days ago I jested to a friend about how I would’ve preferred Bojangles’ Two Piece Dinner with fixin’s to the travesty that was FF’s Chicken and Waffles, when it began to dawn on me that what I had said wasn’t a joke at all. Though probably made of powder, Bojangle’s mashed taters tasted better and satisfied me more than the pungent, rigormortis potato side at FF. Bo’s chicken, though definitely not cage-free, had been cooked through and its crust was palatable. The biscuits bubbled with butter and steam instead of lying there limp and soggy as did FF’s waffles. For around $6 at Bo I would’ve gotten a tastier version of the same meal that cost $16 at Founding Farmers. The ingredients would not have been organic or local but they would have tasted good, which is more than I could say for Founding.
Maybe back when it opened local, farm-to-table and sustainable were innovative and forward-thinking concepts in the restaurant scene of D.C., but in 2014 they are not. They are now a given, across the board. It seems that Founding Farmers, no longer able to cling to its original gimmick, has stumbled head-first into mediocrity.