We celebrated friends’ almost-due-date last night at The Federalist, a restaurant with a great-looking menu and enough empty tables to make you know, the minute you step into the restaurant, that you’ve made a bad choice. There were about two parties in each of the five-or-so rooms that make up The Federalist, giving everyone privacy but killing any chance at buzz or scene. No one was there. Not a good sign.
As I said, the menu looked great. Market-driven salads and homemade sausage, the requisite beet dish (walnuts, Stilton), lots of seafood, a variety of meat+purée pairings, and even a quail dish. I was tempted by the quail, but my very unscientific analysis suggests that restaurants generally have an easier time with apps than with mains. Think about the last time you didn’t like a restaurant meal: apps good, mains eh, right? TF didn’t seem like the kind of place to take a chance on a $30 lobster entree. I went with the greenmarket salad and the homemade duck sausage served in a consommé.
Between the six of us, we tried 11 of the dishes on the menu. None of the 11 was special, and a few were downright mediocre. TF seems to have some issues with restraint, often muddling a dish with too many disparate components when it would have been better with less on the plate. When’s the last time a tuna tartare needed avocado purée, kumquat chutney, roasted peppers, and sea beans? Never. And by the way: if you’ve got sea beans in house, and you have a market salad on your menu, and it’s winter (precluding the use of tomatoes, peaches, and most other things that make salad pop), why not add some sea beans to the otherwise sleepy mix of lettuce, celery, radishes, and cauliflower? I could make a more exciting (and less aggressively salted) salad at home for a lot less than $10.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with TF - and this is almost never the case for me - was the service. Our waiter tried multiple times to insert himself into our conversation, participated in our jokes, and lingered too long at our table. We asked for a couple recommendations at the start of the meal, and he wound up walking through the entire menu, which for god’s sake, customers never want. He put dishes in front of the wrong people, never checked that I had a spoon for my consommé (nope), and - most offensive of all - assumed that we liked our food, announced as much, and left us no window to share that, in quite a few cases, we didn’t. We ordered three desserts (white chocolate mousse/lemon curd, whoopie pies, tangerine Bavarian) and all three were duds. But because there were six of us, when we all took one bite of each, the plates were left empty. “I see that you’ve clearly enjoyed the desserts,” the waiter says. No, buddy. Six people trying a single (bad) dessert x3 = 3 empty plates and 6 grumpy people. When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. Truly.
All this, and the meal was expensive, too. If your house-made salt cod is actually a row of fritters that taste like fish sticks, you have no business charging $12 for them.
Better service would go along way here. Your job as a server, as far as I’m concerned, is to be helpful, gracious, and unobtrusive. I’m there to hang out with my friends, not my waiter. So many DC restaurants train their waitstaff to be funny, or talkative, or even bombastic (a waiter at a certain middling Mexican restaurant in town once announced that “we started this restaurant because we wanted to shake up the DC dining scene” - dude, seriously. Shut up.). Just get us water (tap, of course), share a few recommendations when asked, put the plates in front of the right people, and ask earnestly if we enjoyed our meal. Less is more.
After yet another mediocre dinner downtown, I’m starting to lose hope that there remain some great restaurants in DC that I have yet to try. Buoy me with your suggestions: where should we go next?