- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Founding Farmers. Alas, that’s the best of it. Founding Farmers, owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union, as is Agraria in Washington Harbour, has none of Agraria’s finesse.

On the corner of 20th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest that for many years was the home of the popular Dominique’s, Founding Farmers is elegant and airy, but it could use a little urban sophistication.

Bare floors and tables, glass walls and an open second floor amplify the loud chatter of the young professionals around the large downstairs bar and adjoining tables. The atmosphere is a little better in the upstairs dining room, where the wooden tables are too close for intimate conversation. Upholstered booths scattered throughout are a more private choice.

The trouble here is more than mere decibels. It’s the cooking, the presentation of dishes and the service, which is amiable and willing but untrained and inefficient. Dirty dishes remained on the table next to ours for more than 20 minutes, and once haphazardly dressed, the table was left protruding into the room, just as the departing diners had left it. First courses arrive at once, while the wait for the main courses - which arrived lukewarm - was a half-hour. Portions are huge and inelegantly presented, perhaps for a farmhand’s rather than a city dweller’s appetite.

These defects would be tolerable were the food worth the wait. It isn’t. Everything we tried disappointed. Best was a “small plate” of skillet cornbread. It arrived in a tiny iron skillet, but it wasn’t cornbread. The small paper-encased round was a combination of spoon bread and corn pudding, pleasantly sweet but with none of the crumbly texture of true skillet cornbread. The butter with the cornbread is sweetened with honey.

Sweetness appears to be one of chef Graham Duncan’s signature touches. Our waiter informed us that the flat breads are on the sweet side, but the flat bread topped with salami, ricotta and pesto that we ordered was neither sweet nor salty. The flat bread - actually thin slices of ciabatta - had been prepared so far in advance that the salami was beginning to sweat and the bread was soggy.

Lovely, large loaves of ciabatta are displayed on a bar counter in the upstairs dining room, but unless a diner asks for bread, none is forthcoming.

Fried green tomatoes could have been a fine shared starter, as the tomatoes were sweet and juicy, but the breading was heavy and tasted of stale frying oil.

Yankee pot roast, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, has a touch of sweetness. A mound of stewlike beef, mashed potatoes and cut vegetables, all smashed together on a large plate, is not what we expect a pot roast to be. The heap of food is appetizing neither to look at nor to taste. The meat had little taste.

Fish fares only a little better. Wild-caught Arctic char was ordered rare, but what came to the table was a thin piece of overcooked fish accompanied by large servings of mashed potatoes and braised, sweetened red cabbage. Red cabbage with fish? It’s a curious combination, and it doesn’t work. The cabbage was very good and would have been fine with roast chicken, duck or game, but it’s too robust to complement char.

Founding Farmers has a complete menu, with cheese plates, soups, sandwiches, entree salads, and fish and meat dishes, including several steaks. The menu and prices don’t change throughout the day.

The wine list is limited, with reds primarily from California, whites from around the world.

When you go, ask for a booth upstairs, and once you’re there, ask for the bread and butter. The bread looked delicious.

RESTAURANT: Founding Farmers, 1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202/822-8783

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, until 11 p.m. Thursday, to midnight Friday, and from noon to midnight Saturday; breakfast 8 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday

PRICES: Lunch and dinner: starters $6 to $14; main courses $15 to $42; desserts $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking; $8 evening valet parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Farragut West

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