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Farmers Union Has D.C. Diners Figured Out | Meal Ticket

“This is really good. I don’t usually get lucky at this franchise,” a dining companion blurted out after registering what sounded like a pleasurable — but evidently rare — experience at the revamped Farmers Fishers Bakers.

To the restaurant’s credit, the compliments kept coming as that particular meal unfolded.

But the initial critique resonated, particularly since I, too, had, over the past several years, endured some less-than-stellar evenings at the various outposts planted around town by the seemingly indomitable North Dakota Farmers Union. And I was hardly alone.

Still, it’s inarguable the NDFU has established one of the most successful hospitality brands in the D.C. area — no small feat given the marquee dining projects that try, and often spectacularly fail, to take root.

Here Comes the Farm Lobby

Though certainly not the first to embrace the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table concept, the NDFU still made a big splash when Agraria opened in 2006 on the Georgetown Waterfront.

Riva Warrilow, marketing and public relations director for Farmers Restaurant Group, said the original project had been in development for several years before the backers brought the finely polished end product to market.

“The board of directors initiated the idea of opening a restaurant back in 2004 as a means of bringing the importance and value of the American family farmer and rancher to the spotlight and to help educate the public about food awareness,” Warrilow said.

The newcomer scored points early by recruiting top talent, including founding beverage manager Derek Brown, who has since established a network of his own swanky cocktail dens, but Agraria soon struggled under the weight of high expectations. “Nice views and good desserts are rare commodities in Washington; political hot air and $35 steaks are ubiquitous. For better or worse, Agraria promotes them all,” Washington Post dining critic Tom Sietsema warned a few months after the grand opening.

Warrilow said the owners noticed as much — “It was a good idea, but lacked true identity,” she suggested — and a major overhaul was approved. They hired a consulting firm to soften the rough edges and in July 2009, welcomed folks to the updated Farmers & Fishers. In the interim, the NDFU launched Founding Farmers (1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW).

“George Washington University profs and students, World Bankers, and the IMF crowd have turned the place into a kind of second cafeteria, while tourists in search of cooking that’s several cuts above fast-casual land there instead of at pricier nearby spots such as Kinkead’s and Marcel’s,” Washingtonian’s Cynthia Hacinli surmised in May 2009.

The downtown spot has only gotten busier, courting early birds and weekend warriors alike with breakfast service and perennially packed brunches, while office drones flood in for claustrophobia-inducing happy hours. A spinoff followed in Montgomery County, Md.

Back on K Street, Farmers & Fishers chugged along until Washington Harbour got flooded in early 2011, a catastrophic event that wiped out many businesses. Against all odds, including market forces and, apparently, acts of god, the NDFU battled back, resurrecting the troubled space into Farmers Fishers Bakers.

Casting a Wide Net

“This is a great place to go when you have a lot of personalities to please. Think of it as a sophisticated Cheesecake Factory,” one FFB fan gushed online.

His choice of superlatives aside, FFB does provide a lot of options.

Another professional critic and I were both initially mystified by the “farmhouse sushi” offerings. The name is clearly a marketing gimmick, as Warrilow explained the underlying fish “comes from all over.” The goal is sustainable, but the restaurant keeps its options open.

The menu was developed by executive sushi chef Thomas Park, a veteran who honed his craft in Austin (Uchi + Uchiko) and who knows his stuff. One house specialty (Park’s favorite) reveals honey-glazed pork belly nestled amid roasted fennel and savory crumbled bacon. The thick, rich belly is terrific, a pickled complement quite zesty.

The pizza program is another new addition, though not an entirely unexpected one given all the brick oven operations dotting the DMV. But FFB did not take the easy route.

“We purposely did not want to do what everyone else in the pizza world is doing,” Warrilow said of the decision to not replicate the Neapolitan pies D.C. diners feverishly seek out. FFB’s pies are fashioned from high-gluten pizza flour (American style) or hard winter-wheat bread flour (farmers style), both of which produce distinctly delicious results.

The Gardener’s Campari sports a fluffy, but not-quite-deep-dish, crust that’s lightly scorched, moderately floppy and easily foldable. The combination of piquant goat cheese, buttery pancetta and extra bitter Campari reduction is amazingly light, complex and magical from bite to bite.

A Detroit Red Top proved equally captivating, summoning a boxy, Sicilian-style offering with cheese baked into the springy crust and rivers of tangy tomato sauce coursing throughout.

Fellow carnivores were sated by porcine-propelled jambalayas (Mad Pig boasts bacon, pulled pork, more belly and Andouille sausage), overly generous chicken constructs (bone-in masterpiece features deep-fried breast accented by one, skyward-reaching wing; picnic-worthy platter heaps honey-stung pieces of succulent bird atop bacon-spiked sweet peas and fork-clinging grits).

Warrilow declined to comment on whether additional restaurants are in the works, but she did not rule out further expansion.

Meanwhile, “The Founding Farmers Cookbook: 100 Recipes for True Food & Drink,” by D.C. food scribe Nevin Martell, is out this fall.

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