eat it, you never have to prove your courage
in any other way.”
— Gen. Corman, “Apocalypse Now”
It is the end of an era. Restaurant Associates, a paragon of institutional food service, is leaving the House side of the Capitol complex. House administrators, facing the end of Restaurant Associates’ contract, changed course, opting for new blood.
That new blood will come from Sodexo, which will arrive with promises of Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts. The transition, from the Ford Deli to the House Restaurant, will be complete on Aug. 10.
We come not to praise Restaurant Associates, but to bury them.
And what better way to bid fare thee well than to sample the fare from each of the soon-to-be departed RA outlets, from the hospital-chic digs of Ford to the Capitol Market basement breakfast bar. Time was short. Stale cookies were many. It was the best of times for Where Roll Call Dares. It was the worst of times for most taste buds.
Unlike picking one’s favorite child, it proved remarkably easy to rank the outgoing eateries from most to least appealing (and potentially hazardous to one’s gastrointestinal fortitude).
The Capitol Market
Granted, even when in session, Congress typically doesn’t get going until noonish. That means most lawmakers are probably best acquainted with the specialty plates and baskets of jumbo chicken fingers and french fries that fly out the door like clockwork every afternoon.
But early risers are none too shy about fueling up for the hours/days/weeks ahead.
As the morning marches on, the bagel selection shrinks proportionately — “Do you have ANYTHING other than sesame back there?” one latecomer asked staff, to no avail — whereas a stockpile of chocolate muffins holds strong. Healthy eaters have their pick of fruit, either fresh (whole oranges, bananas and Granny Smith apples are readily available; diced melon, mixed berries and pineapple dot the salad bar) or pre-packaged (berries incorporated into yogurt parfaits and pudding cups).
The hot bar wants not for processed meats, tempting patrons with dueling sausages (pork and turkey), two types of bacon (ditto), corned beef hash and sausage gravy.
And then there’s the scrapple.
The Pennsylvania-born delicacy melds leftover pig parts with cornmeal, baked into loaves and sliced into sandwich friendly slabs. We topped ours with melted cheddar, layered on a pair of fried eggs, added a dose of smoky barbecue sauce and pressed everything between grilled marble rye. Now that’s good eatin’.
Perhaps the homiest of the hospitality venues, Rayburn’s cafeteria also seems to field the most interesting dining options.
In addition to a well-stocked salad bar — a wide variety of fresh greens, a bounty of vegetables (everything from shaved carrots to whole broccoli florets) and mixed proteins (grilled chicken breast, canned tuna, raw tofu) — Restaurant Associates carved out room for a build-your-own-burger (BYOB!) station, comfort-food buffet and carry-out sushi stand.
The “late riser” is a breakfast burger with bite.
The extra spark is provided by zesty Tabasco-spiked ketchup that starts sweet but builds to a respectable burn. The hearty beef patty, lacy fried egg and smoky bacon all get along famously.
Fried chicken is fine; a significant amount of breading yields a respectable crunch while the underlying meat remains juicy. Baked mac and cheese sports an enticing crust only to give way to dull noodles. Potato wedges are thick, spicy and ultimately dry.
The surprise stunner? Fork-tender brisket.
The slow-cooked beef was fattier than some might like. And while Rob Sonderman over at DCity Smokehouse has nothing to fear here, the tender, lightly sauced ′cue was none too shabby.
The same could not be said about the woefully generic sushi.
“I wouldn’t want to inflict that on anyone else,” Dick said when asked if he would ferry the uneaten pieces back to the office.
Freebasing caffeine is every American’s god-given right.
The Creamery allows one to do so with style via the artfully crafted espresso shake.
“I think she put about eight scoops of ice cream in there for you,” Dick commented while watching Creamery staff assemble a font of frozen goodness featuring two shots of freshly brewed coffee, a blender-full of vanilla- and caramel-swirled white chocolate ice cream, coffee syrup (because, America), whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. The resulting drink is a doozy, flooding the senses with compounded sweetness cut with just the right amount of wake-up juice.
Hats off to RA for peddling a full array of sweets (more than a half-dozen types of cookies, plus assorted muffins and cakes) as breakfast fare, but the real heavy-duty grazing happens here during lunch hours.
On any given day there’ll be backups at the grill or custom sandwich counter. Things seem to flow more freely at stations dishing out exotic fare.
Cod soaking in salsa verde is rather bold. The typically mild fish greatly benefits from a soak in the striking mix of citrus and herbs.
Cuts of chili-lime pork are notably blubbery, but the meat that is there smacks of cumin, acid and pepper.
Further down the line the World Tacos booth, while exciting a long line of patrons, was confused in presentation and lacking in tastiness — the kind of experience that might turn off potential travelers.
The future stomping ground of displaced Cannonites is pretty hit or miss.
There’s a lunch grill that dishes out burgers, appetizers and sad looking slices of pizza.
Fried chicken wings were buried beneath a “colossal amount of breading,” according to Dick. The heavily covered skin does convey a significant crunch, but also magnifies the acrid taste of overused oil that saturates the bird.
The salad bar is bolstered by antipasti offerings (southwest turkey salad and vegetable orzo caught our eye). A dessert station traffics in giant cookies (chocolate chip, sugar) and select pastries (frosted cupcakes, lemon meringue pie).
A Philly cheesesteak was tough to digest.
“How does an incredibly greasy sandwich become dry?” Dick wondered after his initial bite. The combination of griddled steak, sweet peppers and lightly caramelized onions fit together well, but could certainly have used a touch of mayo. The fact that it was served on a kaiser roll (they were out of Italian bread) was, however, unforgivable.
And the taco bar at Ford? “Those are tacos?” Rojas asked, pointing at the sad plate under Ford’s fluorescent lights.
“They are somewhere,” Dick said.
“Well, technically, they can’t tell this is anywhere,” Rojas added.
A haven for those in need of bulk snacks (trail mix, anyone?), protein bars or hot buttered popcorn, we found the frozen yogurt dispenser to be absolutely indispensable. What’s not to like about containers full of vanilla, chocolate or swirl froyo covered in chocolate sprinkles, crushed peanuts and caramel sauce? Treat yo’ self!
The home of oversized subs and assorted salads — we spotted around a half-dozen, including classic tuna salad, tarragon chicken salad with almonds, honey mustard turkey salad and shrimp salad — typically gets the job done.
The Dagwood hero lives up to its name, plying patrons with shaved roast beef, sliced turkey breast, honey ham, raw red onion, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato and cheddar cheese all stuffed into a cottony soft roll. The sandwich is plenty meaty, with ripe tomato and tangy banana peppers lubricating every bite in the absence of any dressing (kinda weird).
A bad call sidelines a Caprese-style option. The tomato, basil and mozzarella parts of the famous equation worked like a charm, but slapping them on cranberry-walnut bread was just plain goofy. The tart fruit steps all over the herby interior while the crunchy grilled bread and nuts overpower the mellow and milky cheese. (But if you’re cleaning out the walk-in …)
Temporary Cannon Carryout
A one-stop shop for sugar addicts (think: peanut-butter Twix and every flavor of soda imaginable), this place is akin to a walk-in vending machine.
The ready-made sandwiches piled up in a refrigerated case aim to test the most intrepid among us, leaving confusion and malaise in their wake.
A salmon salad selection defied reason.
Much like the cranberry-walnut disaster in the Rayburn Deli, this creation muted the salmon-celery filling with more erroneous grains and an overly aggressive dressing. Raisin pumpernickel and cloying honey mustard were the culprits this time around, effectively washing out virtually any trace of the featured salmon save for a few flashes of raw red onion here and there.
Egg salad on white is basically prison food.
Chopped eggs, diced celery and mayo are mashed together (could use both salt and pepper) leaving a few pieces of soggy lettuce to provide some roughage, while the chilled white bread does its best to stick to everything (side of the plastic clamshell, your fingers, itself) except for your ribs.
There’s Starbucks coffee. And cases of Red Bull.
Otherwise, not much to see — or eat — here.
So Long, Farewell
So how to sum up our long journey with Restaurant Associates, through the years, as well as this long month of experiencing its House-side ventures? Perhaps where we began, with another nod to “Apocalypse Now.”
“Are my methods unsound?” Col. Kurtz asks Captain Willard, who is imprisoned at Kurtz’s compound.
“I don’t see any method at all, sir,” Willard, bound, replies.