It's tough to be on the cutting edge of cuisine when you are touting the long-dead Thomas Jefferson among your influences.
Or is it?
Turns out that this founding father, one of America's earliest power players, was every bit as passionate about farming, brewing, and cooking as today's most ardent locavore. He even wrote his own recipes that included ingredients raised and served locally.
At The Federalist, the sumptuously revamped dining room adjacent to the renovated Madison Hotel, chef de cuisine Harper McClure channels these influences with a menu designed around what Jefferson might have enjoyed after his French ambassadorship. We'll call it "continental Colonial." McClure characterizes his menu as ingredient-driven, highlighting Chesapeake and Mid-Atlantic meats, fish, and produce, and he is firm in his belief that part of his mission is to champion the resurgence of small farms.
Chef and mastermind Harper McClure
McClure says one of the most popular lunch dishes is the Confit Chicken Salad, which starts with fresh arugula. "It's picked Monday and we get it Tuesday," he says. It is the perfect vehicle for house-made touches like the unctuous chicken confit and preserved lemons. Even the red wine vinegar in the dressing is made by McClure.
The Federalist Burger is an unsurprising favorite among the lunch choices. McClure starts with house-ground Angus beef from Martin's Farm, which he describes as the best beef he has ever tasted. The chef began a relationship with the Virginia farm when he was sous chef at Downtown's much-lauded Marcel's. "What they represent to me is farming done right," McClure says of Martin's. The grass-fed, grain-finished meat is seasoned with herbs, cooked flawlessly, and topped with Camembert, butter lettuce, and red onion confit, with sides of pickled vegetables and steak fries.
Other luscious picks include a crispy-skinned Chesapeake rockfish over jumbo lump crab laced with Carolina gold rice, and a dessert of dark Valrhona hot chocolate topped with bruléed house-made marshmallows and paired with a vanilla-sugar-coated yeast doughnut. (McClure also serves as a pastry chef of sorts—all desserts are made in-house—so we are pretty sure there is nothing he can't accomplish in the kitchen.)
The perfect accompaniment to those doughnuts, or any dessert, is the Bourbon Milk Punch, a cocktail based on a centuries-old recipe (circa 1763) from Benjamin Franklin. The milk, apple cider, and Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey have a lovely mellowing effect on the Buffalo Trace bourbon, taking the edge off its sharpness and bringing forth its sweetness. The staff anticipates that it will also pair well with pancakes or French toast once the restaurant begins serving brunch.
The Colonial-chic theme carries through from the food to the luxe décor, which is surprisingly modern despite its early American inspiration. The front features a lounge with Carnelian leather couches and slate-gray velvet armchairs, atop mosaic-tiled floors. In the dining room, tall columns, wood paneling, and window-pane glass walls provide an upscale barn vibe, and wine-cellar sheets, pasted with labels from legendary vintages, are framed and on display. You might hear Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" or the country classic "Big Rock Candy Mountain" piping through the dining room, each track lending to the comfortable yet classic feel of the space.
The Library, a vermilion-hued room at the back of the restaurant, glows like a warm lantern. Lined with bookshelves stuffed with antique tomes, and able to accommodate 12 to 16 guests, this semiprivate room can be made completely private as fast as you can close the curtains. Here, along with the row of elevated, elegantly rounded booths that line the northern wall of the restaurant, is where VIPs tend to sit. The Library also hosts corporate gatherings for such heavy hitters as Google. Larger parties can gather at a communal table that runs the length of the restaurant's core.
Chef McClure notes that he also draws on his own American roots: his upstate New York upbringing came under the watchful eye of a mother who was a natural-foods fanatic, and it included a stint working at a dairy farm. While some chefs are Johnnys-come-lately to this movement, Mcclure has been eating seasonally since he was about 10. "we're more than seasonal," says McClure of his restaurant. "we're almost weekly." 1177 15th st. NW; 202-587-2629