Hold the Pesticides
Organic and sustainable dining in the district
Many people don't think about what they put in their mouths. In the film SuperSize Me two girls say they had no idea McDonalds' food could be fattening. While a majority of the population is overweight and many obese, most Americans do understand that a meal oozing fat directly onto your hands is not the healthiest choice.
Have you ever heard someone order "the mixed greens with the fungicide, a sprinkling of pesticide and a side of fertilizer?" No, because most of us have no understanding of the organic and sustainable food industry-apart from the fact that it's "chic" to shop at Whole Foods instead of the "social" Safeway. Maybe the movie to make should be Pesticide Me to educate the country about organic food. The star could be Washington's own Nora Pouillon, the owner of Restaurant Nora and a pioneer in the industry.
Pouillon's restaurant on the corner of Florida Avenue and R Street, N.W., always looks inviting with its red brick and gargoyle-like sun over the door. It's easy to think of it as a neighborhood joint than America's first organic restaurant.
The thought of organic dining conjures visions of hemp tablecloths, brown rice and unflavored vegetables, and customers in earth tones and Birkenstocks. We'd rather starve.
The secret of Nora's success is that she introduced organic food in a fine dining setting where the taste is never compromised. "Some people came because the food was organic, and some came just because they enjoyed food," Pouillon says. When she opened in 1979, only 20 to 30 percent of the food was organic, which by definition means grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers or sewage sludge and not processed with ionizing radiation additives. It simply wasn't available. Through the years, Pouillon made it a priority to find local, certified organic food sources. In 1999, she asked the Organic Trade Association to establish regulations so she could have the first certified organic restaurant. This means the sugar, coffee, fish, vegetables, balsamic vinegar-almost everything is organic.
As at any fine restaurant, one accepts that there are some culinary acrobatics occurring behind the scenes, but most don't realize there is a veritable Cirque du Soleil behind the door at Nora's to keep her restaurant environmentally focused. Linens are made from organic cotton; menus are printed on recycled paper with soy ink; carpets are all bio degradable, all laundry is done in-house to minimize bleach use. Nora's even has its own water filtration system. But the heart of Nora's comes from the owner. Pouillon's simply trying to provide a top-notch dining experience, with dishes ranging from beef carpaccio to free range chicken in a elegant setting with warm wooden floors and museum-quality Amish quilts on the walls. "I can't cook food that I know is killing my customers," Pouillon says, demonstrating a passion that has sustained her through the years. She has become a leading advocate in the organic industry and inspired a new generation of chefs. She makes sure to introduce many of her food sources to other chefs and continues to work to raise the quality of organic and sustainable farms.
Chef Brian McBride at Blue Duck Tavern is one follower who uses sustainable sources as well. The restaurant is quickly becoming one of the best in the District. The completely open kitchen and the food sources listed on the menu bring a unique level of honesty to the menu choices. A diner knows exactly which small farm in the mid-Atlantic region is the source of the duck, veal and chicken and the chef prepares it right in front of the customers. "It's about letting the flavor of the food come through," McBride says of his simple menu. This is not a place where sauces have been reduced, frothed, heated and then caramelized, but it is the place for some of the best carrots and salad and grits that put the best Southern chefs to shame.
Agraria, located near the waterfront in Georgetown, is another sustainable dining option. Managed by Opened by a farmer's union, a cooperative representing 39,000 farms, its motto is "from our fields to our table." Powerhouse designers Theo Adamstein and Olvia Demetriou are responsible for the zen-like atmosphere that comes and minimalist furniture. Agraria specializes in providing food that comes from the freshest sources. Chef Ricky Moore's dishes range from mixed greens with beets to a tender chicken breast atop buttery mashed potatoes. Agraria's use of local produce is a simple strategy, a win/win for everyone involved, but one that is not yet embraced by most restaurateurs. As transportation becomes easier, chefs-and certainly supermarkets-consider the earth a "global vending machine" which brings produce from as far away as South America and the far East. How could corn be any sweeter than that which is grown right here on the Eastern Shore? How can tomatoes taste any juicer than the ones harvested in our backyards in late August? Using local sources means our that our soil gets replenished, it brings money back into our local economy and some argue it's better for our bodies since fresher produce contains more nutrients.
There's no scientific research that proves organic food is healthier than other food products, it costs percent more on average and many critics haven't been won over. However, organic chefs argue that it's impossible to know the long terms effects of putting chemicals in our body daily. Pouillon believes it's especially harsh for children, who have smaller bodies. Ultimately, organic and sustainable food's superiority in terms of health benefits is still a matter of debate, but innovative organic chefs leave no argument as to its taste