by Marian Burros
What sets Michael Babin apart from his peers is not the fact that he owns 11 successful restaurants and assorted food-related businesses, collectively known as the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. What makes this Cajun-Italian transplant from Baton Rouge – he grew up with pigs and a vegetable garden out back — stand out is his big-time commitment to sustainable food systems.
“We have a real moral obligation in this business to be engaged in these issues,” he said over a tasting at Vermilion, one of his restaurants in northern Virginia.
The 43-year-old Babin opened his first farm-centric restaurant 14 years ago. Evening Star Café was borne of a business plan he had drawn up as part of a law school project. By the time he finished writing, he had talked himself into starting a restaurant with his then-wife.
Evening Star in the Del Ray section of Alexandria – there before it was hip — “was training wheels for learning how to go into the restaurant business,” he said. “We made every possible mistake. We hired a chef who had too big an ego.
“We didn’t know how to manage costs, the staff, the bar. There were long waits for food. I believe you have to make the mistakes, but there is something scary — and good — about jumping into the deep end of the pool. There are a lot of heroic saves.”
With an early career that covered Capitol Hill, lobbying, and law, why food?
“Life happens in restaurants,” explained Babin last summer, at the small but joyous waterfront farmers market his Neighborhood Restaurant Group founded to make farm food available in Southwest D.C. There is live music, fresh gourmet sausages from NRG’s Red Apron, wine and beer, and fresh produce for sale from the non-profit farm NRG founded just south of the city.
At 11 a.m. on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, Babin recalls, the bar at Evening Star was packed. People wanted to be together; they wanted community, and they found it in his restaurant. That’s why he’s in the business.
But there’s more: Babin – who put himself through Yale on an ROTC scholarship and went to Georgetown Law School at night — has a vision for the way Washington could eat. He dreams about a different kind of Beltway: a circle of suburban farms that can supply restaurants and consumers with real and fresh food.
Babin is the force that created the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture (see the Late Summer edition of Flavor for more). A non-profit foundation, its aim is to get healthier and better tasting food to everyone in Washington, rich and poor, through a network of nearby farms. On the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation, Arcadia farm is also the new headquarters for the D.C. Farm to School Network.
“The goal of Arcadia is to look at the big picture,” said Babin: “How do we support farmers while making their food available to consumers?”
Arcadia Farms, built on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation, is the incubator, a training ground for farmers, a farm-to-school program and headquarters for a mobile market. It will also be part of NRG’s non-profit food hub that will give farmers an easy drop-off point for their goods which can then be efficiently distributed and sold to restaurants and markets. In less affluent neighborhoods it will sell at reduced prices.
Babin expects the hub to be up and running by next fall.
The food-farming connection springs from Babin’s background. “Being part of an extended family that raised its own crops, that had pigs out back, that owned a butcher shop and a grocery was getting rarer every day,” he said. “I saw a microcosm of a food system that was untypical of the larger food system.” His Louisiana mother and first generation Italian grandmother on his father’s side were amazing cooks. “Food was very important.”
He cooks, too, but he is a hands-off boss (not so hands off, report employees who say he helps them sweep floors and change light bulbs when he stops by). Like some of the most successful restaurateurs in the country, he turns his best chefs into partners.
“As we’ve grown,” Babin explained, “every general manager and chef is interviewed as a future partner. People who work in this industry carry around a dream of owning a restaurant.”
In addition to Babin’s northern Virginia restaurants, he owns Birch and Barley and Church Key in D.C., plus a wine shop, two sweets shops, a butcher shop, and catering operation. His chefs have won Rammy awards and his restaurants land on critics’ favorite lists time and again.
Babin does not expect to be the richest restaurateur in Washington, but he hopes to be one who makes seemingly entrenched industrial agriculture very uncomfortable: “If your overriding goal is to make money you would not be concerned about land and sustainability,” he said. He’s in this with his eyes open: “Change can happen but it will be very, very hard.”
When every restaurant is farm-to-table, it’s hard to pick just one to talk about – so here’s a guide to the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s offerings. American is the defining word for NRG restaurants, but each conjures up a different descriptor — gastropub, contemporary, small plate, retro and casual. All are of their neighborhoods, but some places are also worth a detour. There is no dress code but topless men need not apply – they are not admitted. Flip flops? No problem.
All the restaurants have soft lighting, a requirement of the owner, Michael Babin. Most seem to have at least one brick wall. All are in northern Virginia except for Birch and Barley and its upstairs beer hall, Church Key, which are near Logan Circle in D.C.
Most important, all use local, seasonal ingredients, and as much as possible from their own Arcadia Farm. There’s not a single asparagus on any of their fall menus.
Birch and Barley/Church Key – Logan Circle, Washington
First, order beer if only to get the beer sommelier, Greg Engert, to help you choose and then entertain you with descriptions that rival the work of any good wine sommelier.
The house-made bread is really good, too, in this high-ceilinged, softly lit room with dark corners. If you prefer, sit right where all the action is — on stools at the kitchen counter where Executive Chef Kyle Bailey plies his trade. Bailey won the “Rising Star” award from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington in 2011.
Some favorites: Very tender duck breast, aged two weeks with brandied cherries, wild rice and a honey glaze; perfectly cooked ricotta cavatelli with roasted chicken, heirloom tomato puree and house-made mozzarella; an excellent beet risotto with pumpkin seeds and whipped goat cheese that manages to keep the beets from being too sweet. Dinner is between $30 and $50
Upstairs, Church Key is like a European beer hall with 500 varieties, including 50 on draft, served with small plates by Birch and Barley’s Chef Bailey. Crowded? Not if you go at 5:30!
Rustico – Ballston
Shinier and slicker than other NRG properties, with a lot of modern design elements, this gastropub also has fireplaces, 150 kinds of beers, lagers, ales, and stouts and hearth-cooked fare over seen by Executive Chef Steve Mannino. He turned out a gorgeous summer version of pizza that will be back before you know it: Hummus, tomato, red onion, feta, cucumber and olive salad, minted yogurt. No matter what’s on top, the crust is for those who like it as thin and crisp as possible. The spinach salad is excellent with Surryano ham from Virginia — as good as any prized Spanish Serrano — plus fried shallots, blue cheese and mustard vinaigrette. Salt roasted beet salad with candied pecans, arugula goat cheese fondue, and blood orange vinaigrette was a stunner and filled with flavor. Some describe Rustico as livelier than other NRG places (there’s a second outpost in Alexandria). $20-$30 for dinner
Vermilion – Old Town Alexandria
Exposed brick and wine-colored walls are classy but not pretentious. The downstairs lounge is comfortable with overstuffed pillows; the upstairs dining room has downtown sophistication. The menu is contemporary American with a highly regarded wine list. This is a very romantic, special occasion place.
Executive Chef Anthony Chittum prepares, serves, and discusses his tasting menu for a single “farm table dinner party.” It’s available only on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and highlights the best from Arcadia Farm and what his foragers bring in. His porcini-crusted scallops are ethereal. At lunch, Vermilion serves beautifully seasoned, deeply flavored sandwiches: chicken parmesan with smoked mozzarella and pomodoro sauce; rock shrimp po boy with remoulade; and a double cheeseburger with house-made steak sauce Tillamook cheddar and crisp onion. Don’t miss the roasted pepper soup with chive crème fraiche, and potato leek soup with house- smoked cod and cornbread croutons. $30-$50
Evening Star Café — Del Ray in Alexandria
The place is definitely retro, but it’s about to be redone (the tin ceiling will remain!). It’s a neighborhood hangout and every neighborhood should have one like this. It has a garden down the street, soon to be installed on its new roof. Mac-and-cheese fans should not miss Executive Chef Will Artley’s decadent version with intensely flavored spinach gnocchi (standing in for the lettuce), tomato concasse, applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, and triple truffle cream. You won’t need anything else for at least 24 hours. But if you have room, order the trio of crème brulee or the grasshopper pie $25-$30
Tallula/Eat Bar — Arlington
This is a great place for a blind date – and you have four different settings from which to choose: the dining room with its trickling fountain; a lounge; the jumping Eat Bar with tapas and a wine list several arms long, and right next door is the wine shop which can be turned into a private dining room. If you eat nothing else have the toasted cornbread with guacamole butter and jalapeno jelly. You’ll never eat ordinary guacamole again. Then choose the beautifully fried oysters. You can’t go wrong with a tender and meaty filet on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes. Lots of bold flavors. $20-$30
Columbia Firehouse – Old Town Alexandria
This is an American brasserie. One side is an historic fire house; the other a former restaurant that is now covered with vaulted glass domes to form an atrium. There is a very social bar of mahogany that has a gorgeous patina from so many elbows. This place serves comfort food: well-done, lightly spiced Cajun boudin and perfectly fried cornmeal crusted oysters with chipotle tartar sauce. Don’t miss the old fashioned cocktails, including the Moscow Mule, French 75 and Sidecar. A chop house is being planned for upstairs. $20-$30.
Buzz Coffee Bar – Ballston
With a second shop in Alexandria, this lounge-bakery-espresso bar serves sandwiches and cupcakes. The modern, glass-enclosed space is headquarters for the NRG’s Executive Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac, who was honored by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington as the best pastry chef of 2011. MacIsaac provides desserts to all the restaurants in NRG. But here you can take home some of her winning treats for later in the form of frozen cookie dough.
Marian Burros was on staff at The New York Times for 27 years and still writes for them. She has lived in the Washington area since 1959 and remembers when there were no farmers markets. At one time or other, she worked for The Washington Post and the late lamented Washington Star and Washington Daily News. She was also a consumer reporter for D.C.’s WRC-TV. The author of 13 cookbooks, she has been writing about small farms and the pleasures of local food since the 1980s.