One of the advantages of owning a popular vegan bakery is hearing what your customers want, says Doron Petersan, founder of the long-running Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats in Columbia Heights. At the top of her clienteles wish list, she says, was €œa place they could sit down, eat and congregate.€
Enter Fare Well, a vegan diner with room for 40 and a look €” picture an aqua banquette and vintage plates on the wall €” that says, €œCome on in, hon!€ From all appearances, the fresh face in the Atlas District is going the extra mile to please its guests. Cocktails are an option, and the menu goes beyond the expected diner fare to include eggplant Parmesan (made with cashew €œmozzarella€) and colorful chilaquiles verdes. Petersan and company have clearly gone to substantial effort to replicate the charms of such crowd-pleasers as pierogis, shaped by hand, stuffed with mashed potatoes and cashew €œcheddar,€ boiled and finished with a sear on the stove top.
So why arent my vegan dinner dates tickled to be breaking bread, along with seitan, in Petersans latest offering?
Service is quirky. Drinks sometimes come out one .€‰.€‰. slow .€‰.€‰. cocktail at a time, and food shows up with the expectation that customers will clear the table themselves to make room for everything. Multi-tasking doesnt appear to be in anyones skill set. When we ask why wine is offered only by the glass (on tap) and not by the bottle, typically a better value for a group, a server simply says, €œThe wine is vegan.€ In reality, Fare Well avoids bottles in an effort to reduce transportation and recycling, the owner explains in a follow-up call.
Inattention could be forgiven if the food met expectations, but too many dishes €” a mushy mushroom-chickpea burger, €œSouthern fried€ seitan that shows up with raw kale and goes down like stuffing €” make you wish you were eating elsewhere. The worst of the lot are the pastas, dense and chewy. Derived from wheat protein, seitan sliced to look like sausage does no favors for doughy cavatelli; the gray coins leave a funky aftertaste. The bounty of summer does not exist in this universe. Signs of the season are curiously few, and €œvegan€ seems to translate as €œheavy.€ Witness Fare Wells potpie of onions, potatoes and peas gathered under what looks like a big cracker.
Not every dish needs to be recalled. The creamy €œBuffalo€ cauliflower dip, zesty with smoked paprika and presented in a little black pot, is a spread Id be pleased to serve at home, and the aforementioned pierogis could pass muster in a Polish dining room. Polenta fries get the crisp-creamy equation right, and the cakes, moist and not too sweet, underscore the success of Sticky Fingers.
My reservations were shared by my dining companions on two visits. €œThere remains a lonely gap between fast-casual vegan options and Elizabeths Gone Raw,€ the citys lone plant-based fine-dining restaurant, one of my guests, Rebecca Blake, emailed the day after we shared a meal. €œIn the meantime, thank goodness for our wonderful farmers markets.€
Fare? Fair is more accurate.
406 H St NE. 202-299-9700. eatfarewell.com. Breakfast dishes, $10 to $12; main dishes, $10 to $16.