Farm Fresh: Cafe Atlantico

Cafe Atlantico

WeLoveDC authors Donna (greenie) and Katie (foodie) have paired up to bring you a double-hitting feature about local area restaurants that take on the challenge of being green. Donna will explain the logic behind the environmentally friendly trends and Katie will tell you if the food tastes any good. It’s a rough life, but someone has to do it, right?

It is oh-so-trendy, but not just that, it’s plain good for you and the earth. Farm-to-Table dinners have hit DC hard, so when WLDC author Donna and I were invited to sample Chef Terri Cutrino’s Farmer’s Market Dinners at Cafe Atlantico, we jumped at the chance.

Katie: From a foodie standpoint, these dinners are interesting to me, not just because I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (I’m late, I know), but also because this particular type of dinner and dining can show you what exactly a chef is made of.

Because the ingredients are not picked until Thursday, and the dinner is put together on Friday, it’s a stretch. Sort of Top Chef meets real life, if you will. And the results, I must say are the same, given the short amount of time a Chef has to work on a dish, with specific ingredients, you’re bound to have it be hit or miss – just like Top Chef, you’ll be presented with dishes that shine, and dishes that flop. On our particular night we experienced both.

soft shell crab

Donna: One thing you can expect to find on the menu this summer is corn. The soft kernels are a favorite of Chef Terri Cutrino, who each Thursday goes to the Penn Quarter FRESHFARM market just outside Café Atlantico’s doors to shop for the Farmers’ Market Dinners. Tomatoes, beets and asparagus are other veggies she looks forward to; rhubarb is now in, and strawberries will be close behind. Given the freshness of our salad, the thought of what she could do with those strawberries makes my mouth water.

Katie: The first dish we were given was the salad Donna just mentioned – a soft shell crab salad with asparagus and radishes, just bought from the market. The salad was dressed with a light lemon dressing, and garnished with edible flowers. Fancy, but still simple. The breading on our crab was light and flavorful, and I was impressed. Great start to the meal.

Donna: Chef Cutrino prepares the dinners much as you or I might plan a dinner party. (Well, as you might; I’m no cook.) She peruses the produce and picks what catches her eye, as long as there’s enough of it to go around. Last week, that was roughly 11 pounds of asparagus, six pounds of radishes, 12 bunches of chard, and so forth. I had a mental picture of her in her white chef’s coat filling a giant wicker basket hung over her arm, but apparently the produce she’s selected go into boxes that two guys from her kitchen haul in for her instead.

Photo courtesy of
‘Thursday Afternoon Farmer’s Market in Penn Quarter’
courtesy of ‘valkyrieh116’

The next morning she looks at what’s there and develops the menu. All of the vegetables on the plate at a Farmers’ Market Dinner are from the market. Because the market’s main meat offering is buffalo, the dinners’ proteins come from farms on the Eastern Shore so that she can serve a variety.

Katie: Our main course was a steak paired with swiss chard, bacon and a cheddar cheese mousse. Here is where you get contrast in a dish – the chard was amazing, the bacon was perfection, and I loved the cheddar. The steak was fine, nothing to write home about – after I left the table I realized that Ray’s The Steaks has ruined me for steak forever – nothing has ever been that good, nor will it ever BE that good. I should probably just stop trying to find something to compete. But it was fun to see how Cutrino prepared the chard, it was tender, not oily, and probably the star of the meal for me.

pear dessert

Katie: Finally, we rounded out the meal with dessert. It arrived at our table, looking like a cheesecake, but alas it was not. A pear panna cotta with spice cake, here is where I finally understood the calculated risk both chefs and diners take with these farm fresh meals, because I flat out hated the dessert. Yup, I said it.  Donna didn’t care for it either, and WLDC author Jasmine came in as we were winding down and tasted it too and disliked it. It was grainy, not smooth the way I like my creamy panna cottas and the spice cake was reminiscent of fruit cake. The dish was paired with ginger ice cream and candied walnuts, which were much better than the cake. The ginger ice cream was refreshing and unexpected, a nice bonus, since the cake felt dated and a bit off.

Donna: These dinners represent a new direction for Café Atlantico that Chef Cutrino chose partly because local, seasonal food is what she likes to eat. Her relationship with the market began about five years ago. She’s now building more dishes with local ingredients into Café Atlantico’s menu so that you can eat food grown closer to home–food that hasn’t traveled 1,500 miles to reach your table like the average dinner has, but that’s fresh and oh so delicious.

Katie: So this week’s menu at Cafe Atlantico will be different, and the week after that will be different, and although our dessert wasn’t my favorite, I was impressed with the dishes Cutrino created from the ingredients she bought at the market. In fact, I woke up the next morning and headed to the market myself, which is really what this is all about – eating fresh, healthy food that is as good for our earth as it is for me.

Cafe Atlantico serves up Farmer’s Market meals every Friday night during the summer. Cafe Atlantico is located at 405 8th St. NW. Closest Metro stop: Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter (Green and Yellow lines). For more information, call (202) 393-0812.

Katie moved to DC in 2007, and has since embarked upon a love affair with the city. She’s an education reform advocate and communications professional during the day; at night and on the weekends, she’s an owner here at We Love DC. Katie has high goals to eat herself through the entire city, with only her running shoes to save her from herself. For up-to-the-minute news and reviews (among other musings), follow her on Twitter!

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