As God is my witness, Weight Watchers will not keep us from The Federal. True, we ate at near-starvation levels all day, and forced ourselves to exercise, but not even the prospect of eating nothing but carrots tomorrow could keep us from our favorite place in Durham tonight.
It still amazes me that a bar with the ambience of The Federal could produce food of such superior quality. The interior reminds me of many burger and beer joints I’ve loved over the years for their friendly staff, cheap drinks, and the standard list of entrees (quesadillas, burgers, and nachos). But The Federal offers so much more.
I went there the first time because I’d heard they were serving pork bellies, which I’d never tried but was eager to eat. Knowing that pork bellies were quite the culinary rage, I expected to find a place with white tablecloths, waitstaff certain of their superiority over me, and a wine list that would require me to use my three years of high school French to pretend I knew what I was ordering just because I could pronounce random names without too much of an East Tennessee accent.
The food at the Federal would certainly not be out of place in that kind of restaurant. Instead, though, you get to sit outside on wooden benches, or inside the bar where people are still allowed to smoke (and how wrong it would be if you could not, across the street from the former Liggett Meyers warehouse), and where the main decorations are ancient Miller clocks (“The Champagne of Beers”) and similar paraphernalia, and where Ben, our favorite bartender, looks like he could take out a whole biker bar but still smiles and asks us how we’ve been when we walk in.
The Federal is certainly not perfect–the pasta with goat cheese and tomatoes has been a bit hit or miss in my experience, and I’ve run across one or two specials that aren’t quite as good as I expected. But I’m still stunned at what that kitchen churns out for the price. (For yesteday’s two entrees, plus two beers, a glass of wine, and tip, the total was $42.)
I think the greatest surprise–this was a few months back–was one special with scallops, ginger, lime, bok choy and hot pepper. The scallops were cooked perfectly, not overdone, and the sauce was complex and rich without overpowering the seafood. Fred’s beloved pork sandwich is spectacular–pulled pork in light smoky sauce with jalapenos and cheese on a thick, crusty baguette. The special I had tonight–mussels steamed in a chipotle chili sauce with lime, onion, and garlic–was even better. And I also love the carnitas, although I don’t order them as often as I should.
If only more places were like The Federal–unpretentious in their service and focused on producing great food–life would be darn near close to perfect.
Nice review, Jami. I like the details about the clocks and the bartender. You are so right: more places like the Federal!