October 12, 2016
In an era of fusion and nouveau cuisine, Normandie Farms is square and proud of it. The sprawling French farm house, located in a relatively bucolic area of Potomac, Maryland, feels light years away from D.C.’s bustling downtown. (In reality, the distance is about twenty miles.) As obviously, unapologetically French as it is, Normandie Farms doesn’t seem to fit in the same category as some the area’s other leading French restaurants: 14th Street’s trendy bistro Le Diplomate, for example, or Foggy Bottom’s elegant belle époque dining room, Marcel’s. Like these two, Normandie Farms wears its vintage décor proudly – but unlike the others, where patrons might sample shitake mushroom terrine or grilled Mediterranean sea bass on any given night, the old chateau has little interest in culinary innovation. This is no knock on the kitchen, with has been serving hearty and dependable French country favorites since it opened its doors in 1931. In a city where restaurants routinely come and go with more frequency than political administrations, that kind of longevity is nothing to sneeze at.
When Marjory Hendricks, fresh from a stint at cooking school in northern France, first opened the restaurant, D.C. was a strictly steak and potatoes town. French food was still exotic and expensive enough – especially during the Depression year – to deter most average Washingtonians. But it was popular with the movers and shakers: Tellingly, Eleanor Roosevelt was a regular during these early years. How ironic it is that Normandie Farms is now considered one of the more affordable French restaurants in the area. For that reason, along with its high seating capacity and generally cozy vibe (generated in part by two large fireplaces), make it a popular venue for large gatherings and private events. It’s the meeting location for the Potomac Rotary Club on Thursdays at 6:30.
If this all sounds a little provincial, it’s all part of the charm. Normandie Farms is a versatile spot, equally appropriate for a weekday night date in the courtyard, with violin serenade, as for a happy hour glass of wine in Margery’s Lounge. The biggest draw is the Sunday brunch buffet, when the kitchen pulls out all the stops. Just about the entire menu is there for the taking, on long wooden tables in the cavernous main dining hall.
The usual breakfast stuff – an omelet bar, waffles, pancakes and French toast made to order – is steady and satisfying. But for many, including Ms. Roosevelt way back when, it’s all about the signature dish: popovers. There is no need to order them specially: these light, hollow rolls, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, materialize on your plate the moment you sit down. After eighty-five years, it’s almost impossible to think about Normandie Farms without calling to mind the popovers – especially since the restaurant’s actual website is, I kid you not, www.popovers.com.
The buffet also offers several hearty French stews, which cry out to be mopped up with a big hunk of popover (although a spoon works just as well). Beef Stroganoff and Veal Marsala are rich and thick, as is Lamb Curry – a somewhat unexpected, though perfectly welcome entry on the roster. Chicken Liver Mousse and cold salads like the Mushrooms a la Greque lend the banquet a truly French pedigree. A raw bar, which includes clams, oyster and smoked salmon, and several meat-carving stations push only push this smorgasbord over the top. While presumably not everyone walks into brunch intending to indulge in dessert, it’s tough to resist the tart tartine, cheesecake and trifle that lie in wait at the end of the meal.
The fixed rate for brunch is $36 – by no means inexpensive, but a more than fair deal, given everything brunch encompasses here. Most visitors won’t sample anything they haven’t tried before, but you are doubtful to hear any complaints. It’s called comfort food for a reason and for so many Washingtonians, Normandie Farms is the same comforting place it’s always been.