Over the past few months my wife and I have eaten at the Federal just about every Tuesday, after our evening class is finished. It's become something of a ritual and, thanks to the folks in the kitchen there, a very, very pleasing and rewarding one.
For those who don't know, the Federal is a bar on Main Street, just across from Brightleaf Square. It has an ample selection of beers and a short menu of serviceable (although overpriced, IMO) wines. The room is comfortable but can get quite smokey when the place is busy.
The Federal's fixed menu includes a nice selection of appetizers ranging from standard bar-food concepts (nachos) to pleasant surprises (warmed assorted olives, a hummus and tabouli platter, a charcuterie plate). There's also a great assortment of sandwiches and regular entrees, including a very respectable rendition of carnitas and a mighty fine burger.
As fond as I've grown of the fixed menu, though, I most often find myself ordering off the special board, which typically includes no fewer than 6 options. Last night I had a thick-cut pork chop that was finished in bacon fat and was absolutely to die for; my wife had the a house-cured pastrami sandwich that wasn't just "good for NC" but was actually extremely good, period. Another dish on the specials menu included house-cured pancetta. House-cured pancetta!
Clearly, someone who really loves food is aprowl in this kitchen. This should, of course, be the case in every eatery--otherwise, what's the point?-- but there's little evidence that things are as they should be in many area kitchens. After three months of sampling most of the menu, I'm still excited about our next meal at the Federal.
I think this place is the template for the true American bistro. The food is simple yet well thought-out and expertly prepared. There are always pleasant surprises, yet the food is always comfortingly familiar. Nothing is stacked 12" high, no mysterious dipping areas are artfully drizzled around the perimeter of the plate, and you always have a pretty good idea of what's coming based on the menu description. It's just good "good food," and it is easily my favorite non-high-end place of the moment, and probabaly for many moments to come.