…I’ll admit it, when I was originally planning my trip to Washington DC Vidalia was not on my dinner list – it was penciled in as a potential lunch. Of course I’d heard of RJ Cooper – a Beard Award winner in 2007 who grew up just up the road from my childhood home in Northwest Ohio – it’s just that DC’s dining scene seemed so dynamic that I couldn’t commit to a “classy southern” restaurant, no matter how good their Pecan Pie supposedly was. Obviously my opinion was swayed when I heard about Cooper’s newest project, though – a 24 course chef’s tasting menu presented by Cooper to 8 lucky guests each Friday and Saturday.
By the chef’s own accord the idea to start Vidalia 24 was based on what Chef Bryan Voltaggio is doing up at Volt’s Table 21 in Frederick – he noted that Voltaggio blew him away with a few dishes and he felt the need to do something equally innovative…not particularly to “one up” Volt, but rather to show his culinary skills and to provide diners with a unique experience. Having experienced Volt Table 21 only 6 days after Vidalia 24 there are notable differences; at Volt you are in the kitchen while at Vidalia you are in the bar, at Volt Bryan introduces himself but largely allows his team to handle the cooking and plating while at Vidalia RJ works with a single additional chef and does everything from cooking to plating to describing the dishes for himself, at Volt things feel formal while at Vidalia the atmosphere is one of eating in your friend’s kitchen – if your friend is a humorous and down to earth Beard Award winning chef willing to discuss everything from his children to his dislike of The Buckeyes to the EMP after party to his opinions of everyone from Daniel Boulud to Thomas Keller to Grant Achatz to the stars of the DC dining scene. An additional difference – at Vidalia 24 copious wine pairings are included for $150 (or non-alcoholic pairings for $120) while at Volt Table 21 there is no included pairing and they charge for non-alcoholic beverages.
Without further discussion of service (top notch) or comparison to other DC tables I will note that the crowd at Vidalia 24 consisted of two groups of three (mother, father, and son in both cases) plus myself – all of us experienced diners who engaged readily with Chef Cooper about our experiences and listened intently as he described his. Seated at 7:30 our water was filled (Voss Sparkling and Fiji Still) and drink pairings began – champagne for the drinkers and a delightful Passionfruit soda for myself – each drink presented and poured by sommelier Ed Jenks. With a total of 8 alcoholic beverages (and 4 non-alcoholic drinks) poured during the course of the meal I will note that conversation became much more lively as the night progressed – but even with the noise and music from the bar the noise level was never problematic – if anything it added to the experience.
For our first course of the evening we received one of the two constants on the Vidalia 24 menu - Sterling Caviar-Egg-Crème Fraiche. Featuring the salty fish roe sitting alongside a “pappardelle” of egg, cream, and butter the classic flavors are paired with a lemony emulsion, chive, and a toast point. Elegant and potent yet attractive and balanced the dish provides a smooth opening to the menu and a glimpse of the type of creative whimsy with classic flavors that dominates much of the 24 course experience.
The second course was entitled Uni-Sake Caviar-Guanciale-Squid Ink Toast and per Chef Cooper’s admission it was inspired by exactly what I guessed on first taste – the Uni/Lardo dish at Marea. Featuring a compressed Panini of salty grilled black bread wrapped around the delicate and unctuous urchin tongue the flavors were brought to a peak on the palate by the vegetal savoriness of the jowl bacon.
Dish three was a bit of heat following the more refined opening dishes, a hearty dish of Beef Heart-Jalapeno-Pickled Radish. Meaty and spicy the combination of offal and jalapeno was tempered by the sour radish – not my favorite dish of the evening only because I don’t largely favor the flavor of jalapeno peppers.
Almost as if sensing the need to temper the heat the followup dish to the beef heart was entitled Distillation-Tiki, a liquid nitrogen preparation of strawberry and yogurt that tasted like a daiquiri and left each diner blowing smoke from his/her nostrils a la the Dragon Popcorn at minibar or the Scallop at Moto.
Moving back to fish courses (part of what I loved about Vidalia 24 was the non-linear progression that kept surprising the palate) our fifth course was Madai -Avocado-2 Pepper Powders and featured a thin cut of Madai belly served over a creamy avocado panna cotta alongside a Madai tartare topped with a torched slice of avocado. Creamy vegetable paired with melt-in-the-mouth fish may seem to lack nuance, but in fact the overall balance of the dish was quite excellent – mild yet smoky with hints of the pepper peaking though only slightly.
Dish number six was another mild exercise in molecular gastronomy and a resounding success – Entitled Olive-Peas-Goat Cheese the dish featured a small piece of creamy goat cheese topped with paper forms that tasted the very essence of black olives and sweet peas. Adding another degree of texture was a small olive and a soupy pea veloute – salty yet sweet, crunchy yet smooth – excellent.
Dish seven was a course that RJ appeared quite proud of – a dish of house made Ricotta-Honey-Tellicherry later finshed with Mani Olive oil and a slice of and Brioche Toast. Instructed to eat the cheese separate and to add peppercorns as desired I absolutely loved the mouth feel of the cheese as it slowly melted in the mouth giving off only the mildest hints of saltiness as it blended with the sucrose of the honey and grassy glory of the Mani. Using the Brioche only to cleanse the palate between bites I was grateful for something so subtle to taste so divine.
Dish eight was the only dish of the night that did not work for me. Entitled Musk Melon-Shrimp Powder-Ham Oil I knew the moment the plate was described that it would be a challenge to overcome my dislike of musk melon, the flavor that overpowers all others. An admirable attempt with the shrimp and ham poking through the cloying sweetness I found the flavors to be largely Asian in influence – like a sweet pork and shrimp dumpling at a dim sum house, perhaps. Served alongside this dish was my second non-alcoholic pairing (not pictured) – a drink that the sommelier announced as “wink” - Pink Grapefruit, Lemongrass, and Lime.
Dish nine was a small bite entitled Asparagus-Hot Mayo-Bresaola marking a return to more refined and balanced flavors. Beefy and smoky yet subdued by the snappy asparagus and creamy egg emulsion I liked this bite on its own and appreciated its placement in the menu even more so when our next dish arrived.
Dish ten, Ham Hock-Scallop-Cracklings, was one of my favorites of the evening. Featuring a foamy soup that exuded the very essence of ham hock topped with a single chip of cracklings the diners were instructed to take the spoon of tartare scallop and mix it into the soup before downing it like a shot. Smoky and savory yet briny and creamy the dish’s balance of hot/cold, sea/earth was absolutely beautiful – the cracklin used to scrape the bowl clean was pretty darn tasty too.
For dish eleven we were presented a game – a dish entitled “Rocks” that were to consume from front to back and “guess what the flavors are.” Featuring a Spring onion “tree” lying across a green path meant to represent Chef Cooper’s back yard the rocks themselves were a Yukon gold potato, a creamy sheep’s cheese, and something akin to sourcream and the whole dish largely resembled a traditional baked potato – cute, clever, and whimsical and tasty.
Dish twelve was a classic and was presented using minor tweaks in classic flavor pairings. Titled Foie Gras-Cherry-Whisky Pound Cake the dish was a thin strip of creamy foie gras terrine topped with cherry jam resting atop a punchy pound cake with hefty hints of whisky. Tempering the dish and adding additional contrast was a dehydrated nut butter and crumbled oats plus small drops of 100-year vinegar. Beautiful.
The followup to the foie gras was a dish simply entitled “Liquid” but described as Liquid Chicken-Black Truffle-Parmesan in a pate a choux pastry. While I tried not to compare the dish I just couldn’t help myself as the diners around me ooh’d and ahh’d – everything about this dish tasted of Grant’s Black Truffle Explosion plus a little bit of chicken stock but the execution simply wasn’t as elegant or balanced.
Following the liquid was a return to sweet dishes and another paired beverage – this time Green Tea-Yuzu-Taragon-Honey, a bitter drink which I sipped only twice before allowing it to be discarded. Where the drink lacked, the dish shined – another of the permanent collection on Vidalia 24 - Bread n’ Bacon. Featuring bacon and Vidalia onion-flavored ice cream produced utilizing custard, bacon fat, and caramelized onions alongside a maple accented strip of pan friend brioche and candied baked
Dish fifteen again jolted us back into the realm of savories, and in a very nice way. Titled Eel-Smoke-Seaweed-Grapefruit the dish paired sous-vide eel that was torched tableside with fresh seaweed and a seaweed gelee plus a spot of grapefruit and a creamy sauce similar to Béchamel. While the gelee was a bit watery, the rest of the flavors worked very well.
Dish sixteen was fishy; almost too much so at first bite but later finding its footing when tasted with its counterparts. Featuring sous-vide sturgeon, briny salmon roe, crisp (and paper thin) radishes, plus a streaking of pungent green garlic I found this dish slightly less balanced than the prior fishes, but a good transition from the eel to the following dishes.
Dish seventeen arrived with my final drink pairing – the best of the night consisting of Muddled Blackberry, Basil, Balsamic, and simple Sugar. For the dish itself we were presented something inspired by Chef Cooper’s past in Detroit – his rendition of a dish served at “The Lark” – a restaurant still standing and amongst the best in Michigan. Entitled Lamb-Peanut-Rye and served with a fresh Fiddlehead and lamb/potato napoleon the dish worked brilliantly with the nutty lamb loin (Elysian Fields sourced if I remember correctly) balancing beautifully with the peanut foam and vegetal lending’s of the fiddlehead.
Dish eighteen was off-putting to some if only due to its name; Squab-Blood-Rhubarb. Plated as a grilled breast of squab and a southern fried leg the meaty bird was paired with a pile of melting confit-style rhubarb, a similar Béchamel to that served with the eel, and a red drizzle that tasted not so much like blood but more like a sour balsamic – blood orange, perhaps? Once everyone got over the title the dish was a hit – it was one of my favorites of the evening.
Dish nineteen was an intermezzo of sorts – a shot glass entitled Elixer-Mirepoix. Tasting like a spicy V8 the notes of onions, celery, carrots, and parsley filled the palate and the nostrils. While I’d have considered serving this dish earlier in the meal, it worked here to open up the palate for the upcoming final savory.
For our savory I decided to once again give beef a try. While I’m not a fan of steak or hamburger flavor or texture in general my two previous experiences with Wagyu were pleasant enough and in this case Chef Cooper was proudly touting his sourcing of the highest grade of been available in the
Dish twenty one would mark our cheese course – in this case prepared by the sous-chef at the table. Entitled Cayuga Blue-Strawberry-Spiced Cashews the dish enlisted a crumbly and pungent raw goat’s milk cheese to pair with a smear of strawberry jam and crunchy warmed cashews. One of the best composed cheese courses I’ve had and the first time I’ve had a Goat’s milk blue.
Dish twenty two was Mango-Rum-Coke, a refreshing little bite we were instructed to consume all at once. Featuring a fried plantain, cold mango, pineapple pate du fruit, and an ice cream that tasted somewhat akin to pistachio on its own the flavors melded nicely when complained with the drops of rum and cola gelee to form a flavor reminiscent of Captain Morgan’s Parrot Bay and Coke.
Our final dessert of the menu was entitled Chocolate Textures 2010 and Chef Cooper made a point of letting us know that this was his dish before
Titled Finishing Touch our mignardise plate consisted of Bubblegum Marshmallows and Chocolate Chip Cookies plated for the group and placed at the center of the table on a wooden charcuterie board. Tasting exactly like bubblegum the marshmallow was tasty but paled in comparison to the cookies, which (although I could have been imagining things) tasted almost bacon infused and salty.
Opting against coffee as it was getting quite late (11:30pm) in a day that had begun in the gym at 4am I was ready to leave when Chef Cooper decided to sit down at the table with us to chat. Jovial and pleasant despite a long day in the kitchen he shared with us more stories of his love of motorcycles and rock, his life and family, and his myriad experiences both in the kitchen and at the table in some of the world’s finest restaurants – to be fair, even without the amazing food the experience of chatting with a Beard Award winning chef at such a level would have justified the $120 tab. Joking with Chef Cooper regarding a recent article in the Washington Post about their Pecan Pie I asked if really was the best in the city to which the answer was “nah, its terrible” followed by a short story about how long their pastry chef had been working at Vidalia and a “hey, pack this guy up a slice of Pecan Pie to go.” Stating that this wasn’t necessary he insisted – stating that it would go great with coffee in the morning.
Thanking the chef and his team for the wonderful food, experience, and generosity I made my way to the street where my family awaited and while I’d like to say the Pie made it to the next morning that would be a lie – with both my sister and myself rating Pecan Pie amongst our favorite desserts it was quickly consumed on arrival back at the hotel. Featuring a nearly pudding textured interior that tasted of boozy caramel paired with a buttery crisp crust and crunchy yet supple candied pecans there was no disagreement in our group with the Post – this was the best Pecan Pie that any of us had ever tasted. A beautiful ending to a fantastic day and a truly one of a kind experience. Great food with superior ingredients, a fantastic price with or without wine parings, wonderful service and a Chef who is going out of his way to please each and every guest - without a doubt Vidalia 24 is an experience to be cherished.