Friday, May 21, 2010

VOLT Table 21, Frederick MD

I’ll be honest – I don’t watch Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, or any of those cooking shows…though I do enjoy Iron Chef on occasion. With that fact in mind, when I originally started planning my trip to DC I really did not know much of Bryan Voltaggio as a TV star, only that he owned a somewhat well regarded restaurant in Frederick Maryland that had a very well regarded Chef’s table. Further reading about his seasonal menu focusing on local ingredients, the quaint location in a 19th Century Brownstone in Frederick, and his substantial training at the CiA, at Pic, and under Charlie Palmer put Volt on my radar.

Having heard that Volt’s Table 21, a 4-seat experience in the kitchen with 21 small bites was booked solid for a year in advance I tempered my expectations – I called and made reservations in the main dining room and placed myself on the wait list for Table 21…less than 21 hours passed before I was called and told the experience had expanded to two seatings of 8 persons each and it would be no trouble at all to visit on May 21st. Excited, I booked the slot – it would be my last meal on my first trip to DC.

Arriving at the charming small town of Frederick around 7:00 and reservations not until 8:30 I browsed the town. Founded in 1745 everything about Frederick looks historic – it is beautiful, the people are friendly, and like Washington Virginia it seems like a place lost in time. With splotches of urban chic dotting the outside of the building I made my way into VOLT’s packed bar by 8:15 and waited…nearly 35 minutes before we were seated – to kill time I starred out the enormous window, checked out the hypermodern restroom, browsed the artwork speckling the lobby, and watched the televised action from the kitchen on display over the bar – the wait was off putting, but I loved the fact that Voltaggio seemed so comfortable letting people watch his kitchen, his craft, and his skills.

After our brief delay we were led to the now famous table – two flying pigs, 7 chefs and sous chefs, and two “dining room tables” to the left. The first to arrive I was offered first seat choice – the one closest to the kitchen. Greeted by the Frederick native with a sincere apology for being late we were told the menu had just changed, we’d be experiencing things that only the table before us had tasted. With that statement uttered we were asked about food intolerances and allergies, offered a beverage list, and greeted by the rest of the staff. Without going into tons of detail about the service I will note that compared to Vidalia24 or Ko, the chef’s table experience is slightly different at Table 21 – you watch everything being cooked not just for you, but for the main restaurant. Additionally, Voltaggio’s interaction with the crowd is minimal – his focus on the food and kitchen is very pure, though I will note he was quite fun and witty with the dishes he did serve – his ancillary staff was more conversive, though certainly not on the level of RJ at Vidalia but much preferable to the crew at Ko.

Beginning the menu was a cocktail, course one called Sparkling Mint Lemonade, Crown Royal, Strawberry Foam. A nice opening volley the dish was served in a martini glass with the cool Mojito-esque beverage topped with a whipped foam from a canister that tasted of strawberries with the bitter undertone of crown royal – tasty, light, refreshing.

Prosciutto chips, Potato dip came next. Now a signature of the Table21 menu the dish features crispy prosciutto and a dip that tasted like sour cream and mashed potatoes. It was as good as advertised with the savory pork nearly melting in the mouth (not jerky like, as expected) and the creamy dip light and well balanced.

Course three provided the first “wow” moment of the night as we were served Tuna, Cilantro, Avocado, Soy, Yuzu, Wasabi Whitefish Roe. Tender Toro wrapped in a paper-thin sheet of jicama was nicely complimented by a creamy yuzu-soy puree . What set the dish off, however, was the salty whitefish roe that chef Voltaggio said had been packed in wasabi – hot as hell, but briny at the same time, a little went a long way.

The followup dish was good, but also sort of disappointing in that it would be the only tasting of Foie Gras for the evening. Celeriac Macaroon, Vanilla, Foie Gras was a single bite – an airy meringue of celeriac stuffed with creamy liver and topped with shavings of fresh vanilla bean. Smooth and creamy, delicious for sure, but I could have handled a basket of them.

A short time would pass as we chatted with the sous-chefs before the right half of the kitchen would produce the second stunner of the evening - Green Grape Gazpacho, Yogurt, Rock Shrimp. Served chilled the Gazpacho tasted like white grape juice blended with cucumber – cool and refreshing – and adding sweetness was a dollop of red grape sorbet. Finished tableside by adding a steaming hot shrimp and a cube of liquid nitrogen frozen yogurt the dish was one of those “how did they think of that” moments that worked so very well.

1/4 of the way into the meal the sommelier noticed I wasn’t drinking wine with the folks next to me – up till then he’d never even addressed me (though I’d have not been drinking anyhow) and since there are no wine pairings the couples next to me were drinking by the bottle. Addressing his error I declined alcohol and he could “whip me up” something, to which I agreed. During the course of the meal he would present me with two beverages – Sparkling Apple Cider and OJ and Disco Lemonade with Sprite, Rosemary, Lemon, Pineapple, Soda. While both were quite tasty I was a little (only a little) off-put when I was charged $5 each at the end of the meal – it felt a little underhanded given the manner in which it was offered (and the fact that non-alcoholic pairings are included at Vidalia for $120.)

Course six would be another signature, the Chicken Parmesan with Tomato Fennel Dipping Dots and Opal Basil. Featuring a crispy boneless wing, parmesan noodle, frozen tomato dipping dots, olive oil, and parmesan plus salt added at presentation the flavors were spot on for traditional Parm in an untraditional manner – mg a la Moto, and quite tasty.

Seven would mark, in my opinion, the weakest flavor of the night. It’s not that Cherry Glen Farm Goat Cheese Ravioli, Celeriac, Maitake Mushroom, Sage was bad – it is just that it tasted “common,” like standard mushroom soup, a little creamy, a lot earthy…good, but not special.

Next, a return to interesting – and more so because it comprised another dish I truly enjoyed containing Rhubarb. Halibut, Asparagus Risotto, Rhubarb, Ginger reminded me of the risotto without rice at Manresa in that it featured finely chopped asparagus with the texture of risotto of a base. Over top the pseudo-risotto was a quickly seared slice of mild fish, the flavor well paired with the sweet poached rhubarb and characteristically aromatic ginger.

The next dish was wonderful, perfectly prepared and visually stunning. Topped with chopped lavender the Sturgeon, Cauliflower Variations, Verjus, Beluga lentils was the best piece of Sturgeon I’ve had since my visit to Gramercy Tavern – meaty and crisp, hefty and clean. Beneath the fish was crispy white cauliflower and steamed green/yellow cauliflower plus creamy and toothsome lentils. Bringing the whole dish together, an acidic verjus added tableside.

Next course, more fish – the first of a back to back “surf n’ turf” concept…unfortunately it was not very good. Entitled Salmon, Apple Wood Smoked Bacon, Sunchoke the salmon was unfortunately a bit overcooked – crispy on the exterior, but rather dry within. Additionally, as a “balance” to the meaty fish there was creamy bacon infused sunchoke puree, greens, and a seared spring onion that was so potent it almost brought a tear to my eye – really, not balancing at all, but rather overpowering.

A bit taken aback by the onions I tried first to clear my palate with some water with little success. Having seen the breads coming from the kitchen to the other tables I inquired if I might have some bread to dislodge the taste and to my surprise the answer was not only “certainly,” but my request led to the servers initiating bread service at Table 21, something they said they “never” do because people end up getting too full. With the other diners agreeing that they’d like bread we were all served butter – a pleasant locally sourced cow’s milk base, followed by a basket of no less than six options. Amongst my selections during the meal were a Sea Salt Roll, Chive Buttermilk Biscuit, Bacon Thyme Brioche, and Whole Wheat Proscuitto infused Sourdough – all great, all served warm from the oven of the pastry department.

While the salmon was not a hit, the followup surf and turf would prove to be my favorite savory of the night and one of the best dishes I’ve had in 2010 - Sweetbread and Scallop, Meyer Lemon, Caper, Tuna. Served over an Alinea-esque sauce sheet of lemon and tuna the scallop was flawless – nearly raw inside, buttery and caramelized on the surface. Paired with two crispy coated sweetbreads and complimented by caper powder and veal jus the tastes lit up all parts of the palate.

The next dish (and all the savories to follow) was another hit – it was called the favorite by all three diners next to myself when Chef Voltaggio asked at the end of the night. Head Cheese, Pickled Ramps, Crystal Lettuce, Truffle Vinaigrette was a house-made slice of headcheese, melted collagen and characteristic gamey taste aplomb paired with sour ramps, earthy and aromatic vinaigrette, and lettuce for texture – with Voltaggio noting VOLT’s plans to focus on more in house charcuterie in the future I imagine this dish will please many more palates in the coming months.

Pork Belly, Calypso Beans, Moustarda, Sorrel would arrive next and prove to be nearly on par with the Sweetbreads and Scallops. With an agar agar sheet of barbeque sauce atop the pork I personally loved the manner in which the fatty belly paired with the fibrous beans while the Moustarda added an almost “applesauce” flavor to this comfort-food inspired plate.

A light course followed all the heavy meats – an intermission of sorts to prepare us for the two main proteins. Beets, Goat Cheese Mousse, Upland Cress, Banyuls was a fantastic dish featuring a dehydrated beat stick (think Cheeto in texture, sugar beet in flavor,) two types of poached beets, a creamy cheesy mousse, greens, and a savory balsamic. With beet salads being all the rage in fine dining this was one of the better examples I’ve had.

Fifteen - Lamb, Eggplant Caponata, Pepper, Curry – was excellent, just as I’ve come to expect of anything from Elysian Fields. A 2oz slice of lamb, lean and grassy, centered the plate and sat in a small pool of aromatic saffron curry sauce. A dollop of spicy red pepper, a pile of chopped eggplant, and crisp mushrooms completed the simple yet reined flavors of the dish quite well.

Our final savory was a “why not” for me – after the A7 at Vidalia24 and the Chateaubriand at Citronelle I’ve rethought my stance on beef; while a charred porterhouse is never going to do it for me, I’m much more open to a 1-2oz slice of beef at a fine dining establishment (especially on a long tasting menu.) From Voltaggio we received Pineland Farm Beef with Farro Risotto, Spring Ramps, Morel Mushrooms, Carrots, perhaps the most “simple” savory of the weekend this dish would’ve fit just as nicely at Daniel as at Volt. Fatty, mild,and sweet the aged beef was served rare – by itself it was great. Joining the steak in our “main course” was an earthy risotto that tasted almost like savory quinoa, a carrot, and morel/ramps rendered in a pan with the pan drippings of the beef.

With others wowed by the beef and myself quite pleased overall we moved on towards cheese and dessert – coffee orders were placed and a press pot of fantastic locally roasted Highland Grog would arrive shortly after the cheese course, Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Almond, Apple, Balsamic. A small and unique preparation the pungent cheese was well met by the dehydrated apple slices and almond powder while the balsamic added just enough acidity to make the single bite memorable.

Dulce De Leche, Caramel, Granny Smith Apple would serve as our first dessert – to say the pastry kitchen at Volt is good would be an understatement. Featuring a creamy caramel cheesecake bite, apple sorbet, dehydrated dulce de leche, and a crunchy toffee bark the flavors were largely caramel apple but the variation in textures, temperatures, and flavors were much more complex.

The second dessert, course 19, would be Pistachio, Strawberries, Ginger, Basil – it would be the most memorable course of the meal (savory or sweet.) Featuring strawberry glass noodles and balls of strawberry as the base the addition of liquid nitrogen frozen ginger ice cream, pistachio powder, and small leaves of basil created a vegetal rollercoaster of an experience – the presentation something out of a molecular gastronomy text and the flavors befitting a modernized Italian fruit course.

Dish twenty was expected as it has, in one form or another, been a staple of Table 21 from the start. Though not as intricate as the version at Vidalia24 the Textures of Chocolate, Caramel, Chocolate Ice Cream was tasty – dark ganache, milk ice cream, 80% chip – each high quality and an ample match for the hefty coffee.

Completing the menu would be a course of mignardises – served per person as opposed to centered like Vidalia our selections were an Almond Macaron with Coffee Cream, White Peach and Vanilla pate a fruit, White Chocolate with orange cream, and a Raspberry Vacherin. With each a good example of their respective genre, I particularly loved the Vacherin – a melt in the mouth custard that exuded the very essence of raspberry and the pate a fruit which tasted like peaches and cream concentrated into a single potent bite.

Delivered with the bill would be a present to take home, a 22nd course, if you will – a Lemon Poppyseed Muffin. Good, but not particularly memorable I shared it with the family on the way home from Frederick.

When it was all said and done I left Volt’s Table 21 and definitely understood the considerable hype the experience has received – the food, save for one boring course and one overpowered by onion, was superb and the constant evolution of the menu is admirable to say the very least. While some people may be impressed by the celebrity of it all, Chef Bryan doesn’t really seem to buy into it – his attention to the kitchen remained nearly undivided at all time. For me, the highlight of the experience outside of the food was actually watching the manner in which the kitchen flowed – between the tasting menu, the a la carte, Table 21, and the Chef’s tables there were literally four services going on simultaneously and everything went off without a hitch. In the end I still have to say I preferred other meals on my trip to DC but I would most definitely recommend the trip to Frederick should anyone manage to secure a seat at Table 21 – the rest of the food coming out of the kitchen looked pretty darn good, too.


Zephram said...

Even at the close of what read like an amazing culinary trip, I'm curious to know where the next destination might be. Any thoughts?

uhockey said...

I'll be in Pittsburgh for a couple days at month's end. Next legit trip will be westward, either LA or LV most likely.

zygomycota said...

Glad to see that you had a nice meal before leaving DC. Glad to see more of molecular gastronomical dishes elsewhere!

Have fun in Pittsburgh! If you're going to LV for your next "celebratory" trip, there are some nice restaurants such as Joel Robuchon but don't spend all your time in the buffet places...they can be disgusting with Montezuma's revenge. LA was ok when I was there although I did not dine out that much as a student (can't really afford places such as Urasawa by then but the US doesn't seem to have good Japanese food anyway), and I prefer San Francisco and Seattle more for the seafood and environment :)

uhockey said...

If you look at the blog, you'll see I've been to many of the best in Vegas - Robuchon, Savoy, Alex, MiX, Bouchon, Craftsteak, Carnevino, Le Cirque....etc. I'll end up back there, or in Los Angeles (again) in October for the hockey season.

zygomycota said...

Oh, sorry...I didn't see that. Sorry for the meaningless comment then!

Zephram said...

Dr. U, I may be going to NY soon and I was hoping you might provide some suggestions on where to eat. I've read all your posts for NY eats, but I am looking for a distilled current top 5 to 10. I will probably try the wait list at some of the big boys, but will likely be limited to two-star and below eateries. I appreciate the help. Thanks.

uhockey said...

Questions re: this blog can always be e-mailed to uhockey at yahoo dot com

Anonymous said...

I find reading your reviews most fascinating since I currently live in Frederick, and my mother in Washington, Virginia. And, I have the pleasure, in a former job, to send many visiting physicians to fine restaurants in downtown DC, including many in which you dined during your trip.

(Although I occasionally do enjoy a good burger, I found President Obama's ability to recommend Ben's Chili Bowl to the president of France to be quite an interesting choice.)

My post is mainly to thank you for choosing to visit Frederick and Volt. Frederick, as you eluded to, has much hidden history. The location of the first revolt against the English crown (seven years before the Boston thing), it was the home to Francis Scott Key and America's first elected president, John Hanson. It was also the location of the alternate capital when the Brits invaded and burned DC, before a freak tornado drove them from the area.

I invite you and your readers to town whenever you happen to be in the area. Although Volt is by far our finest dining experience, some of your readers you might also enjoy the Tasting Room (the fillet is recommended) or Firestone's or Brewer's Alley (both more casual), or even Isabella's (tapas, try the soups). We also have at least three respectable Irish pubs in town.

Lastly, I'll say that Bryan Voltaggio could have opened a restaurant anywhere in the world, as his brother did. He is a treasure in Frederick, not only to bless us with his culinary skills, but also in the fact that he embraces our small community. Unlike Patrick O'Connell, whose ego continues to take over that small town, Chef Voltaggio embraces our current community, in which he grew up, and perpetuate all the great things about Frederick, Maryland.

Thanks again for your visit.

A new fan, Steve in Frederick

uhockey said...


Thank you for your kind words and the history lesson - I honestly did not know much/all of that information. While I'm rather certain I could never live in a small town like Frederick, it was a fantastic place to visit and you can certainly tell Voltaggio loves the place.

I'll likely be heading back to the DC area when RJ Cooper opens his new Rogue24 and will strongly be considering a return to VOLT for brunch as I've heard great things.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

My pleasure, sir. Although part of the beauty of Frederick is that we are so close to Washington's Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap in Virginia, and Baltimore's Inner Harbor. I can be at all, and much more, in about fifty minutes.

That being said, I adore Chicago and have spent a lot of time there. The Ritz Carlton is one of my favorite downtown hotels, and Gino's East still reigns as my all time favorite pizza joint (and I don't take my statements on pizza lightly).

Some mighty fine steaks up that way too. But you've already stated your preference in that regard.

When here next, Firestone's also has an excellent brunch, so does Dutches' Daughter, although that is a buffet. Best cream of crab soup ever though. Then again, you're probably not the buffet type, so I won't dwell on that. Volt is surely the restaurant of choice.

Stay warm my friend. I'd recommend west Maui, or perhaps Cayman, about this time of year.

Steve in Fredericka