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.

Ristorante Tosca, Washington DC

Gun-shy to “fine-dining” Italian outside of New York and a few select spots elsewhere I had originally planned to conclude our myriad lunches in the DC area with Korean or Ethiopian food – I had considered this until a trusted gourmand suggested that the Northern Italian fare of Massimo Fabbri at Ristorante Tosca was the best he’d ever had in the US and on par with all but the best of Italy. A fan moreso of pasta and antipasti than secondi in Italian dining I was additionally intrigued by seasonal menu of hand made pastas with focus on local ingredients and Fabbri’s creative interpretations of classic Italian dishes. With the restaurant located in Penn Quarter just steps from other destinations on our day’s agenda Tosca seemed ideal.

Arriving moments early for our noon reservation we entered Tosca and instantly felt underdressed for the occasion. An eggshell white interior, white table cloths, beige carpets – the whole restaurant felt serene in its monochromatic presentation, yet unfussy with lively colored prints lining the walls. Similarly monochromatic were the well suited businessmen filling the tables to capacity and the tuxedoed waiters standing in attention. Greeted by the young receptionist I was grateful to not feel judged – as a matter of fact she was quite pleasant and led us to a fine table in the middle of the main dining room. Water choices offered (still vs. sparkling) we opted for still. Moments later our waiter would arrive with menus and a description of the daily specials – left to decide I suddenly found myself with quite a dilemma – there were at least fifteen things I wanted to try.

Browsing the menu and debating the best way to try as many dishes as possible we were surprised when the bread service appeared along with iced tea for my mother and aunt. A stellar basket paired with a smooth and nearly citrus olive oil we were treated to warm Ciabatta, Sourdough, and Whole Wheat in the first basket with a second basket arriving later containing a Rosemary Garlic Bread, Olive Sourdough, and more Ciabatta. Crusty and well prepared the bread service at Tosca was perhaps the best I experienced on my drip to DC – the Olive Oil, too, was excellent. With orders placed we sat back and awaited our main courses while browsing the room – normally a well dressed individual the number of tailored suits made me self conscious despite a short sleeved buttoned shirt and slacks, but again, that was on me not the restaurant (I’d still wear a suit if I were to return.)

Arriving first, along with our second bread basket, was my appetizer - Molecche di baia in crosta di farina integrale con ragu di pisellini, aglio orsino e fagiolini “cera” or Soft shell crab in a whole wheat crust, with sautéed English peas, ramps and yellow wax beans. Split as compared to the whole preparations at Eve and CityZen the crab was once again beautiful, clean, and sweet. Paired with a buttery lemon emulsion that I drizzled gingerly over the crustacean the effect of the sweet peas, vegetal beans, and pungent ramps came to life. While certainly a more traditional presentation of softshell than the others, the flavor was excellent.

Arriving after approximately 20 minutes (and more bread) was a parade of three pastas and one risotto. The first, Tagliatelle al nero di seppia con polpa di granchio, carciofi e aglio arrosto (Black ink tagliatelle with jumbo crab lump meat ragu, artichokes and roasted garlic) was ordered by my sister and it was the showstopper in terms of presentation and color palate. Al dente, mildly salty and thick the pasta was fantastic – pairing it with the sweet white crab flesh, golden garlic, crispy green artichokes, and acidic rouge tomatoes – fresh, simple, and all the better for it.

Continuing the trend of using top notch ingredients in simple complementary manners was Gnocchi di ricotta e patate con ragu di Luganega, Pecorino e pomodorini al forno (Ricotta gnocchi with Luganega sausage, oven dried cherry tomatoes, Pecorino cheese and black pepper.) A fan of gnocchi I’d planned to order this dish until my aunt did so – thankfully she can never finish a dish and I got my fill. Fluffy pillows of potato that gave to the simple pressure of the tongue the gnocchi were amongst the best I’ve ever had. Pairing the delicate dumplings with the mild pork cheek sausage, acidic tomatoes, and savory cheese plus black pepper cracked tableside added a bit of spice and nuance but overall the flavor profile was that of a pork ragu.

For mother, Risotto con aragosta, basilico e ricotta fatta in casa (Risotto with lobster, basil and house made ricotta cheese.) What the dish lacked in presentation, essentially orange on orange with flecks of green, it made up for in flavor and texture. Crisp, buttery, snappy lobster paired with creamy, toothsome, and smooth risotto – perhaps the simplest dish of the afternoon but also perhaps the most decadent.

For my order I opted to go with Fabbri’s signature, the Pappardelle alla carota biologica con ragu di coniglio locale e timo fresco (Carrot flavored pappardelle with a rabbit ragu in a white wine sauce and fresh thyme.) With hand cut pasta full of bounce and texture providing only minimal resistance to mastication the flavor of carrot was there, but subtle. Served over top the pappardelle was a savory ragu of chopped rabbit saddle, braised in wine and thyme plus a dollop of olive oil. Light yet flavorful with the characteristic gamey flavor of rabbit balanced beautifully by the sweetened wine and aromatic thyme – a dish worthy of the title “signature” to say the least.

The only logical answer to the question “can I interest you in something sweet” after such fantastic pastas was “absolutely.” Browsing the menu again led to indecision given the number of excellent options and we once again settled it by each ordering something different. First, for my mother, the Crostata di rababraro e fragole con semifreddo ai limoni Meyer a salsa ai pistacchi (Strawberry and rhubarb crostata with Meyer lemon semifreddo and pistachio sauce.) While I personally would have never ordered this dish, my mother loves both lemon and rhubarb and as such this was a must. A sizable tart – fibrous and tangy with a buttery crust – sat adjacent to a lovely and smooth whipped lemon cream, the two divided by a line tasting akin to pistachio pudding. Dissimilar tastes yet impressively paired – it was good, and mom loved it.

My aunt’s selection was Tart tatin alla banana con gelato alla crema acida e salsa alla nutella (Banana tart tatin with crème fraiche ice cream and nutella sauce) and, to be fair, I’m pretty sure there was no “tart” to be found. Featuring well ripened bananas caramelized in a sauce of chocolate and hazelnut the plated circle of banana sat above a creamy banana pudding studded with vanilla cookie. Topping the “tart” in addition to the nutella sauce was a smooth and tangy ice cream, light in flavor but weighty in texture.

Figuring my sister would order the Tiramisu I was surprised when she instead opted for the Tortino al cioccolato caldo con granita alle mirtilli, mirtilli canditi e panna montata (Warm chocolate cake with blueberry granita, sugared blueberries and whipped cream) but as it turns out, she ordered the best dessert of the meal. While the concept of lava cake seems tried and tired to me, this version was different – more a disk of dark chocolate with a crispy exterior and an interior fluffy like a croissant. Light, the cake paired wonderfully with the icy blueberries and pillow of whipped cream.

With Erika opting to forgo the Tiramisu my choice was easy – it was again Chef Fabbri’s signature dish, the Tiramisu tiepido moderno (Chef's modernized tiramisu.) Served in a glass the dish went layer by layer – good, great, fantastic. A creamy rum pudding dusted with cocoa atop, espresso-laden ladyfingers beneath, creamy and chilled mascarpone at the base. With chunks of chocolate strewn within for texture and the unique design preventing the pooling of alcohol that often mars such presentations the texture was familiar yet dynamic – classic, yet inspired.

Paying the tab we walked out of Tosca full and tremendously happy – my family because they love Italian, myself because I’d found another great fine dining Italian spot to add to a short list. Some call it an expense account lunch - I call it every bit worth the price. Fantastic pastas, clever and unique desserts, superior service, a pleasant setting, and great memories with family – even if everyone else in the room is talking business and going back to work in an hour.…in my opinion that is what Italian food is all about.

Bistro Bis, Washington DC

With an old friend of my mother's coming in via rail from Baltimore for breakfast and a bus tour my sister, aunt, and I were left to explore the early morning of our last day in DC together. Wanting a quick but not substantially large breakfast we decided to stop by Bistro Bis - largely because of the solid reviews, but also because it was a convenient walk to the Capitol building. Arriving around 7:30am we made our way into the deceivingly small entrance to find a large expanse of a dining room - many tables with suited clients reading the paper, drinking coffee, or talking business. Greeted by a pleasant hostess we were escorted to an enormous booth towards the back of the restaurant where we had a nice view of the kitchen - though not much was going on.

Seated for only moments before our server arrived, a friendly enough chap named Moises, menus were presented - a significantly truncated menu compared to that of the online Brunch menu. Inquiring whether the Croque Madame was available I was told "no, that is only offered on the weekend and it is A-MAY-ZING." Disappointed but understanding I looked for a suitable replacement and in the mean time ordered a coffee while my aunt and sister opted for tea. Returning moments later with our drinks, a decent albeit forgetable house blend and a box of designer teas, orders were placed and we sat and listened to the lowkey background of a large party discussing local school legislation.

Waiting less than 20 minutes before Moises would return with our breakfast selections I will note that the ancillary staff at Bis was quite good - coffee and water remained full without need for request and all tables appeared well staffed. When Moises did return with our dishes they were presented nicely and everything looked fresh – but pricey and boring for the price. For myself, the most unique option of the trimmed menu, a “Bakery Basket” featuring a miniature croissant, a smaller yet apple Danish, and a slice of cinnamon gingerbread approximately 1/2 the size of a deck of playing cards. Accompanying the breads were a whipped butter, Orange Marmalade, Strawberry Rhubarb jelly – the jellies were quite good.

For my aunt and sister – A waffle with bacon and sourdough French toast, respectively. At $18 and $14 these selections were honestly no better than Denny’s. Sure, the ingredients were likely better and the setting nicer, but for $32 I truly do believe I could have made better at home.

In the end, our bill with tip was $61 – outrageous for the quality and quantity of the food. I realize there is something to be said about location, but there is also something to be said about “bang for your buck” and in that sense Bistro Bis was severely lacking.