Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Oooh La La!
Why anyone would build a fine dining restaurant in Frederick is really beyond me. Nothing against Frederick but it just seems like an odd place to open a contender for the finest restaurant in Maryland. Washington DC, of course. Baltimore, sure. But Frederick? Just odd.
Even though I had eaten previously at Volt in June, it was only recently that I heard about Volt's Table 21 - a private chef's table situated in the middle of the kitchen featuring a 21 course T-21 tasting menu. Stories buzzed about the "molecular gastronomy" approach to Table 21 and with Chef Bryan Voltaggio being a part of the coming season of Top Chef, we figured we had better hit Table 21 before the show aired and it becomes another Minibar - where you have to play telephone marathon months in advance to score a seat.
Anisha and Juan Manuel playing "Thumpers."
To be honest, I'm not one for planning too much too far ahead of time. If I get in, I get in. If not - oh well. My experiences at per se, minibar, L'Arpege, Alinea and other places were because I just kinda showed up or called at random times with lots of flexibility - sure, I'll take that seat for one. Happily, because I think he knows how much I hate to plan too much, Juan Manuel took upon the task of securing our reservation.
For our dinner, I invited Anisha, chef/owner of Puffs & Pastries, and Janice, chef/owner of the now-moving-to-Frederick Tenzo Artisan to join myself and the aforementioned Juan Manuel - former restauranteur, coffee aficionado, car enthusiast cum food expert.
Neil Protects Us from Our First Course.
Like I said, I had been to Volt back in June. It's a gorgeous space. Take a Victorian mansion, put in a modern interior with a gleaming kitchen and that's Volt. Like Cafe Atlantico's minibar, at Volt's Table 21, the guests sit in a row facing the garde manger station, with the hot line and pass to your right. In other words, you're smack dab in the middle of everything, with a front row seat. The problem with the setup is that if you're in the first or fourth seat, it becomes very hard to engage in the conversation across the table. Like at minibar, there were numerous times I was wishing we were sitting in a typical four-top so that conversation could flow easier - and I was in seat 3.
Anisha and Juan Manuel had asked me before about Volt and I decided not to tell them what I thought about my previous experience because I didn't want my comments to color their expectations. Truth is, my first experience at Volt was a bit uneven and off-putting.
I had been hearing about Volt for months. Then, on the way back from the Mid-Atlantic Roasters Group meeting in Blacksburg, Virginia, I decided what the hell - I was going to take the long route home and detour through Frederick for a taste of Volt. Parking on a deserted lot, I changed from my long-distance driving attire into khaki shorts with webbed leather belt, black Polo Ralph Lauren t-shirt under a short-sleeved button down. I didn't have a reservation and as I walked up to the host podium, the blonde receptionist gave me a really fast one-over look and a half-second squint in her eye - as though I was improperly dressed.
Chocolate Cake in a Martini Glass
Truth is, I didn't know the dress code. I didn't know much about Volt at all other than the fact that people had been talking about the food. She asked if I wanted to sit in the dining room or at the bar. The dining room was my choice. Her glance had only been for a fraction of a second but it was enough time for me to catch it- which wouldn't have irritated me so much except for the guy I saw sitting in the bar area wearing an outfit nearly identical to my own. The difference was that he was white.
After dining at some really wonderful restaurants around the world, I was surprised to find a really fine dining approach in such a small town as Frederick. Servers in suits, runners, bussers - crap they had a lot of staff in the dining room. It reminded me of per se. But to my eye, some things were just incongruent to what they seemed to be pursuing. Take the attire, for example. The runners were nicely dressed, but not too nice. My servers' suit was a suit but it wasn't well tailored. It lacked the sharpness you see at places like Charlie Trotters or Alinea. It didn't drape well. Then there is the matter of the footwear: brown Converse Chucks.
Prosciutto Chips, Potato Dip
I graduated from high school in 1987 and throughout my high school years it was the height of teen fashion rebellion to wear Converse Chucks with suits - especially red Chucks with your tuxedo at prom. I'm sure there are many legions of diners that probably love the juxtaposition of the Chucks with the suit, but I'm not one of them. Here's a place that obviously spent a lot of time and money sourcing and preparing the food, developing service and creating a sophisticated environment that seems like it wants to be on par with places like Citronelle or Le Bernadin, but the servers wardrobe was so incongruent with everything else they were doing that it hit me like Mike Tyson.
Sadly wasn't all. I think I chatted with someone later that night about finding knowledgeable servers in a town so far removed from any metropolitan city. My server was nice enough but all night long he chatted endlessly about himself and what restaurants he's been to and anything and everything else him. Had I not tuned him out earlier in the evening, I would have known just about everything there is to know about him. I'd be very surprised if he knew anything about me.
Neil Opens a Bottle of White Wine
Not to say that I think I'm all that, but I was the guest that evening. You'd think by the amount of information I was being fed that I was server and he was the guest.
By now you're probably wondering what I thought about the food that night. I remember it being good. I remember that I enjoyed the food. The problem with Volt that night wasn't the food - actually, I know I enjoyed the food because I made a point to stop by the kitchen and thank the cooks before leaving - it were these incongruencies in the evening. Those little (and not so little) things that just throw off everything that everyone is trying to achieve.
You can see why I was being so coy about my thoughts on Volt before our dinner. Normally, I would be reluctant to go back after such an evening, but the food was good and when I heard that they were doing some exciting stuff at their Table 21, I wanted to go back and give it another try, and I'm glad I did.
Sashimi of Yellowfin Tuna, Yellow Doll Watermelon, Perilla
I never want to be close-minded about things because things can change. Things can improve and there's something about Volt that I really like. It's hard to hold a standard and bring service up to that standard - I know that personally. It's something that takes time. And it helps that former Volt staffer Felecia had lots of good things to say about the restaurant and their approach.
This time was much better. Service was friendly but deferential. There wasn't a lot of chattiness. We weren't burdened with someone's low opinion of other restaurants or how poor the restaurant scene is in Baltimore, or how that restaurant sucked. We were given the room to have a good time.
Enough about that. How was the food? Quite good. Lots of great technique going on with those cutting-edge things you may have heard about: liquid nitrogen, anti-griddle, PacoJet, foams, chemicals, sous vide. For someone like me, it's always fun to be served a meal and have an understanding (and hopefully an appreciation) of the technique that went into creating the dish. Like compressing watermelon in a vacuum. It's so simple yet so exciting to me.
Heirloom Tomatoes, Encapsulated Buffalo Mozzarella, Basil
Happily, none of our courses begged of technique for the sake of technique. Sometimes these tasting menus get crazy just because. They become exercises in intellectual wow rather than soul nourishment. Bryan Voltaggio and his crew are able to walk that line without crossing into the intellectual wow factor.
Sitting in the kitchen offers the opportunity to watch that technique in action - like the Nitro Beet's beet puree that starts off as a dollop on the AntiGriddle and then finished in a liquid nitrogen bath. Lots of cool things to watch that you don't see on Food Network.
Chicharron, Spun Sugar, Curry Salt
Twenty-one courses is a lot of food. Some were great, others not so much. I'll tell you about my favorites.
Prosciutto Chips in a warm potato foam dip with chives - deelish. The chips were dehydrated and the perfect foil to the potato foam. The problem with the dish is that there's more foam than chips and I was left wanting for a spoon to chow down on the remaining foam dip.
Sashimi of Yellowfin Tuna with compressed Yellow Dot Watermelon. Like I said above, I dig compressed melon. It's widely regarded as having the same texture as tuna (I disagree), but I'm always game for good yellowfin tuna. More please.
Then there was the chicharron stick with a swirl of cotton candy topped with curry salt. Crunchy pig wrapped with sugar and the spiciness of curry - need I say more?
Compressed Yellow Doll Watermelon, Salmon Roe, Vanilla Salt
Foie Gras Torchon - nothing terribly innovative here. Just beautiful foie gras from Hudson Valley, some fresh bing cherry halves and toasted brioche. The anti-foie gras people can go fuck themselves.
Iberico cross pork - I had to ask our server to repeat himself on this one. Evidently, there's someone local who's raising a cross breed of Iberico pigs from Spain and by the taste of the pork belly, someone is doing something very, very right.
Working in the Corner of Dreams: PacoJet, AntiGriddle, Liquid Nitrogen
The Pineland Farm Beef Strip was the dish that was both amazing and disappointing. First off, it's plated onto a huge, mother of a plate. The thing takes up the entire depth of the table and demands two hands to handle it. It's frickin' huge. The components of the dish are really good and I really dig the flavor of the creamed corn and the Yukon Gold puree, plus the garlic chip and foam paired perfectly with the stellar beef - and I do mean that the beef was stellar. Absolutely perfectly seasoned, cooked sous vide and just delicious. Stellar.
The problem with the dish wasn't the flavors or the beef but the amount of time it took to prepare such a large plating. By the time it reached our table, the creamed corn had started to dry out under the heat lamps at the pass and was developing a dry film. Flavor wise, it was the highlight of the meal. Visually speaking, the drying corn made it the lowest.
Nitro Beet, Foie Gras, Candied Walnut
Cheese is always an enjoyable course and the Midnight Moon cheese was delicious. The only problem was that the plate was so big. Not in terms of physical size but of quantity. All night long, we've been enjoying tastes of food. The cheese with the beets and the strawberry sorbet was just too much after so many courses. Half that size and it would have been perfection.
Chicken Wing, Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Celery
Cherry Glen Farm Goat Cheese Ravioli, Sweet Corn
Bass, Tasting of Summer Squash, Chorizo
Sweetbreads, Flavors of Picata
Preparing more to eat.
Iberico Cross Pork Belly, Bacon, Mostarda, Upland Cress
The Dulce de Leche "dirt" on the dessert was my favorite component of the dish, even though the goat cheese cheesecake was very tasty. I'm also a sucker for coconut ice cream and while the coconut dessert reminded me of Hawaiian haupia, it reminded Anisha of India. "It tastes like India," she says.
Now I no longer have to visit Bombay.
The barista side of me demands that I must try the coffee at nice restaurants - just to see what they are doing. Volt's coffee comes from Dublin Roasters in New Market, Maryland. Juan Manuel and I shared a french press of Organic Tanzania Peaberry. While more roasty than I prefer, it was pretty decent.
Foie Gras Torchon, Bing Cherries, Vanilla Brioche, Pistachio Soil
Duck, Belgian Endive, Purslane
Salsify, 60F Egg, Summer Truffles
Longnecker Farm Rabbit, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Carrot, Parsley
Dried and dehydrated Beets
Our mignardises were miniature madelines, Parisian style macarons and chocolate truffles. Tasty stuff that Anisha took home in what turned out to be a large container (for the four mignardises) and an even larger bag.
For me, the challenge is in the details. I found our experience at Table 21 to be very good. Not quite equal to the experiences I've had at other restaurants but certainly better than many, many others. One detail that I particularly loved was the cleanliness of the kitchen. Overall, it's very clean. But take a closer look and the details reveal themselves.
Chef Voltaggio doing his thing.
Pineland Farm Beef Strip Loin, Yukon Gold Puree, Roasted Pepper, Garlic
Cheese Midnight Moon, Strawberry, Beets
Dulce de Leche, White Chocolate, Goat Cheesecake
French Press Coffee Service
Coconut Vanilla, Lavender
Anisha and the Bread Sticks - After spending the entire evening without bread and spying the house baked bread sticks sitting on the undershelf at the Garde Manger station, the baker in Anisha finally broke down and asked for a taste.
Bing Cherry Chocolate
While most restaurant stoves have an overshelf, Volt's has a custom fabricated overshelf with a smooth coved base that prohibits grease from collecting in the corners. It's a touch that I'm sure not many people will notice but it's a killer detail that I'm sure the cooks appreciate.
The pans are also spotless. No burn or scorch marks on the side means that they've been scrubbed hard by the dishwash crew.
But the detail that caught my eye most dramatically were the chrome plated halon fire extinguishing pipes and nozzles in the hood above the hot line. Those pipes and fittings were gleaming and spotless. That detail alone is an absolute beauty and an indication of the level these guys are pursuing.
So how much does all of this cost? A cute 121 dollars - plus beverages, taxes and tip. After sharing a bottle of wine with Anisha, my portion came out to $203 all inclusive. Pricey for DC, expensive for Baltimore, which has to be astronomical for Frederick - but still less than half what you would pay at Alinea in Chicago and not even a third of the price for dinner at L'Arpege in Paris - so, all in all, a good deal. And you don't have to fly to get there.
Will I go back? In addition to Table 21 and the a la carte menu in the main dining room, there's still yet a separate menu in the Chef's Dining Room...
When Pigs Fly at Volt's Table 21.
228 North Market Street
Frederick, Maryland 21701