Over the past several years extraordinary "blow out" kinds of menus and tables have begun to show up in restaurants around the United States. Perhaps Roberto Donna was first to do this in the D. C. area when he opened a "Chef's Table" seating up to six literally in the kitchen of his former Galileo and cooked for you himself. Over time this grew into his legendary Laboratorio with 30 seats and a dedicated kitchen in front of the room where at one table you could sit literally within feet of him as he and an assistant would prepare a twelve course, three hour dinner.
Seven years ago Fabio Trabocchi established a benchmark at Maestro with a prix fixe menu that often, including various amuse, would approach ten courses or more. In Roses, Spain Ferran Adria created an international cult following with thirty or so bites and experiences at El Bulli. In Washington Jose Andres introduced elements of this with his six seat MiniBar which soon became almost impossible to get a seat at. Jose, with his wildly popular television show, now has his own cult following at MiniBar and at Los Angeles' Bazaar. The smaller Washington, "Little" Washington, has its own Inn and its own wildly expensive Chef's Table where a $400 suppliment, on top of a $178 Saturday prix fixe, will introduce up to six diners to Patrick's O'Connell's landmark chef's dinner.
In Washington a mid 20's Johnny Monis took over a pizza joint and incrimentally starting adding his own imaginative interpretations which has since grown into what is currently Washington's best restaurant. Komi's larger tasting menu now pushes sixteen to eighteen bites, tastes and courses for a meal that can similarly stretch to three hours or more.
More recently Enzo at Teatro Goldoni started his "Chef's Table" with sixteen to eighteen artistic, occasionally theatrical courses (the "cigar box") and tastes (incredible "egg shell") while several hundred miles down I 81 in Chilhowie a Trotter and Tru schooled couple (married on July 5th) took over the Town House Grill serving their own twelve + course blowout in the unlikeliest of Mountain country crossroads anywhere.
Each of these in their own way is unique, each is wildly delicious with components of dinners that for years were limited to Michelin starred-often three Michelin starred-restaurants in Europe. All have featured a number of dishes that can stand with the best in the world. Each have several courses of what I would call a "Great Dish" simply meaning among the very best dishes of its kind anywhere in the world.
Now, in Frederick, Bryan Voltaggio has taken a four seat stainless steel counter in the very back of his less than year old restaurant, Volt, and turned it into what may be the best overall "blow out" experience of all with five Great Dishes included in the 21 course, three hour, $121 prix fixe kitchen show. We were sated, stuffed and stunned at how spectacularly good it was.
Volt is an enormously popular restaurant located in Frederick's downtown. Last night every seat at every table was filled for its regular menu. The restaurant is known and already has a loyal following, some of which may have started when he was at Charlie Palmer's Aureole in New York as well as Charlie Palmer Steak on Capital Hill. Volt is his and his wife's very personal signature on a career that is about to explode on the national scene both because of his incredible talent and imagination as well as his appearance on an upcoming television show this Fall. (He would not/could not tell us its outcome.)
Volt appears to have been a large, old red brick building that one day might have been a mansion...or a small school house. Diners for Table 21 are led to the very back of the first floor where four seats are side by side at a counter directly IN the kitchen. You are literally seated in the middle of where eight kitchen staff and numerous waitstaff are preparing the evenings' dishes. The counter arrangement looks and feels very much like MiniBar (or, if anyone reading this has been, L'Atalier de Joel Robuchon-except this is much better than the Paris original).
The first course is a Martini glass and the introduction of Frangelico, Absolut Citron and, yes, CO 2 for what diners are told is a liquid "Chocolate Cake." It is. It tastes exactly like chocolate cake. The next course are literal paper thin, "stiff" slices of proscuitto which are dipped into a thick, creamy "potato" dip much like one dips chips into onion dip. Just much, much better.
The first three or four courses feel like MiniBar. My wife and I thought we no longer had a need to endure countless busy signals calling Cafe Atlantico-we could just drive to Frederick instead. This was certainly as good. Certainly as wildly created. What if he had his own interpretation of "Dragon's Breath?"
Over time more dishes are introduced which began to take the experience in a different direction: moist, flaky crisp skin on striped bass with saffron risotto, mustard and a "garlic scape" took us to Maestro with a Fabio like interpretation that was outstanding. This was confirmed with the next course, "cherry glen goat cheese ravioli with procini mushrooms." Closing my eyes I was back in Tyson's Corner. I almost expected Vincent or Emanuele to be walking up to the table, the flavors seemed so familiar!
Komi was soon to come with a "foie gras torchon with medjool dates and vanilla brioche." Other courses brought even more elements of Komi and even became reminiscent of The Inn: "Pineland Farm beef strip loin, Yukom gold potato, roasted pepper, sundried grapes" and "Longenecker Farm riabbit with sunchoke puree, applewood smoked bacon and parsley."
Dinner continued with Bryan's own interpretation of courses and tastes we'd had elsewhere, each in its own way as good. Five "Great Dishes" matched what I've had at dinners at the three Michelin starred Schwarzwaldstube and the three Michelin starred Le Calandre. However this was not a luxuriously indulgent experience, rather because of where you are seated, it is an experience in the middle of a working kitchen-similar to Roberto's original Chef's Table at Galileo twenty years ago. Only several feet away we were able to see every single plate prepared for the dining room (definite opinions on what we will order on our next visit). No yelling, no confrontations, only a very smooth, seamless operation visually obsessed with the quality of every taste they set out for their diners.
Their wine list is especially notable, not just for its length but also for its value. Under $40 wines include the excellent Spanish Altos Luzon and Juan Gil. Others included Tinto Pesquera and Coronado de Haza in the $60 range while '05 Simi Landslide is a 94 point California Cab for $68. While there were many ranging into the mid three digits I was impressed with the intelligent inclusions at a realistic price point of under $50.
This is going to become a reservation as difficult as MiniBar. Similar to The Inn it is going to attract a national following, not just a regional. It is THAT good. It's expensive but it is an incredible blowout experience unique from the others. This was our Anniversary and we choose this having been to most of the others in years past. We chose well. For anyone who is into cooking this is a real plus to be totally immersed in the middle of the "action." For anyone who has ever wondered what it must be like to actually work in a high end kitchen this will provide answers. For over three hours you become part of it.
Volt's Table 21 is a remarkable indulgence worthy of anyone reading this giving very real consideration to experiencing it at least once. The Baltimore Washington area is much wealthier now because of the excellence this brings us. With Johnny Monis in D. C., Cindy Wolf in Baltimore and now Bryan Voltaggio in Frederick we live in a very real triangle of national, perhaps international level excellence. Frederick is closer than it seems.
Important addendum: Volt's Table 21 is an experience that is only available at the four seats in the kitchen. The restaurant has two dining rooms on the main floor which offer entirely different menus. While a seven course Chef's Tasting menu is offered in them most of the courses I am writing about are ONLY served at Table 21 which is in the kitchen. You MUST reserve Table 21 by name to be seated at it.