Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lunch at Volt (with wine pairings)

I've been to Volt several times for lunch in the past, but those times were before Bryan Voltaggio entered Top Chef and became famous and everyone suddenly knew about the little gem in Frederick. Since the Top Chef extravaganza, I haven't eaten there, and so my family and I decided it was time to put Bryan to the test. Was the business boom going to hurt the quality of food?

We made our reservation for lunch today in early September and we still had difficulty getting the day and time that we wanted; the place is absolutely booked now. I don’t think you could walk in, unless you wanted to eat in the lounge.

We all decided to order from the three-course prix fix lunch menu ($25), with my mom opting to also try the wine pairing ($15).

Before ordering, each table is given thin house-made breadsticks. This time, they were salted and coated with fennel pollen. They were a little salty for my taste, but they are always a nice touch, and the flavors do change.

For our first course, we enjoyed a shitake velouté with pinenut sabayon, chili oil, and opal basil. The velouté and sabayon worked incredibly well together; their smooth, earthy tones sang of autumn. The flavor of the shitake really shined. Surprisingly, while the dish was velvety and creamy in texture, it did not feel heavy. My only complaint was that as the size of the portion was very generous, after a while, the dish rang a little bit as “one note.” I think had there been a textural component—say something crispy or chewy (e.g. toasted pine nuts or caramelized onions)—this would have been bumped up to the next level. As it was, we gave it a solid 8.5 out of 10.

For the pairing, we had EIEIO, which is the "Swine Wine" (there was a pink pig on the label) from Oregon. It was a Pinot Noir, light on tannin with a nice acidity. It was a successful pairing.

Next, we had Cherry Glen Farm goat cheese ravioli with butternut squash, maitake mushrooms, and sage air. This dish was very flavorful and had a lot of character. Although it was rich, it was neither overwhelming nor heavy. We couldn’t get any real flavor from the “air” (which is the foam that you see), but other than that we didn’t have any complaints. Again, a solid 8.5 out of 10.

Lastly, we had the Tuscarora Farm organic beets with Cherry Glen Farm goat cheese and upland cress. This was simple but elegant, and we liked how light and airy the goat cheese was. This appears to be a staple at Volt, as we’ve seen it on the menu (and we have eaten it) in years past. We gave it an 8 out of 10, because while there was nothing wrong with the dish, it did not wow us.

For our second course, or main course, we ordered the Barramundi with cauliflower variations, beluga lentils, verjus, and cilantro. This fish was flaky and perfectly cooked so that the meat remained moist, even while the skin was crispy. The sweetness and crunch of the cauliflower was a nice contrast to the melt-in-your-mouth lentils. We gave this a 9.5 out of 10. It would be hard to get any better. The wine pairing for this was a glass of Durigutti (Bonarda grape) from Argentina. This wine had a nice fragrance, robust structure, long finish, and was not acidic.

The next main course was this pork tenderloin with Brussels sprouts, braised red cabbage, and mustard greens. The Brussels sprouts popped with flavored, and the braised red cabbage was surprisingly sweet; we actually thought it was beets at first (especially given the vibrant color). The mustard greens were surprisingly not bitter, and the pork tenderloin was tender and juicy. We gave this dish a 9.5 out of 10 and we all agreed that we would be happy to order it again.

Then we had this marinated grilled hanger steak with Rick’s Yukon gold potatoes, chive pudding, lobster mushrooms, and bacon lardon (supplemental cost of $12). The steak was a little salty, and while the meat was bold and very flavorful—and I mean deeply so—it was a little too much. The steak was also fairly chewy. While there was nothing really wrong with the dish besides the slightly generous sodium content, it did not meet our expectations for something which had a supplemental cost of $12. We gave it an 8 out of 10.

The last second course/main course was this Freebird Farms roasted chicken and smoked chicken sausage with roasted shallots, confit potatoes, maroon carrots, and yellow oyster mushrooms. I had some doubts about this, as I find chicken to be a very plain meat and I think that ordering it in a restaurant is often a waste of an opportunity to be adventurous, but we gave this a chance because of our waitress’s recommendation, and the dish won us over. The chicken breast defied all expectations of what a chicken breast should be. It was unbelievably juicy and succulent. The natural sweetness of the chicken was astounding. The chicken sausage was fragrant with fennel, and the shallots, potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms did very well in their supporting rolls. We gave this a 9.5 out of 10. Who knew chicken could be so good?

A variety of breads are always offered along with the first and second course. Typically there are two rolls and one biscuit. On this occasion they offered an olive and rosemary roll, which was nicely seasoned (perhaps a little too generously salted), a chive biscuit, which was soft, flaky, and fragrant, and a French sea salt roll, which we didn’t try. All of their breads are baked in-house, so they are constantly turning out fresh batches, and they are perfect for sopping up every last drop of jus or soup in a bowl or plate.

Before our desserts arrived, our waitress brought us this orange mint semifreddo. It was an incredibly kind gesture. When making our lunch reservation, we had told them that it was my dad’s birthday and upon arrival, we discreetly reminded our hostess. We had thought that there would just be a candle, or at best “Happy Birthday” written on the dessert plate; this gift was an unexpected surprise (especially as it is not featured anywhere on the menu). And it was the perfect pre-dessert dessert: delicately sweet, fragrant with orange, and deliciously creamy.

Afterwards, our real desserts were brought out.

We started with this Gala apple tart with mascarpone gelato and opal basil. The baked apple was soft and sweet, but the dish wasn’t as strong or bold or original as his typical desserts. Thus while we enjoyed it, we gave it only an 8 out of 10. The wine pairing for this dish was a Kanu, which is a late harvest Chenin Blanc from South Africa. This was sweet and fragrant, and everyone enjoyed it.

Next, we had the textures of chocolate with dark chocolate ganache, chocolate caramel, and raw organic cocoa. This is a classic. Bryan Voltaggio has always featured some sort of “texture” chocolate dish on his dessert menu. Sometimes it is dark chocolate, sometimes it is mint chocolate, sometimes there is espresso, sometimes there is white chocolate. It always works, but the dark chocolate variation is my favorite. The dark chocolate ganache was incredibly smooth, and my mother, who does not like chocolate, raved about the taste of this. The marriage of all the elements—caramel, tuille, ganache, sorbet, cocoa—produced a symphony that we rated a very solid 9.5 out of 10. My favorite element? The tuille. I would come back for it again and again. I think this one element also displayed the talent in the kitchen. The tuille was slightly bitter—as good dark chocolate is—but the bitterness was well balanced by the sweetness of the caramelized sugar. Nothing was overwhelming, nothing was too much; it was perfectly balanced.

Lastly, we had the goat cheese cake with d’Anjou pear, spiced vanilla ice cream, and citrus tuille. This dessert was amazing, and incredibly sophisticated. My dad proclaimed that this was as close to a religious experience as he was going to get. The pear was cooked somehow so that it was firm—not mushy—and and yet infused with flavor, and the “crumb” that went along with the goat cheese worked nicely to mimic the crust of a cheesecake. There was nothing wrong with this dish and nothing that could have been improved—except, perhaps, a slightly larger portion size, as we couldn’t get enough of it. We gave this a solid 10 out of 10.

Before our desserts came out, my sister jokingly said she was afraid that dessert would be wonderful, because then the meal would have been flawless. As it was, dessert was wonderful, and the meal was very close to perfect.

With the check came four little poppy seed cakes for us to take home (one for each person). These little take-home treats are another standard at Volt, like the pre-meal breadsticks and the house-purified water (which is offered as either sparkling or still water). They are another great touch that adds to the fantastic experience of dining at Volt.

And the price? Unbeatable. We all agreed: there is no other place that you could get this quality of food (and service) for $25. We left happy and satisfied. The fame, or perhaps recognition, that Bryan Voltaggio gained from his time on Top Chef was well earned. Bryan, you never disappoint. I am so glad I live close enough to be a semi-frequent visitor.

228 North Market Street
Frederick, MD 21701
Tel: 301-696-8658

Overall rating for the price: 9.5 out of 10

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