By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 30, 2014
Who needs professional food scribes to break industry news anymore? For a week or so in February, Bryan Voltaggio, executive chef and co--owner of Range in the Chevy Chase Pavilion, teased his Twitter followers with suggestions of a new place to eat within the same venue. They, in turn, threw out guesses about pop--ups and about--faces at his ambitious 300--seat American concept.
When Voltaggio’s secret ---- a restaurant--within--a--restaurant called Aggio ---- was revealed on Valentine’s Day, the chef crossed two tasks off his checklist: He finally found a spot to cook Italian food, and he breathed life into a part of Range that always felt like an overflow room. The chef admitted as much when he told me, “The architects stopped when they got to that place.”
Finding the extra space really wasn’t a problem. The 14,000--square--foot Range was built to do more than the work of just one restaurant. All it took to launch the 82--seat Aggio, a play on the chef’s name, was about $30,000 in design enhancements and four more staff to attend to the glam. Some food observers will see the addition as novel, but the notion of two dining concepts under one roof, at least in Washington, dates back at least as far as 2000, when Roberto Donna carved an intimate Laboratorio from his expansive Galileo restaurant downtown.
Aggio ---- newly sleek in sepia tones, wood cutouts and calla lilies ---- refrains from competing with Range by offering a singular experience. Not only is the food different, but so is the drink, with cocktails named for Rat Pack personalities, and a cheeky wine list that revels in Italy. At Aggio, the waiters dress a little better and stand a bit taller than their counterparts a host stand away, and dishes are delivered with the kind of precision you get at the Inn at Little Washington and the Michelin all--stars.
The death of fine dining, it appears, has been greatly exaggerated. Judging by the already--busy Aggio, diners still crave attention to detail: fine stemware, thick linens, a master sommelier with whom to mull wine selections. Yet the prices don’t scream “take out a loan.” Excellent pastas go for as little as $14.
Was I tagged as a critic? Alas, yes. Your mileage may vary, but judging from the smiles I observed elsewhere in the room, this is no Potemkin village.
The bread baker threatens to sabotage your appetite with the first three bites from the kitchen, admirably watched over by chef de cuisine Johnny Miele. The traps include pencil--thin fennel pollen breadsticks for munching with drinks; miniature funnel cake, savory rather than sweet with a dusting of Parmesan; and warm focaccia served with a pink whip of mortadella and Mornay sauce and a pillow of ricotta glossed with olive oil. Each starch is wonderful, but the funnel cake is an original that I expect to see copied down the line, much like the riff on the Kit Kat bar dreamed up by Michel Richard at the late Citronelle.
There are two ways to order: a la carte, with almost two dozen choices, or a tasting menu of six courses. If you want more to explore and your companions are willing to share, choose the former strategy.
What makes Aggio particularly fun, what sets it apart from the field, is the element of surprise that comes with so much of the cooking. You might think you know bagna cauda. Chances are, you’ve never seen the “hot bath” of garlic, anchovy and olive oil presented as it is here, where marinated sardines are tucked into ruffles of baked celeriac and the signature dip gets dappled on the plate. Caesar salad builds on a fluffy mound of romaine hearts but also shredded kale and collard greens. What appear to be croutons in the mix turn out to be oysters fried with a hint of anchovy; at the table, a server finishes the dish by grating a smoked scallop over the top. Hail, Caesar, indeed. The seafood choices include a raft of grilled prawns adrift in a dark orange froth of shellfish stock, tomato paste and red chili flakes. “Too pretty to eat” comes to mind. Ignore the thought and dive in. Beneath the tender seafood is soothing buckwheat polenta.
A particular from Range that carries over to Aggio is the superb pasta. No matter their shape, the noodles (and their enhancements) deserve the oohs and ahhs that greet them. Supple spinach pasta makes a fine nest for sweet crab and what sounds like a mistake: “buttered popcorn.” The element works in the dish’s favor, however, when it’s pureed with corn, strained and used as a sauce. Lamb ragu, made with meat from the shoulder and aged fat, is ladled over whole--wheat lumache, or snail--shell--shaped pasta, and made more intense with shavings of smoked pecorino. The kitchen even manages to turn homey spaghetti and meatballs into something grand without sacrificing the soul of the Italian staple. The spaghetti retains some bite, the tomato sauce revels in tang and the meatballs, shaped in part with mortadella and braised in a low oven, surprise everyone with their incredible lightness. Unlike the other dishes, this one arrives in an everyday bowl, reinforcing the mama factor.
Sadly, the gutsy steak Florentine has already been removed from the menu. On the upside, the aged rib--eye dressed with sea urchin ---- the luxe garnish of the moment ---- has been replaced by sliced brined duck in a moat of asparagus sauce finished with ribbons of the spring harbinger. Rich and light, the entree proves a worthy successor.
Regrets? I have a few, one with regard to the turbot, roasted bars of fish that come to the table cool rather than hot and with a sunchoke puree that reminds me of baby food.
Desserts aren’t in the same league as what precedes them, though they are still better than much of the competition’s. Slivers of olive oil cake are arranged with meringue buttons that pop with pomegranate and sliced kumquats flavored with blood orange juice. A small chocolate box is sliced open to reveal ladyfingers and a fluff of mascarpone: gift--wrapped tiramisu.
Settling up on my last visit, as Sinatra sang and gratis chocolate truffles were dispensed, I couldn’t believe I was sitting in a part of Range I had once panned. Then I broke into a smile recalling how Voltaggio described the transformation to me over the phone: “Siberia becomes Milan.”
He’s right. Introduced with an online wink, Aggio has morphed into a certified wow.
Next week: How to be a savvy diner.