2013 Fall Dining Guide
2013 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
October 10, 2013
No sooner did my rave review of Range at the Chevy Chase Pavilion go online in March than I regretted awarding the hot spot an infrequent three stars. Dozens of readers wrote to tell me that the sterling service I depicted was not their norm. "They must have recognized you," more than a few restaurant-goers figured.
Current technology -- and more than a dozen years on Washington's food beat -- make it challenging for me to get in and out of restaurants under the radar. Even so, I take steps not to tip off my subjects in advance. Pseudonyms help. Restaurants can be assured that anyone making a reservation under my name (it happens) is not actually me coming to dinner. My practice of visiting a restaurant several times for a starred review is another support. Usually I can dine anonymously on at least one, or part of, a visit.
The excellent cooking at Range -- an ambitious American restaurant from Bryan Voltaggio of "Top Chef," Volt restaurant and cookbook fame -- made it a contender for a compilation of favorites. On one of two return visits, I used a made-up name but showed up 10 minutes after my companion, who reported having to wait eight minutes at a table for an acknowledgment from a waiter -- seven minutes too long in my estimation, a sentiment I tweeted without naming Range.
The next day, I heard back from an apologetic Voltaggio. A review of camera footage ("we're kind of ‘Big Brother' here," said the chef) and an interview with the server indicated that, yes, my friend waited almost eight minutes before he was approached, but, no, he wasn't snubbed intentionally. Voltaggio explained that the waiter observed my guest, whose back was to the server, texting and hesitated to interrupt him.
The food that night was as memorable as any of my previous dinners. Garlic sausage veined with pistachios suggested the charcuterie department was as skilled as ever, and pizza strewn with succulent shrimp, jalapenos and a whisper of pesto might have been the best pie I've had at Range. Linguine set off with sea urchin and kimchi was again divine. And the service improved significantly once I joined the table. Aside from my friend's service glitch, I was pretty sure Range, under the care of chef de cuisine Matt Hill, was the restaurant I recognized from months earlier.
"Pretty sure" isn't 100 percent certain, so I went a second time with someone who had never been to Range -- and in a disguise so transforming, not even close friends recognized the photo I texted them. "You are my worst blind-date nightmare," one of them offered.
Unlike every other visit to Range, we were shown to the far back dining room: Siberia. The table was a little more in the open than we wanted, so we asked the hostess if we could sit in a nearby corner. She let us know it was more convenient for the staff if we stayed where we were. "Have you been here before?" a waiter asked. My guest and I shook our heads and got a rapid-fire spiel from a waiter who looked away as he went through his paces. We ended up ordering, and for the most part enjoying, pan-roasted rockfish with Parisian-style gnocchi and leg of lamb with a zippy romesco made with carrots and almonds, although the meat could have been warmer.
But lots of things went undone at Range that last visit. Cocktail glasses remained on our table long after we emptied them. A dish that tasted off to us was quickly removed from the table, but not before the waiter said, "I'll bring it to the kitchen and see what they think." When I returned from the restroom, the napkin I had left crumpled on my seat remained so, and after the sommelier opened our pinot noir, no one else but me poured for the rest of the night. At least three dining room staff walked past a packet of Sweet 'n Low on the carpet before anyone picked it up. Our waiter raced through the dessert options so fast, we could barely understand the selections. When he said, "We can box them up for you to take home," it felt less like an amenity for us than a convenience for him to close a sale.
"This is more about turning tables than serving tables," my companion summed up. As we exited, I noticed a local food personality at a prime table. She looked right at me (but not me) and continued eating.
The kitchen is the restaurant's best asset. The service? It's better if they know you at Range.
March 2013 review
You can believe the wide-ranging tales
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Descriptions of Range, the latest creation from “Top Chef” alumnus Bryan Voltaggio, make the Chevy Chase Pavilion location sound more like an ocean liner than a restaurant. Three hundred seats! Thirty cooks! Nine food stations! Did you know Range also stocks two master sommeliers? The last detail is offered by one of the title holders, who proudly tells her customers the claim is shared only with the fabled French Laundry in Napa Valley.
Few restaurants have been as eagerly awaited as Range, the first foray into Washington by Voltaggio, whose three establishments in Frederick -- Volt, Lunchbox
and Family Meal -- draw food enthusiasts from across the region. Part of the fuss stems from the chef’s celebrity and part of the attention is explained by the reality: Despite all the money and the stomachs in the area, Friendship Heights is poor when it comes to choice places to dine.
The big surprise after four dinners: The hype is justified. Range, backed by chef de cuisine Matt Hill from Charlie Palmer Steak, is a terrific restaurant much of the time. Its early problems with pacing appear to be solved, and while the setting overlooking several floors of office and retail space -- including a 30-by-60-foot “synchronized LED wall” of changing art -- suggest Las Vegas, this part of town could use the glitz.
The restaurant benefits from an exceptionally strong cast in the open kitchens, behind the bar and patrolling the floor. Skeptics might point to the fact I was recognized as a critic every visit, but even civilians I know tell me how swell the service is here. The dining room staff read their customers like books, magically appearing just as you need them and fully versed in Range’s scores of dishes.
The menu, no surprise, is long and varied. The left side of the script focuses on raw seafood, charcuterie, cheese, salads and pasta; the right column is devoted to pizza, grilled meats and fish, pan-roasted items and vegetable dishes.
The paths are strewn with delights. The bakery rolls out what might be the best bread basket in the city. Actually, it’s less a basket than a fashion show of carbs, a pageant that crowds the table with homey corn bread, jalapeo-spiked biscuits, rustic multigrain and on, staged with coordinating spreads including bacon marmalade, pepper jelly and whipped lardo. Crudos include ruby-red yellowfin tuna, folds of which are interspersed with green dots of avocado whipped with jalapeo and airy rice crackers: a tuna tartare of distinction. A chiffonade of kale, the current “it” green, plays the role traditionally filled by romaine in one of the best Caesar salads I’ve encountered in ages.
I’ve never met a pasta I didn’t dig here. Linguine with sea urchin and kimchi made by one of the cook’s moms? Sold! Scroll-shaped pasta flavored with rye, cocoa and pumpernickel -- and with minced lamb’s tongue clinging -- gets a light wash of braising liquid. There are also ravioli bursting with tangy goat cheese and draped with meaty ragu, a dish that manages to be both comforting and elegant.
Edan MacQuaid made food headlines when Range tapped him to stoke its wood fire. The esteemed pie man’s pizzas here are good, although not as consistent as when he baked at Pizzeria Orso or Two Amys. The draws include a crust slathered with mashed cannellini beans, translucent ribbons of lardo and biting arugula and another decorated with smoked mozzarella, rapini and juicy pork sausage made in-house.
Smart shopping and fun accents make eating meat here a pleasure. From the grill come lamb rack chops from Border Springs Farm, succulent lamb tweaked with minced olives, mint and toasted garlic. And from the oven comes scarlet sliced venison bedded on dusky espresso spaetzle, the dark notes elevated with candied orange peel.
Diners can accessorize the grilled and roasted dishes with a field of vegetable side dishes, the best of which are deep-fried Brussels sprouts splashed with fish sauce and garnished with lacy onion rings, and roasted cauliflower tossed with almonds, golden raisins and za’atar, the Middle Eastern spice blend. Sweet potato puree smacks of dessert; “everything” mashed potatoes are “everything” bagels, hold the bread. The spuds sound peculiar but taste delicious.
Lesser memories? Striped bass heads south with barbecue-flavored hazelnuts, sorghum vinaigrette and corn bread puree: not a trip I plan to take again.
The prime seats are those to the left of the bar, a curved stretch with floor-to-ceiling windows that look into the atrium on one side and with a view of the cooking stations -- “a chef’s playground,” Voltaggio calls them -- on the other. The expanse in the back feels more like an overflow room. Range’s cream-colored seats and muted palette let the food shine; a retail shop with Voltaggio-approved kitchen equipment feels as if Williams-Sonoma crashed the party.
Take advantage of the sterling credentials of the sommeliers. Keith Goldston and more recently Kathy Morgan clearly enjoy sharing the stories behind their liquid wares, which call to both the haves and the have-not-as-muches with a broad range of wines and prices. France is particularly well represented. Consider the 2010 Pinot Blanc Barriques from Ostertag, a versatile charmer from Alsace for a mere $34 -- or, if you’re celebrating, a premiere cru from Domaine Ramonet. Range’s range embraces lots of obscure but impressive wine, evinced by, say, the 2009 Querciabella Mongrana from Tuscany (for just $36). Don’t drink? Range makes its own sodas, in true-tasting flavors.
Throughout the night, a cart of confections rolls across the 14,000-square-foot expanse, a reminder to save room for something sweet. When the art-on-wheels pulls up to your table, you want to hoover the lot. Handsomely displayed under glass cloches are tender pistachio financiers, rosemary-apricot biscotti and sublime smoked cashew brittle. (The dry, hybrid Rice Krispies s’mores, on the other hand, are not a plug for either treat.) To the side of the cloches are bite-size chocolates in more than a dozen flavors, running from the expected espresso and salted caramel to pistachio-yuzu and a fiery Mexican hot chocolate. I’m not a big sweets lover; the cart at Range persuaded me to cave. Act 2 of dessert, orchestrated by executive pastry chef Johnny Miele, finds more traditional endings: bread pudding, apple crisp, a goat cheese cheesecake brightened with kumquat and Meyer lemon.
Range has sweep, heft and heart. Take a bow, Mr. Voltaggio and cast.
After all the talk, it’s time to taste
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Heard of Range? Of course you have. The December debut of the latest dining attraction from Bryan Voltaggio of (all together now!) Volt restaurant and “Top Chef” fame was covered by the food mafia as though it were a presidential campaign.
Before this patron dropped by the second-floor, 300-seat newsmaker staffed with nearly 30 cooks in the Chevy Chase Pavilion, I knew to expect a frozen sphere of veal stock in my Scotch-rich Vegan Sacrifice cocktail and to see a design that included separate stages for baking, shellfish, charcuterie and pastrymaking plus a yet-to-open retail space with its own entrance.
If there was any doubt the public was eager for Range, Voltaggio’s first foray in the District, opening-night traffic put it to rest: Within eight minutes after reservations began being taken, at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, every seat was snapped up, says the empire builder who also counts Family Meal and Lunchbox in Frederick in his portfolio.
Get the bread basket. It costs $10 and threatens to ruin your appetite for anything else, but it also demonstrates Range’s baking acumen with a fragrant spread that includes ciabatta, pita, foccacia, cheddar-chive biscuits that would make a Southerner proud and a skillet of corn bread that is a touch too sweet but nevertheless easy to eat. Companions to the carbo-load run to hummus, smoked cream cheese, pepper jelly and tomato-ham jam made from stewed tomatoes and ham trimmings. On the subject of bread, local pizza maven Edan MacQuaid has been hired to stoke the wood fires at Range.
Voltaggio calls his fourth restaurant a “share plate environment.” Main courses and side dishes show up as they’re ready, as if they were tapas, from Range’s far-flung food stations. So four of us pick first at some fishy black cod, later at sliced beef heart dabbled with chimichurri, with an order of raisin-sweetened cauliflower serving as a bridge between the proteins. Now comes a plate of sliced grilled pork loin, tasty but late to the party. (When I talk to him later on the phone, Voltaggio says his staff is working on timing issues.)
Among the dishes that most catch my interest are lamb breast stuffed with zesty merguez sausage and served on buttery braised cabbage and Range’s super-buttery “everything” mashed potatoes that take their cue from “everything” bagels seasoned with poppy seeds, garlic and onion powders and such. I like the idea of rindswurst as part of the charcuterie program, although the all-beef sausage, made with emulsified heart, liver and tongue, could use more assertive seasoning. Oysters from the raw bar reveal good shucking.
The curved restaurant comes with floor-to-ceiling windows that take in the Embassy Suites on the other side of the pavilion. Members of my dinner party were briefly distracted by a game of “Jeopardy” playing on a flat-screen TV in the distance rather than by the dining room, its neutral shades intentional. Voltaggio, assisted by chef de cuisine Matt Hill, formerly of Charlie Palmer Steak, says he wants the focus to be on the food at Range, which seems to get updates by the day: Christmas Eve saw the arrival of Italian-made curing cabinets for meat.
Once the main courses are cleared, a cart of confections rolls up to the table. Trickle-down temptations born in luxury restaurants, the display of sweet somethings under glass cloches makes everyone at the table feel as though they are kids again. Some desserts look better than they taste, a discovery that repeats itself with the larger options. Since my maiden dinner, Voltaggio says he has reworked this weak link at Range, which found, among other charmless notions, a rice pudding that more closely resembled the Chinese gruel congee. I look forward to trying those and other enhancements -- if I can get in again.