R.J. Cooper calls his expansive tasting menu at Rogue 24 “The Journey,” a name that practically evokes epic Homeric tales, Hunter S. Thompson acid-fueled road trips or tribal ceremonies marking the end of puberty. When you listen to the James Beard Foundation award-winning chef talk about his new restaurant and its 24-course concept, you begin to understand why he chose the grandiose name.
Cooper’s progression of small plates, after all, is not just modern in concept — headcheese prepared to look like Gouda; a croquette that explodes with liquid chicken; shrimp and grits in which a sheet of shrimp “chorizo” is laid over corn-milk panna cotta covered in grits — but modern in experience, too. The kitchen at Rogue 24, which opens today, has been built in the middle of the dining room, a series of prep and induction-burner stations that essentially turns every one of the restaurant’s 52 seats into a spot at the chef’s table.
“We want you in the kitchen,” says Cooper. “We want you to go, ‘Oh, my gosh! How did you come up with that pretzel paper that’s going with the headcheese?’ ”
The price of admission is typical for a chef’s table: $120 for those 24 bites, an additional $55 if you want to take advantage of consultant Derek Brown’s cocktail pairings and general manager/sommelier Matthew Carroll’s wine selections. Add the price of valet parking, taxes and a tip, and you could easily drop $250 for the experience of going Rogue. It’s a New York City price tag in a D.C. market with a 9.8 percent unemployment rate and a federal government desperately looking to cut billions from its budget.
The funny thing is, Cooper is not unique in pushing a pricey multi-course menu on District diners during a down economy. His case might be the most extreme, but others in Washington have introduced more-streamlined tasting or prix-fixe menus in recent months. Chef Daniel Singhofen, like Komi’s Johnny Monis before him, ditched the a la carte options at Eola in Dupont Circle and instituted multi-course prix-fixe menus, which will set you back at least $61 without a drop of alcohol. Likewise, chef Eric Ziebold at CityZen, already home to a six-course tasting menu for $110, has upped the ante for those who want a slightly more modest dinner. Ziebold’s prix-fixe menu, once a three-course meal for $80, now serves four courses for $90. As always, a la carte is not an option at CityZen.
Prix-fixe menus may offer more flexibility, in that a diner has some options for each course, but they share at least two qualities with their more demanding cousin, the tasting menu: Both require patrons to commit to a set number of courses, and both demand more cash from the outset. And just as important, these menus trade on the idea that customers trust the chef’s vision and skill enough to willingly invest time (lots of it, often more than three hours) and money for such a feast. Think of the chefs who rely heavily on tasting menus, and you’ll see stars: Not just Monis at Komi but also Jose Andres at Minibar, Peter Pastan at Obelisk, Michel Richard at Citronelle
, Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve’s Tasting Room and Nobu Yamazaki at Sushi Taro.