Tom Sietsema: Bryan Voltaggio’s Range deserves its hype


Chef de cuisine Matt Hill prepares the seafood station at Range. (Stacy Zarin Goldberg)

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, Lunchboxand 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, jalapeño-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 jalapeño 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.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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