By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 5, 2008
** 1/2 (out of four)
Sound Check: 73 decibels (must speak with raised voice)
Volt exhibits all the signs of a luxury American restaurant circa 2008.
Choice of house-filtered flat or sparkling water? Check.
Creativity at the bar? Take your pick from classic or "current" cocktails.
Frequent shout-outs to the restaurant's growers, farmers and ingredients? "We have our coffee roasted for us here in Frederick," a server informs us.
The option of leaving dinner in the hands of a stranger? The five- and seven-course chef's tasting menus take care of that.
Cute tray of desserts to soften the bill? Hello, house-made chocolates.
Sense of whimsy? Just look at the servers' feet. The waiters are wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers with their jackets.
Volt will come as no surprise to anyone who knows its chef, Bryan Voltaggio, a protege of a celebrity chef in Manhattan (Charlie Palmer) and veteran of some well-known restaurants (Aureole in New York, Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington). Ever since his final year at the Culinary Institute of America in 1999, when he was required to build a restaurant in theory, Voltaggio says, "I always knew I'd end up" in Frederick. The chef was born there. He met his wife there. And now, at age 32 and with the help of a co-owner, he's feeding its denizens and area chowhounds in a 19th-century mansion that serves as a grand backdrop to one of the most interesting restaurants in the state.
Go early to enjoy two of Volt's many pleasures: a cocktail and the lounge. In late August, that meant muddled cherries and peaches in bourbon, a.k.a. "XXX Roy Rogers." A big champagne tub on the counter of the shimmering, glass-topped bar puts customers in a festive mood, and the low sofas and tables suggest the taste of a particularly stylish host.
There are two ways to dine at Volt: in the 38-seat main dining room or in the kitchen, at one of four tables giving patrons a close-up view of their meal being assembled. I can report only on the former, a space that is on the austere side, its walls bare except for white paint, a band of mirror and a large window up front. Diversions come by way of the customers (there's lots of plate trading here) and the servers, who play the role of food curators. Seemingly everything has a pedigree, and no pedigree is left unacknowledged. "The butter is from Vermont," one of them tells us. "The bread is topped with sea salt from the English Channel," she says, adding that the bacon-rosemary brioche and sesame-sprinkled rolls are also baked in-house.
Prime ingredients are impressive. But Voltaggio also knows how to cook and stage them to luscious effect. Corn from nearby fields is pureed with cream and slipped inside large ravioli that get a nice boost from chives and buttery chanterelle mushrooms. A slender piece of the trendy, sushi-grade Kona Kampachi is seared on one side, raw on the other and poised atop pinches of black sticky rice. The Asian accent continues with a pale yellow brushstroke of fennel-and-lemon-grass sauce. When one of my dining partners expressed an interest in ordering foie gras, I found myself lecturing him about how similarly the luxury tends to be presented from restaurant to restaurant. Duck liver, I told him, generally shows off careful buying rather than cooking skills. I had a change of heart when the appetizer, cured in Riesling and poached in its own fat, was brought to the table, arranged on little stamps of melon in three colors and seasoned with vanilla "salt." A rack of toasted bread sat alongside.
"He's eating fish!" the wife of a cave man of my acquaintance whispered in my ear at Volt one night. I look up to catch the card-carrying carnivore across the table eating more than the usual token bite of the entree in front of him. When the branzino was passed to me, I found it hard to share, too. The Mediterranean fish had been seared in butter, emphasizing its natural sweetness, and its enhancements -- tiny crisp marbles of baby Yukon potatoes, an emulsion of carrots and tarragon -- gave it the appearance and flavor of a dish you might expect to see in a Parisian food temple, not in the Maryland exurbs.
With Voltaggio's hanger steak, we're reminded that the chef spent considerable time in a prime steakhouse. The meat, served in thick, rosy slices with buttery whipped potatoes and an ever-changing green, was swollen with juices and gushing with flavor, thanks to a soak in soy sauce and (surprise!) cherry juice.
Not all of Voltaggio's flights of fancy soar. A chilled corn soup shot through with lemon grass made less of a statement when hearts of palm, minced melon and trout roe were also sharing the bowl. Like a lot of his competitors, the chef had fun showing off tomatoes last month, but he was the only one in my experience to serve the heirloom varieties with a green wand of basil-flavored meringue. The garnish was a distraction, and so was a too-sweet tomato sorbet. And an otherwise lovely bar of halibut teetering on a dab of arugula-tinted risotto was accompanied by the culinary equivalent of a whoopee cushion: a breaded cube of molten banana puree that must be eaten in a single bite if the diner is to avoid looking like a baby spitting out food. A tasting of rabbit -- braised leg, prosciutto-wrapped loin, fried flank and rack -- revealed good polenta but some overcooked rabbit parts. There was a lot left even after four of us sampled it. Desserts follow a similar path. They can be very good (picture goat cheese cheesecake with plums) or slightly off (frozen popcorn detracts from otherwise fine blackberry shortcake).
Service miscues during my initial visit tempered my enthusiasm for Volt. I could overlook the young waitress who announced that she couldn't tell me about any of the designer cocktails because she wasn't 21, and I could ignore the breadsticks that appeared on my table moments before dessert was set down. "I think you have the wrong table," I told the server. "We offer continuous bread service throughout dinner," she replied. "You can have as much bread as you want." Huh? I was less inclined to forgive the sommelier who failed to display the label, or offer an obligatory taste, of the bottle of wine he was pouring by the glass. And when he unexpectedly added a large splash to a glass half-full of pinot noir after I was finished with my main course -- and charged me $14 for it -- I was downright miffed. (I would have complained, but I didn't notice the charge until I was already home.)
Still, I admire the restaurant's wine program. The list is big and personal; here's your chance to revel in Burgundy or try a wine from Israel. The wine pairings with the tasting menus are well thought out (think prosecco with those heirloom tomatoes), and I like the idea of drinking beer with the cheese course.
Dinner a month later produced fewer hiccups and more finesse in the dining room. Volt copies the practice of restaurants with aspirations by setting everyone's dishes down in unison. And it keeps itself in your mind the next day when you open Volt's parting gift, a tiny box bound with ribbon, to discover bite-size shortbreads, blondies and other sweets.
Volt is a generous and thoughtful place to eat. It's also less than three months old. Count me an early admirer who looks forward to seeing how some aging influences the chef's ambition.
Open: lunch Tuesday through Saturday noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m.; brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Valet parking at dinner. Prices: Lunch entrees $15 to $21; dinner entrees $21 to $32. Five-course tasting menu $69 per person. Seven-course tasting menu $89 per person.