Unrated during the pandemic
Planning for Volt’s replacement, he tried to get into the minds of diners. The successor would be a shorter experience, “not because we wanted to turn tables,” says the chef, but because people were being encouraged by health experts not to linger in public spaces. No tasting menus as at Volt, then. The dishes would be more familiar and less precious; customers are apt to feel safer knowing their food is minimally fussed with, he figures.
His thinking produced Thacher & Rye, which welcomed customers in September. The name combines that of Voltaggio’s son, 13, and the state’s history of making spirits. Maryland was once home to the country’s fifth-largest distilling industry, best known for its rye.
If you’re looking for a road trip prospect, this is it. My first taste, in late October, unfolded on the expansive courtyard to the right of the entrance. Everything about the setting — brick walls, overhead sails of cloth, amber votives, leafy trees nearby — implored patrons to “forget your troubles, come on get happy.” The staff made the night feel safe, starting at the entrance with a temperature check and a request for my party to apply hand sanitizer, and continuing at the table, where QR codes negated paper menus and utensils were brought out on trays for us to help ourselves.
A server asked us to place our entire order at the same time “for a seamless dining experience” — a once-common phrase that put a chef’s interests ahead of customers, but now feels like a reasonable response to the times. The number of selections and courses (four, not including a category called “for the table”) felt like throwbacks, too. Come to think of it, wasn’t I making jokes about the ubiquity of tuna tartare seemingly forever? But there the fish dish is at Thacher & Rye, and there I was, enjoying a rosy circle of lush raw yellowfin tuna in a shimmering moat of grapefruit ponzu. Minced chives carpeted part of the crudo, served with sesame lavash for scooping.
The only first course to evoke Volt is a salad of fall vegetables, sweet figs, peanuts and buttermilk dressing garnished with avocado “frost,” which is what happens when you puree the fruit with lime and salt, freeze it with liquid nitrogen and turn it into powder. Otherwise, the appetizers represent Voltaggio’s hoped-for familiarity. Gulf shrimp dusted with zesty Old Bay and served with a dunk of horseradish aioli makes for a distinctive shrimp cocktail, and a little jar of duck rillettes dropped off with pickled vegetables is headier with the addition of tender herbed buttermilk biscuits.
The sight of drumstick-size fried puffer fish, a staple at Estuary in Washington’s Conrad hotel, prompts me to inquire about Voltaggio’s D.C. restaurant. The chef says he and his brother, Michael, remain partners in the project, which is temporarily shuttered but expected to reopen at some point. For Thacher & Rye, the puffer fish are seasoned with barbecue spices and dappled with a sambal fueled in part with fish peppers, sorghum and red wine vinegar. Love the crunch. Love the fencing match between sweet and tang. Love the plating. Alongside the posh fish sticks sits a tiny green tower of sliced dill pickles.
Every pasta I’ve tried has something lovely to recommend it. Lasagna is many fine layers — “21” by my server’s count — tiered with smoked brisket Bolognese and ricotta fondue. The petite portion and execution render it light and elegant, and when’s the last time anyone said that about lasagna? Housemade ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and finished with toasted pumpkin seeds and squash oil captures fall in every morsel. Spaghetti in a deep yellow sungold tomato sauce with filings of Parmesan is simple and satisfying, a suggestion of Italy.
You can order a burger here, but you probably didn’t drive this far for something you can fix at home, or get for less than $18 elsewhere. As with appetizers, fish is a strong suit among entrees. Delicate fluke takes well to lemon brown butter and capers, in addition to a side dish of stinging collard greens and kale. More beautiful is halibut lounging in a pool of sungold tomato and curry broth. Count on the roast chicken to impress you, too, as much for the surprise of Brussels sprouts kimchi and brown rice congee nearby as the organic brined centerpiece. The food might not be as manipulated as at Volt, but the kitchen’s skilled technique is everywhere. Voltaggio’s right-hand man here is Dan Kennedy, who served as chef de cuisine at Estuary.
My companions’ eyes widen at the sight of plates of fries and bread going to other tables. Okay, okay, I get the hint. The golden, thrice-fried french fries are meant to evoke the boardwalk, and the spent-grain bread, served warm and quartered, comes with a spread of smoked trout as well as whipped butter. Life is short; order both.
A choice of three desserts seems to be the norm these days. The restaurant’s trio rely on an autumnal palette of orange (pumpkin cheesecake) and brown (sticky toffee cake and chocolate-caramel mousse). The cheesecake takes the prize for novelty, served as a shallow round, tangy with goat cheese, crowned with Concord grape sorbet and garnished with what tastes like granola that earned a master’s degree. Curry powder gives the almond streusel a pleasant savory quality.
November saw a heated white tent go up on the patio and a restaurant experimenting with how to fuse safety and comfort. Voltaggio assures me that the four canvas walls I encountered — the picture of a fully enclosed room, defeating the purpose of being outside — were a temporary situation. Experience and feedback have resulted in a tent with removable panels for better ventilation. I’m further comforted by the egg timers the servers use to time disinfecting procedures between seatings.
Volt enjoyed a long and admirable run. While Voltaggio says closing it was “the hardest decision I’ve had to make,” he knows that Thacher & Rye is a restaurant better suited to a pandemic.
Might Volt return in better times? Voltaggio feels optimistic about the prospect. Proof, please? “The sign is downstairs in our office.”
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Thacher & Rye 228 N. Market St., Frederick, Md. 240-332-3186. thacherandrye.com. Open: Dinner takeout, inside and outdoor dining 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday; Daytime takeout, inside and outdoor dining 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday (lunch) and Sunday (brunch). Prices: dinner appetizers $12 to $89 (for a seafood tower), main courses $18 to $49. No delivery. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can access the inside from a ramp in the rear of the restaurant, which has ADA-compliant restrooms, and the patio from a walkway.