The only question I have after dining at Voltaggio Brothers Steak House at MGM National Harbor is this: What took the guys so long to do business together? Not only is the restaurant more imaginative than it sounds, it tastes like the culmination of everywhere the siblings have previously cooked.
Before they became famous on “Top Chef,” the sons of Maryland had grilled plenty of meat, Bryan Voltaggio at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington and Michael Voltaggio at the Grill in the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla. Each went on to greater glory at other establishments, with Bryan, 40, on the East Coast (think Volt in Frederick, Md.) and Michael, 38, on the West Coast (with Ink in Los Angeles).
The Voltaggios have an honorary bro in the person of executive chef Cole Dickinson, 33, the day-to-day kitchen presence and a longtime associate of Michael’s. “Every single dish,” says Michael, was the result of a “three-brain” trust. Take the wedge salad. It was Michael’s idea to dust the dish with Gorgonzola “snow” and Cole’s notion to add tomato jam, for tang. Bryan weighed in with a ranch dressing spiked with Old Bay seasoning.
The setting, on the other hand, is a multiroom extravaganza based (a wee bit) on the brothers’ childhood and meant to evoke a sense of home. From the hall of the casino, you get glimpses of the intent: a bar that looks like the library of a millennial with money to burn, and a dining room in calming shades of blue and a band of mirrors that affords everyone a view. Only when you pass the host stand and go deeper into the steakhouse do you grasp the sweep of the restaurant, which also embraces the Family Room, an area done up in rust-orange and wood paneling. “We’re ’70s children,” explains Bryan. Surprise, surprise, the kitchen is on display in a dining room, decorated with white ceramics, and billed as the Kitchen. (As at the neighboring Fish by José Andrés, the cooks are treated to a view of the outdoors. Dickinson says he can see an eagle’s nest from his spot on the line.)
The menu provides a safe zone for steakhouse purists even as it seduces the food crowd. Caesar salad is an option, for instance, but the spears of romaine are stacked, like cross beams, and garnished with anchovy-spiked fritters instead of traditional croutons. You’ll find oysters Rockefeller, too, although nowhere else have I seen brighter, bolder spinach than the aerated cover for barely warmed bivalves here. Shrimp cocktail is updated with banana ketchup for dipping, an improvement over regular cocktail sauce in that starchy green bananas make for a condiment that doesn’t slip off the seafood. A little pasta before your main course? Voltaggio Brothers obliges, with al dente spaghetti treated to pecorino, cracked black pepper and an egg. Simple, meet sublime. There are sweet scallops, too, displayed on a base of rice grits enriched with sea urchin and set off with sea beans.
The dish that has Los Angeles written all over it is called umami cereal, and before you jump to the next paragraph, let me sing the praises of the accompaniment. There’s quiet magic in the steel-cut oats, flavored with mushroom dashi, and rousing crunch thanks to chicken-fried hen-of-the-wood mushrooms (catch that?) on top.
My only reservation about ordering as an appetizer pork shoulder with lettuce cups or a variation on poutine, Canada’s famous beer sponge (sweetened here with blue crab), is a diminished appetite for one of the signature entrees.
Somehow, though, I managed to make short work of a $32 hanger steak. The amount of meat is sane (10 ounces), and its beefy richness and agreeably grainy texture explain why the cut is known as “butcher’s steak.” (Instead of selling it, butchers of yore sometimes saved the inexpensive prize for themselves.) Eight ounces of (American Wagyu) flat-iron steak offers similar value and good eating.
A diner can explore bigger and costlier steaks here, but bite for bite, the lesser cuts pack in the most flavor. Voltaggio’s dry-aged New York strip is 14 ounces of dense, only slightly tangy beef for nearly $70. No matter your choice, it’s finished with wavy white chips produced from cooked, chilled, sliced, dehydrated and fried beef tendon: nice punctuation on the plate.
Don’t do beef? Buy into branzino, proof that the wood oven is the equal of the grill and that when you buy good ingredients, capers, lemon and brown butter are sometimes all they need to shine.
Sides can make or break a steakhouse. Voltaggio Brothers offers nearly a dozen ways to dress up dinner. In addition to the aforementioned oatmeal — I’m telling you, tasting is believing — a shortlist of crowd pleasers would include broccolini striped with garlic aioli and punched up with charred lemon; macaroni and cheese featuring pasta made in-house and two cheeses; and cheddar cheese biscuits served with apple butter (a superior starch than the listless Parker House rolls).
You’re near a casino. Don’t expect to catch everything a waiter says. When a server inquired about our water preferences one evening, I was amused to hear him offer what I understood to be “PG,” as in Prince George’s County, home to the casino. “PG?” I repeated from across a long table. “Fiji,” he set me straight. On the other hand, I overheard every Cher joke imaginable the night I dropped by the bar of the steakhouse, when her highness was performing in the casino’s theater. “Want to CHER my poutine?” one reveler loudly asked another. Wink. Wink. I was tempted to free some fries, finished with shellfish gravy, from the stranger’s plate. The joke may have been fun and cheesy, but so are those fries.
Desserts round up the usual suspects and play up presentation. There’s a lemon tart, in other words, encircled with brilliant bachelor buttons and served with tufts of whipped maple syrup. A white plate serves as a canvas for torn chocolate cake, chocolate pudding, chocolate mousse and chocolate ice cream, everything aligned in a row and easy to like. What most calls to me after dinner is another drink, though, most likely an Aviation floating lavender sorbet.
Bryan says he and Michael never worked together before because they wanted to focus on their individual brands. Also, until MGM approached them, the right project and location never materialized.
Former rivals on TV, the Voltaggio brothers have joined forces to create a distinctive meat market and one of the surest bets at MGM — a fraternal union of good tastes.
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101 MGM National Ave., National Harbor.
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $14 to $89, main courses $28 to $120.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.