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Jul 9, 2009 10:04 AM

Volt, Table 21: Komi, MiniBar Have Met Their Match

Over the past several years extraordinary "blow out" kinds of menus and tables have begun to show up in restaurants around the United States. Perhaps Roberto Donna was first to do this in the D. C. area when he opened a "Chef's Table" seating up to six literally in the kitchen of his former Galileo and cooked for you himself. Over time this grew into his legendary Laboratorio with 30 seats and a dedicated kitchen in front of the room where at one table you could sit literally within feet of him as he and an assistant would prepare a twelve course, three hour dinner.

Seven years ago Fabio Trabocchi established a benchmark at Maestro with a prix fixe menu that often, including various amuse, would approach ten courses or more. In Roses, Spain Ferran Adria created an international cult following with thirty or so bites and experiences at El Bulli. In Washington Jose Andres introduced elements of this with his six seat MiniBar which soon became almost impossible to get a seat at. Jose, with his wildly popular television show, now has his own cult following at MiniBar and at Los Angeles' Bazaar. The smaller Washington, "Little" Washington, has its own Inn and its own wildly expensive Chef's Table where a $400 suppliment, on top of a $178 Saturday prix fixe, will introduce up to six diners to Patrick's O'Connell's landmark chef's dinner.

In Washington a mid 20's Johnny Monis took over a pizza joint and incrimentally starting adding his own imaginative interpretations which has since grown into what is currently Washington's best restaurant. Komi's larger tasting menu now pushes sixteen to eighteen bites, tastes and courses for a meal that can similarly stretch to three hours or more.

More recently Enzo at Teatro Goldoni started his "Chef's Table" with sixteen to eighteen artistic, occasionally theatrical courses (the "cigar box") and tastes (incredible "egg shell") while several hundred miles down I 81 in Chilhowie a Trotter and Tru schooled couple (married on July 5th) took over the Town House Grill serving their own twelve + course blowout in the unlikeliest of Mountain country crossroads anywhere.

Each of these in their own way is unique, each is wildly delicious with components of dinners that for years were limited to Michelin starred-often three Michelin starred-restaurants in Europe. All have featured a number of dishes that can stand with the best in the world. Each have several courses of what I would call a "Great Dish" simply meaning among the very best dishes of its kind anywhere in the world.

Now, in Frederick, Bryan Voltaggio has taken a four seat stainless steel counter in the very back of his less than year old restaurant, Volt, and turned it into what may be the best overall "blow out" experience of all with five Great Dishes included in the 21 course, three hour, $121 prix fixe kitchen show. We were sated, stuffed and stunned at how spectacularly good it was.

Volt is an enormously popular restaurant located in Frederick's downtown. Last night every seat at every table was filled for its regular menu. The restaurant is known and already has a loyal following, some of which may have started when he was at Charlie Palmer's Aureole in New York as well as Charlie Palmer Steak on Capital Hill. Volt is his and his wife's very personal signature on a career that is about to explode on the national scene both because of his incredible talent and imagination as well as his appearance on an upcoming television show this Fall. (He would not/could not tell us its outcome.)

Volt appears to have been a large, old red brick building that one day might have been a mansion...or a small school house. Diners for Table 21 are led to the very back of the first floor where four seats are side by side at a counter directly IN the kitchen. You are literally seated in the middle of where eight kitchen staff and numerous waitstaff are preparing the evenings' dishes. The counter arrangement looks and feels very much like MiniBar (or, if anyone reading this has been, L'Atalier de Joel Robuchon-except this is much better than the Paris original).

The first course is a Martini glass and the introduction of Frangelico, Absolut Citron and, yes, CO 2 for what diners are told is a liquid "Chocolate Cake." It is. It tastes exactly like chocolate cake. The next course are literal paper thin, "stiff" slices of proscuitto which are dipped into a thick, creamy "potato" dip much like one dips chips into onion dip. Just much, much better.

The first three or four courses feel like MiniBar. My wife and I thought we no longer had a need to endure countless busy signals calling Cafe Atlantico-we could just drive to Frederick instead. This was certainly as good. Certainly as wildly created. What if he had his own interpretation of "Dragon's Breath?"

Over time more dishes are introduced which began to take the experience in a different direction: moist, flaky crisp skin on striped bass with saffron risotto, mustard and a "garlic scape" took us to Maestro with a Fabio like interpretation that was outstanding. This was confirmed with the next course, "cherry glen goat cheese ravioli with procini mushrooms." Closing my eyes I was back in Tyson's Corner. I almost expected Vincent or Emanuele to be walking up to the table, the flavors seemed so familiar!

Komi was soon to come with a "foie gras torchon with medjool dates and vanilla brioche." Other courses brought even more elements of Komi and even became reminiscent of The Inn: "Pineland Farm beef strip loin, Yukom gold potato, roasted pepper, sundried grapes" and "Longenecker Farm riabbit with sunchoke puree, applewood smoked bacon and parsley."

Dinner continued with Bryan's own interpretation of courses and tastes we'd had elsewhere, each in its own way as good. Five "Great Dishes" matched what I've had at dinners at the three Michelin starred Schwarzwaldstube and the three Michelin starred Le Calandre. However this was not a luxuriously indulgent experience, rather because of where you are seated, it is an experience in the middle of a working kitchen-similar to Roberto's original Chef's Table at Galileo twenty years ago. Only several feet away we were able to see every single plate prepared for the dining room (definite opinions on what we will order on our next visit). No yelling, no confrontations, only a very smooth, seamless operation visually obsessed with the quality of every taste they set out for their diners.

Their wine list is especially notable, not just for its length but also for its value. Under $40 wines include the excellent Spanish Altos Luzon and Juan Gil. Others included Tinto Pesquera and Coronado de Haza in the $60 range while '05 Simi Landslide is a 94 point California Cab for $68. While there were many ranging into the mid three digits I was impressed with the intelligent inclusions at a realistic price point of under $50.

This is going to become a reservation as difficult as MiniBar. Similar to The Inn it is going to attract a national following, not just a regional. It is THAT good. It's expensive but it is an incredible blowout experience unique from the others. This was our Anniversary and we choose this having been to most of the others in years past. We chose well. For anyone who is into cooking this is a real plus to be totally immersed in the middle of the "action." For anyone who has ever wondered what it must be like to actually work in a high end kitchen this will provide answers. For over three hours you become part of it.

Volt's Table 21 is a remarkable indulgence worthy of anyone reading this giving very real consideration to experiencing it at least once. The Baltimore Washington area is much wealthier now because of the excellence this brings us. With Johnny Monis in D. C., Cindy Wolf in Baltimore and now Bryan Voltaggio in Frederick we live in a very real triangle of national, perhaps international level excellence. Frederick is closer than it seems.

Important addendum: Volt's Table 21 is an experience that is only available at the four seats in the kitchen. The restaurant has two dining rooms on the main floor which offer entirely different menus. While a seven course Chef's Tasting menu is offered in them most of the courses I am writing about are ONLY served at Table 21 which is in the kitchen. You MUST reserve Table 21 by name to be seated at it.

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  1. thanks for the detailed review. what was your experience like interacting with the local Frederick folks? Last weekend I met some people who were from Frederick and of course my first question was, "what do you think of volt?" I was quite surprised by the hostile response I received, "we aren't going to go because we can't afford it. we've heard it's overrated and pretentious." it was a tone-of-voice thing that really startled me...i was surprised that this woman's reaction was so vigorously negative, especially considering she's never been to the place. Apparently there is some city council controversy over the signage of the restaurant as well. What was that aspect of the dinner like for you?

    13 Replies
    1. re: littlew1ng

      littlew1ng, there was no interaction. Literally, you are seated at a four seat counter (we were the only two last night) almost in the middle of the kitchen. The kitchen opened into a room perhaps twenty feet from us where we could see four tables with diners. But they were so far away from us we could not hear anything; simply, there was no opportunity for any kind of a discussion. But that is a large part of the unique appeal of this: the food is extraordinary-a number of courses were on the level of a European Michelin three star. But you do become part of the flow and ambience of the kitchen because of where you are seated. We almost felt that we had become members of the Volt "team."

      I honestly believe that in the months to come 90% or more of the people who sit at "Table 21" will come from outside of the Frederick area. Frederick residents will, of course, be important for the success of the restaurant (it was full last night-Wednesday night) but this WILL BECOME a national desitination. It IS that good. Right now, I don't believe Table 21 is known that well-there has been virtually no publicity about it. I hope that some who read what I am writing are able to try it. But again, I am ONLY writing about Table 21. We have not sat in the regular dining rooms...yet.

      1. re: Joe H

        ohhh ok. i assumed that you had spent the night in the town so would have been around more people outside the restaurant. it sounds like an extraordinary experience. thank you for sharing it with us. this is definitely going to be my next celebratory excursion.

        1. re: littlew1ng

          I should also clarify since Volt has two dining rooms as well as several Chef's Tasting Menus which are available. I am ONLY writing about the four seats in the kitchen which are known as "Table 21." When you reserve you MUST request "Table 21" to be seated at it. The 21 course tasting menu is ONLY available in the kitchen at these seats. There is also the possibility that if you are a couple you may be paired with another single or couple (similar to MiniBar) at them. Also, on Saturday they have two seatings at "Table 21." This is Volt's website with the various menus noted: http://www.voltrestaurant.com/menusdi...

      2. re: littlew1ng

        The same thing happens with all great restaurants. Ask a Washingtonian about Citronelle, or someone in San Fransisco about The French Laundry. Some people will love it, some people will think it is a waste of money. That is what happens in the food world, some people love food, some people love shoes, etc etc. And of course some people just eat. C'est la vie.


        Thanks for the great report and the detail about the dishes. It will be on the list to investigate the Chef's Table in the future.

        1. re: littlew1ng

          We had the pleasure of eating at the kitchen table last October before it was called Table 21. Back then it was just "the best table in the restaurant" and we had a choice between the 5 and 7 course menus. The kitchen is amazingly quiet and efficient and Bryan was extremely accommodating to changes in the menu (I don't eat red meat).

          Littlew1ng, the sign issue has to do with the fact that the VOLT owners scraped off the "Professional Building" sign to better see their own signage. It's been a bit of a to do with the Historic Preservation Council which makes no sense to me since the building was originally a private mansion and not a professional building. Hopefully that's all blown over. The HPC is vital to maintain certain aspects to downtown Frederick but this was a non-issue IMO. By the way, we aren't all a bunch of bumpkins up here. Come on up and stay in Frederick. for the day. You may be surprised by how much there is to do and see up here. There are plenty of us here who appreciate VOLT and all the other fine restaurants and shops in Frederick.

          1. re: LizH

            Downtown Frederick is very nice. The only wierd thing is that there aren't any hotels.

            1. re: Hal Laurent

              There are penty of hotels scattered around Frederick, but none downtown. The Francis Scott Key Hotel at West Patrick and Court Street stopped operating as a hotel years ago because there wasn't enough business to keep the lights on. There isn't a place to stay the night within a comfortable walking distance of downtown,except for a few bed and breakfasts. It is weird, but the Frederick Historical Commission is extremely tight on development, which may account for it.

              1. re: flavrmeistr

                It is indeed weird. I was out there earlier this year to run a half-marathon, and the only hotels I could find were out by the ugly suburban mall. The restaurant situation in downtown was way better than the hotel situation.

                1. re: Hal Laurent

                  Nevertheless, downtown Frederick attracts a lot of visitors with it's nightlife, in spite of the dearth of convenient accommodations. More than one morning, I've found people sleeping on my front steps. They didn't appear to be locals, either.

            2. re: LizH

              LizH, it actually didn't start until December 21st which is his birthday: http://blog.voltrestaurant.com/?p=173 Prior to this there were the tables in the "chef's tasting room." When you were there in October were you seated at a stainless steel counter with four seats side by side?

              1. re: Joe H

                No, it was a small two top set right between the kitchen and the prep area.

                The first time we went, we sat in the front dining room so when we went in October, we requested a table in the chef's kitchen. Unfortunately, a large group had reserved the entire kitchen dining room. While we were trying to decide what to do, the manager set up this table right in the kitchen for us. At first, I thought we were horribly in the way (it's not a large area) but I soon realized the kitchen ran so smoothly that they just worked around us.

                1. re: LizH

                  wow, now that's what i call customer service excellence!

              2. re: LizH

                haha i'm by no means a foodie and will never be able to afford to be, but your comment is spot on. I work with folks all over the mid-atlantic building datacenters (think the IBM or cisco commercials where all the servers are in a room) and the ONLY town i have been in where they call their historical group the 'hysterical society' is Frederick, MD.

                That said...being in downtown Baltimore for over a year my wife and I have been lucky enough to splurge periodically, and given that Frederick is between here and where our families live (need to pawn off the kiddos), I definitely have Volt (maybe not Table 21 ;) ) on my list for a surprise night out.

            3. joe, that is an outstanding report! i'm happy that you enjoyed it so much. i think you've given me an idea for our anniversary in october. but, after your stellar endorsement, they're probably already booked! ;-).


              1 Reply
              1. re: alkapal

                alkapal, they are probably not. This is a special table in a restaurant that few people know about at this point. For all of the publicity surrounding MiniBar and Komi, "Table 21" has really slid under the radar. It has received virtually no publicity at all. For myself it will be really interesting to hear what others think about it as they are able to visit.

              2. Agree 100%. I wrote about this several months ago after I tried Table 21, and then later when I went back for a standard 3 course meal in the dining room. Volt is the next big thing, not for the Washington area, but for the national dining scene.

                I would only add that the restaurant is worth the trip even if you don't do Table 21.

                1. hey joe...another question about it! what's bryan like, and how does his personality as a chef and interaction with him during the course of the meal compare to other chefs tables?

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: littlew1ng

                    Honestly, we talked a bit but not at length; they were completely full that night and much of his time was involved in overseeing preparation as well as assembling a number of dishes himself. Over time we probably had a course served to us by any of a half dozen different people, talking to all of them, several at length. Try to imagine sitting in the kitchen at Maestro and how much of an opportunity would have been available to talk to Fabio.

                    I believe the best comparison for Volt's Table 21 is Roberto Donna at Galileo when he started his Chef's Table in 1989. The arrangement was similar to this-you were literally in the middle of the kitchen. I doubt if many reading this remember or experienced that but it was an extraordinary experience that led to Laboratorio years later. I must note that Roberto also took pride in standing behind the counter at the Lab almost every night it was open.

                    Table 21 also has elements of MiniBar in part because of the "style" of the counter you sit at. I also remember that the two people behind the counter at MiniBar had very different personalities: one was quiet and seemed somewhat shy while the other was almost an ambassador for Jose Andres and greatly added to the experience. Because the six people at the counter are their only focus you can (and I did) talk to them almost continuously. Table 21 is somewhat different: it's a working kitchen for the entire restaurant with a different kind of ambience and different opportunities for interaction.

                    Bryan seemed extremely nice and personable. Whether or not he could have his own television show is another matter. In the early '90's I sat at the "food counter" at Emeril's twice, once with Emeril behind it. That night we talked quite a bit and I thought that Emeril was actually somewhat shy. He really didn't seem to be the kind of person who would come out and "work" the room or express real passion.

                    But he changed. I never would have imagined that he would have a "bam" kind of personality. (Of course, he really may not. He may have just found something that worked and rode it to the top.)

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