This year, like the past four, Jonathan and I flew back east to celebrate Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) with his family. We typically fly to New York first and spend a few days working remotely, visiting with cousins, seeing friends, catching a show, and eating our way through Manhattan one bagel, pastrami sandwich, or dense crust-less cheesecake slice at a time. And when the chafing is unbearable and the humidity intolerable, we hop on the Amtrak and head down to DC, praying the weather around the Potomac is some combination of cool and dry, but it never is.
In DC we do much of the same things we do in the Big Apple, and, well, everywhere else. We sleep, visit with family, talk about the best new restaurants in town, and then drive around and eat at as many of them as possible. Only in DC, we make sure to visit with Ruthie, Jonathan’s amazingly hip and independent 90-year-old grandmother who lives in Bethesda. Ruthie’s hilarious– whether she knows it or not! And you’ll know when she’s approaching like a pickup truck in reverse, because her hearing aid is always ringing. And when we visit her at home she tries to give away her crystal dishes, tsotchkes, and anything else that’s not bolted to the floor, because as she says it, “I’m not going to need this stuff when I’m gone.” I know it sounds a little morbid, but last year, I got a silver cake stand, a packet of unused doilies, and two serving platters; all of which I actually use. She’s also a master barista, and works her Keurig like a pro.
But when we’re not stuffing our faces, kibitzing with Grandma Ruthie and raiding her cupboards, or driving to our next meal– we’re celebrating Rosh Hashanah. On the first day we typically attend the progressive young professionals service at Sixth & I, which is ironically held in a Baptist Church. Jonathan always get’s stuck parking the car, and his mother always gives a few extra tickets to the greeters at the door. I always sit quietly and follow along in my prayer book. Occasionally I’ll glance at my phone, which is on vibrate, but I’m mostly scanning the crowd and judging everyone’s High Holiday fashion faux pas. The rest of the time, I’m self reflecting, playing the what would I do if I won the lottery game, and waiting for the two things I enjoy most about Rosh Hashanah services: the Rabbi’s sermon and the blowing of the shofar.
This year, Rabbi Shira Stutman‘s sermon was simple and relatable. It wasn’t buried deep in scripture or so philosophical that I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Instead it was totally accessible and it challenged the congregation, and for the sake of brevity I’m paraphrasing, to engage in pools where we didn’t usually swim. Whether it’s engaging in a political discussion no matter how uncomfortable it may be, or to just interact with people who can’t finish more than three plates of food from an all-you-can-eat buffet (pathetic, right?), or socializing with members of a different faith. To step outside our comfort zone and observe the humanity of others. So that’s exactly what we did.
We ventured outside our comfort zone– the District– and took a day trip to Frederick, Maryland a historic bedroom community situated equidistant from our Nation’s Capitol and Baltimore. Now, for those of you who haven’t been, Frederick isn’t what you might expect. After passing all those Cracker Barrels along the freeway, I envisioned a community full of farmers and their cattle-castrating wives who throw pottery on the side. But my assumptions were way off. The main street (Market Street) is lined with both fine dining and casual restaurants separated by cute clothing boutiques for women, and fun bookstores and novelty shops for men and children. A walk along Carroll Creek Linear Park and then onto Market Street is to celebrate the juxtaposition of old world Maryland and new.
Which is exactly what Chef Bryan Voltaggio’s newest endeavor, Volt is– a mix of Victorian elegance and contemporary cuisine. Filling the entire bottom floor of a rust-colored 19th Century brownstone, each room and outdoor patio speaks to a unique dining experience.
Since it was the New Year, we’d convinced Bobbi to let us bring two expensive bottles of wine that were just wasting away in her wine fridge. And that’s when we met TJ Whitman, Volt’s Wine Director, who helped us with our 1993 Mouton Rothschild and 1997 Alexander Valley Silver Oak. TJ, who we learned is self-taught, made us feel comfortable and at ease with our wine naiveté. And for once, it was refreshing to discuss wines without the elitist attitude I find most Sommeliers carry around like a badge of honor, as if it’s required to be a jerk to their patrons.
The 93 Mouton Rothschild was delicious, and probably one of the best wines I’ve ever had. It was soft and smooth, with a lightness that let it dance and crash across my mouth’s surfaces. The Silver Oak was indeed a bolder wine. Being a Napa Valley cabernet from a vintage that was notorious for being harvested at the end of a warm summer meant its strong character could have lasted in the bottle for another few years no problem, but it was the Jewish New Year, and we wanted to ring it in with a Volt!
Volt in Frederick Maryland
They started everyone off with an amuse bouche of red beet meringues with a foie gras mousse underneath and a sprinkle of orange powder on top. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The flavors seemed to evolve more and more as I chewed the single bite filled with anticipation for what would come next.
We had our choice of buttermilk cheddar and chive biscuits or a spent grain brioche roll. I had both.
First we started with our fruit and vegetable course.
Jonathan had the yellow tomato soup with Maryland crab, sourdough, and black mustard seed. Cold and thick, the soup was more like a gazpacho than anything else, but it was creamy so I think they skipped adding cucumber to the puree. It was gently poured around the disc of shredded crab meat, that was garnished with a red cherry tomato that had been blanched just enough to soften it and peel back its skin, which they pulled up and gathered on top to give it a very cool architectural effect.
I had the chioggia beets that were served two ways: peeled and roasted, and pureed and frozen into a sweet sorbet. The beets were scattered around the plate with a sprinkling of dark cocoa and drizzle of red wine vinegar. The sorbet was soft and creamy like fresh cheese from south mountain creamery that also adorned the plate.
Then we moved on to our pasta and grains course.
Since I was the only one at the table with an affinity for pork, I ordered the brown rice congee with pork belly. Congee is a Chinese peasant food, a rice porridge that’s usually served for breakfast because it’s cheap, hearty, and is so starchy it sticks to your bones. Not only did it seem out of place on a fine dining menu, but it also seemed like a challenge direct from Chef Voltaggio; one I had to accept if I was really going to experience his vision of mixing casual and refined to create the ultimate dining experience. And I’m glad I did, becacuse the brown rice congee was fantastic! Country ham was mixed within the softened hearty grains with a nice piece of seared fatty pork belly on top, which melted like bone marrow in my mouth. The coffee foam around the bed of congee helped cut some of the rich buttery notes with the softest hint of a bitter brew. And for color, a crisp texture and hint of salt, there was the occasional green sea bean.
Jonathan and his mother both had the calamari Bolognese miso with squid ink cavatelli and parmesan. This was a really fantastic dish too. The fresh black pasta was delicate but not over cooked. Instead of using pork as you would in a traditional Bolognese, this dish used chopped pieces of squid. The dish was sweet and tasted just like a traditional Bolognese, but with a subtle shellfish taste and hint of sea brine.
Jonathan’s sister ordered the chanterelle mushrooms over steel cut oats, with fresh yeast and sea lettuce. The mushrooms were as nutty and delicious as could be, and the steel cut oats were soft, creamy, and salted just right. The sea lettuce was pretty much just for color and texture. The fresh yeast was unnoticeable as a standalone ingredient, but with the oats and the chanterelles this dish was a fungi lover’s dream.
Then we moved on to the fish and shellfish course.
Jonathan’s sister loves tuna so she got the tuna with pine nuts, green apple, sesame, and avocado. The raw tuna was finely chopped with the green apple and pine nuts, and all of it was pressed into a terrine-like mold. On the plate was a puree of avocado mousse and ouzo foam with some dollops of a sweet puree (I think grape, but can’t be sure) and green puree, which had a slightly more bitter and grass-like taste. The tuna was also served with a few sesame crisps, but we just ate those separately.
Bobbi got the softshell crab with celeriac root, garlic scapes, caper berries, and preserved lemon. This was hands down the best softshell crab I’d ever tasted. Not only was the crab specimen a marvel in it’s own right (it was huge), but it was fried in just a dusting of flour (if any at all), which gave it an ethereal almost invisible coating, allowing the fresh taste of crab to really shine through. The caper berries were battered and fried, softening some of their acerbic flavor.
I had the monkfish with artichoke hearts, caramelized fennel, stinging nettle, and lavender. The lavender was just a garnish of a few flowers so I didn’t notice too much of that note in the dish. The monkfish was seared and cut into medallions, reminding me of how I’d seen rabbit prepared at Bar Agricole in San Francisco. The fish was anything but flaky, which is typical of monkfish, and probably why it was served in bite sized pieces. I came across a clear gelatinous disc, almost like a tiny jellyfish floating in the stinging nettle puree. I’m not 100% sure what it was but it was unique all the same.
Jonathan ordered the Nunavut char served over wilted green cabbage, plum puree, smoked rye and horseradish. The salmon looked as if it was still just a raw filet, but since it was sous vide, it was in fact cooked all the way through and it flaked at the touch of a fork. A bite with each of the ingredients reminded me of the perfect Sunday brunch with bagels and lox. Rich salmon fat, smoked rye, horseradish and the softest pickling on the cabbage brought back memories of my grandmother assembling her bagels on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This dish, also fantastic!
Then we moved on to the meat and game course, and with it, Wine Director TJ Whitman moved us to our second bottle of wine—the Silver Oak. The 1997 Alexander Valley Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon was just a heartier, fuller bodied wine, and perfect for the heavier proteins. The tannins were completely gone and it had been breathing since before we started the dinner. On the tongue it tasted of dark cherry and licorice, the later of which, helped to highlight some of the celery notes from the purslane garnish in the chicken dish I ordered.
I had the roasted chicken with sweet yellow corn dumplings, romano beans, and chicken of the woods mushrooms. Chef Voltaggio is again, taking a classic, chicken and dumplings, and kicking it up a notch, while still making it accessible to anyone with taste buds. The romano beans were pureed and the sweet corn dumplings were nice and sweet from being caramelized in the skillet. The chicken was moist with a crispy salty skin, and they served both white and dark meat without the bones, which the lazy old man in me loved! The fleshy-leaved purslane added color and a brightness to the dish, but also cut through some of the umami richness, nutty mushrooms, and buttery dumplings. This dish is where comfort and sophistication come to mingle, get married, and have millions of babies…hopefully!
Jonathan had the beef coulotte with sugar snap peas, carrots, vadouvan spices, and coconut yogurt. Coulotte we learned refers to the cut of beef, which is very similar to the tenderloin, but a little leaner. This too was sous vide so it maintained its blush interior but was cooked medium as Jonathan requested. The real star of this dish for me was the coconut yogurt, which I viewed as Chef Voltaggio’s twist on the typical slab of herbed butter. The coconut yogurt was rich and creamy just like butter, but the subtle sweetness brought the gaminess of the beef coulotte to a new level of appreciation for me. Proud representatives of their distant grocery store brethren, the potatoes, and sugar snap peas, were all perfect specimens, and probably hand picked from a local garden just minutes before kitchen prep. The carrots (heirloom I think) were beautiful! They were mashed together and sous vide, and then cut into discs like little watercolor paintings decorating the plate.
Bobbi got the slow braised lamb over hulled barley, fried to a crisp Lacinato kale, and patty pan squash. Once again, the meat was perfectly cooked and the plate itself another work of art. The kale was added for texture and color, and the onions brought a sweetness to the dish, which amped up the emotional warmth this dish delivered with the barley.
After a chance to let things settle a little, we moved on to the dessert course, which all of us shared.
Monocacy ash rhubarb, almond, nasturtium flowers and leaves, toasted vanilla brioche. The Monocacy ash is a goat cheese, very reminiscent of Humboldt Fog vegetable ash goat cheese that’s on most cheese plates. Delicious!
Brown turkey figs with salted caramel ice cream, hazelnut ice cream balls, and vanilla yogurt. The pink ice was a granita of some kind, probably fig, but I’m not 100% sure. As far as desserts go, this was pretty light, but being the chocolate lover that I am, I was anything BUT disappointed. The playfulness of the textures and the balance of colors, it was not only appealing to my mouth, but additionally a treat for my eyes.
Meyer lemon white chocolate, ruby grapefruit, celery, bitter cocoa and cardamom. This was another very light dish, that has me believing that desserts don’t actually need chocolate, peanut butter, and Oreos to be memorable. The celery ice cream paired perfectly with the Meyer lemon curd and white chocolate mousses. For texture and architectural balance, you can see the two white vanilla meringues, and the bitter cocoa and cardamom cookie for crunch.
And for all of us who love the more traditional chocolate desserts, there was the chocolate marshmallow, crushed chocolate chip cookie frozen custard, and salted peanuts. When I first saw this dish, I couldn’t tell where I should first put my spoon. The crushed cookie frozen custard looked dry, but it melted into a smooth delicious cream the moment it hit my mouth. Eventually I learned about the salted peanuts underneath everything else, and realized a big spoonful of a little of everything is what did the trick! Amazing, and also the reason why I practically licked the bowl.
At that point our meal was over. There were no more $800 bottles of wine to let breathe, there were no more dishes left to anticipate, and there was nothing left to masticate with hmmmmm’s and “oh so good.” The temporary journey Chef Bryan Voltaggio, wine expert TJ Whitman, and the rest of the amazingly kind, talented, and knowledgeable team at Volt had taken us on was over. We’d been transported to a place where food is enjoyed for the sake of enjoyment, and not for show, status, or symbol. And then remembered the divide that still existed outside the dining room at Volt, where restaurants were either casual and mediocre or expensive, uptight, and fantastic…but unattainable for most. Volt is the mash-up of the two. A fine dining experience confident in it’s abilities without the need to hide behind exceptional service and intimidating prices. The waiters all wore Converse chucks and smiles.
Suddenly they brought us one last treat. A few final bites before sending us on our way. Each of us received cantaloupe pâte de fruits, a vanilla financier, and two chocolate truffles: early gray, and caramel.
And as if that weren’t enough, we were sent on our way with individual portioned cinnamon coffee cakes that had been baked earlier that evening. The waiter informed us they would be perfect for breakfast the next morning and then realized they might not actually survive the car ride home.
Now I don’t think this is necessarily what the Rabbi had in mind when she suggested we step outside our comfort zone to engage with people it would be easier to avoid, but a trip outside the capitol during our Rosh Hashanah visit was a step in the right direction. And from DC, that’s northwest to Frederick, Maryland!