The hottest table in Baltimore isn't in Baltimore. It's Volt in Frederick.
Credit the recent spike in interest to owner/chef Bryan Voltaggio's success on Bravo's "Top Chef" reality show. Suddenly, it's impossible to get a reservation on a weekend unless you call weeks in advance. Suddenly, everyone is telling me Volt was where he or she went for an anniversary or special birthday.
But is his statement food worth the considerable price tag and the trek from Baltimore? Or is Volt an emperor's-new-clothes phenomenon?
If you're serious about food and don't mind a touch of whimsy, the answer is: Yes, Volt is worth the trip and the cost. But if you -- for instance -- demand formal service when you're spending $75 a person and up for your dinner, you might not be amused by the brown-and-white Chuck Taylors the servers wear, even when they are also wearing suits. (The sneakers are their boss' favorite.)
You expect the meal to flow when your server asks you to order all four courses at once, including dessert, so your dinner will be properly paced. You may therefore be surprised, as we were, when it took 45 minutes for our entrees to arrive and another 20 to get our desserts.
But you will love the little extra touches, like the fact that both still and sparkling water are offered without cost. You'll enjoy the variety of freshly baked breads, such as the little chive biscuits that float away if you don't hold them down with your butter knife and simple, perfect French rolls.
Dinner begins with a "chef's canape" (to say "amuse" is so yesterday) and fennel breadsticks, and ends with a small food gift presented with the check -- in our case, decoratively wrapped lemon-poppy seed muffins to take home.
But what you will love best about dinner at Volt is that the food, for the most part, appeals both intellectually and viscerally.
It's easy to admire the elaborate composition and good looks of the plates -- guinea hen, for instance, jauntily sharing space with a pretty bit of cabbage, a dice of parsnips and Concord grapes. But at the same time you think, "Wow, this tastes good." The warm grapes add an unexpected note of tartness next to the meaty, crisp-skinned goodness of the guinea hen leg.
Volt's menu, which changes seasonally and is, not unexpectedly, very local in most of its ingredients, is divided into four courses. Complementing it is a wine list designed to encourage experimenting. There is a good selection of both wines by the glass (expensive) and half bottles; familiar bottles share space with wines waiting to be discovered.
Many people won't want to have all four courses on their own. For their first course, they could share the charcuterie plate, a work of art that displays the range of what can be done with pork, from rillettes to head cheese. Don't ignore the crisp, buttery toasts or the housemade pickles that come with it.
Or try Voltaggio's fresh take on the overdone beet and goat cheese combination, with organic beets, a smooth goat cheese mousse and small segments of orange to lend the dish citrusy sweetness.
If you decide to share a second course, it will come out from the kitchen divided artistically onto two plates. Goat cheese ravioli make a beautifully autumnal plate, with a scattering of toasted pumpkin seeds, chanterelles and brown butter. The cheese dominates the more subtle flavors, but that only matters if you don't love goat cheese.
Still, I preferred the pork belly. Its richness was offset by the Carmellini and cranberry beans, and the sharpness of the sorrel balanced the spicy sweetness of the mostarda.
Some -- OK, most -- of Voltaggio's plates are complicated, but the disparate ingredients, often exotic like ras el hanout (a spice mix), work together both visually and taste-wise.
Pork loin with fennel, plums and Swiss chard is the sort of dish you want to curl up and get cozy with this time of year. All in all, I'll nominate Volt's as one of the best examples of a truly seasonal menu I've seen in awhile.
Rosy-rare, juicy slices of lamb are paired with a fiery slice of merguez sausage, and the lamb is up to the challenge. The accompanying lentils, baby eggplant and limas feel like fall. Unfortunately, the plate must have been sitting waiting for our other main courses; the lamb arrived at cool room temperature.
I've saved the best till last: halibut so moist and fresh it could have been caught that day, handsomely arranged with ruby quinoa, winter squash and marcona almonds.
Well, not quite last. If I went again, I would end my meal with Volt's cheese plate. The desserts are beautiful and unusual, but I was intrigued, not entranced. A "banana split," for instance, had a ribbon of banana and white chocolate ganache with three little ovals of house-made ice cream. Small bites of pears prepared various ways were highlighted by fig sorbet. Concord grape sorbet did add snap to white chocolate goat cheese cake, and cilantro decorated a bit of chocolate peanut butter mousse with banana ice cream. I admired all four without wanting to fight for my share.
Volt is an exciting restaurant, but not a flawless one. If you're being picky -- and how can you not be at these prices? -- you would mind, as we did, that half the breadsticks were stale. Or that chopped red onion so dominated the halibut ceviche, the chef's canape, we could taste nothing else.
As for the setting, the sleek bar and lounge and spare but handsome contemporary dining rooms are a fascinating contrast with the heavy architectural detailing of the original building. The long, narrow main dining room is done in white and soothing neutrals, with paintings by local artists lining one wall and modern chandeliers. It seats about 40 people.
But you might be unnerved by the bathrooms. The sliding doors (always opened for you by a member of the staff) reveal whoever happens to be in them, and the men's and women's cubicles aren't fully separated.
Volt's service is superb and the staff very personable -- until the restaurant fills up, and then the waits are long and no one acknowledges it. But it's clearly a case of a backed-up kitchen, so can our waitress be blamed?
No matter. The fact that I'm ready to return to sample the six-course tasting menu in the chef's dining room should tell you that dinner at Volt is an intensely pleasurable experience, in spite of the glitches. The highs more than offset the lows.
Where: 228 N. Market St., Frederick
Contact: 301-696-8658, voltrestaurant.com
Hours: Open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Open Sunday for brunch and dinner.
First courses: $11-$19, entrees: $26-$34
Food: *** 1/2
[Outstanding: **** ; Good: *** ; Fair or uneven: ** ; Poor: *]