By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun
6:02 PM EDT, September 5, 2012
The dinner hour, Bryan Voltaggio has said, was the most important time of the day in his family's home. His new restaurant, Family Meal, which opened in June along an industrial stretch of Frederick, is intended as a venue for family dining. It's best taken that way, too. The food is nourishing and straightforward.
This latest offering from Bryan Voltaggio and Hilda Staples is completely charming. This is the pair's third restaurant, following Volt, the premier-dining flagship, and the quick-meal Lunch Box.
Voltaggio is not the first to encourage a return to the shared family dinner. The idea that Family Meal demonstrates, convincingly, is that the worst thing you can do for children is pander to them. Children like what we like: good food, nice service and a cared-for dining space. Everyone gets that here.
Family Meal is located along a Frederick industrial corridor, about a mile north of Volt, in a former Nissan dealership that has been kept intact. From the road, adults and children getting their first glimpse will think, "Cool." Affixed to the original structure, a squat commercial building, is a lovely piece of architectural wit — an oversized 1950s car fin fashioned out of reclaimed wood, emblazoned with a minimalist Family Meal logo .
Floor-to-ceiling windows reveal the sleek, modern interior. Wooden booths line the perimeter of the dining area, which forms an L-shape around the open kitchen, separated from it by a 30-foot counter. Along the counter's short end, children pull up stools to watch the cooks at work.
When we visited on a Friday night, Family Meal was packed with families. This changed, of course, as the hour got later, but early on, there were few tables without at least one young diner. Without exception, the dining room was free of whining, running about and even coloring.
There are a few plates for very young children. For everyone else, there are frog legs with watermelon radishes, flat-iron steak with caramelized shallots and smoked lamb with romesco, goat cheese, olive and cauliflower.
The menu is largely updated comfort food, with a Southern bent. Appetizers such as fried green tomatoes, chicken pot pie fritters and pimento cheese sound contrived but aren't. They're note-perfect, with twists like pecan-bacon candy on the tomatoes and andouille sausage in the super-creamy pimento spread, which showed up with slices of pickled green beans, peaches and okra. The fritters sound weird, but when you bite into one, it's exactly like the first mouthful you get of pot pie filling when you break through the crust.
There is a perfect fried chicken supper. Served in a golden bowl alongside buttermilk biscuits with homemade hot sauce and pickles, the wings, thighs and breast pieces had marvelously crispy, peppery and salty skin. Underneath, it was juicy as can be. But not everything is so Mrs. Cleaver. There is a rockfish entree, served with a fava bean succotash and topped with a spray of crispy collard greens that would be right at home in Volt.
Occasionally, the Family Meal menu will go off message, with an entree like rye cavatelli with broccoli rabe, herbs and flowers. Our waitress was happy when she managed to talk us out of it. I wish she'd warned us off the entree of prawns and grits with tasso gravy, at $22.99 the menu's most expensive item. The grits were creamy and the gravy swimming with ham, but the shellfish were either very small prawns or not-so-big shrimp, so we were disappointed.
We liked this waitress. When we questioned whether a frisee salad had been dressed, at all, with raspberry vinaigrette, she assured us that it had but that we weren't crazy for thinking it hadn't. And when the cocktails — new-fangled sours are the thing here — took forever to arrive from the faraway bar, she acknowledged the delay without fretfulness.
I liked what I saw at Family Meal, which gets credit for not pandering and for not stumbling into retro traps, with one exception. The waitresses wear frilly aprons, but the male members of the floor staff aren't made to wear anything similarly costume-y.
On the other hand, Family Meal's lemon meringue pie took things too far. Served with blueberry ice cream, the pie has been deconstructed, with the meringue ending up as a watery cream on the plate. It made you wish they'd clipped out a recipe from an old "Good Housekeeping" magazine.
Eating here is upbeat and fun. The music is from the 1950s, but it's the good stuff. I didn't find the noise level a problem, but others apparently have. Know, too, that the four-seater booths will comfortably fit a parent and child on each side. Big folks are going to feel cramped.
If you're in Frederick, Family Meal is worth a stop. It accomplishes what Voltaggio and Staples wanted it to. A foodie may sniff — and will have missed the point.
Rating: 3 STARS
Where: 880 N. East St., Frederick
Contact: 301-378-2895, voltfamilymeal.com
Open: Daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $5.99-$11.99; entrees, $11.99-$22.79
Food: Updated comfort food, with Southern influences. Soup, sandwiches, supper plates and shared sides
Service: Informed and opinionated; the bar struggles with specialty cocktails
Best dishes: Fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits, chicken pot pie fritters, pimento cheese
Children: All ages welcome, children's platters for ages 10 and under
Parking: 100-car lighted lot on premises
Reservations: Accepted for all party sizes at all times
Noise level: May be uncomfortable for some. Music level is adjusted when room is full.
Patio: Uncovered seating for 35 on side of building
[Key: Superlative: 5 STARS; Excellent: 4 STARS; Very Good: 3 STARS; Good: 2 STARS; Promising: 1 STAR. Restaurants that do not meet these criteria will earn zero stars.]
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