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Relax, Volt fans. Thacher & Rye, from ‘Top Chef’ alum Bryan Voltaggio, is still special. | COMMENTARY

Chef Bryan Voltaggio stands for a portrait outside his new downtown Frederick restaurant, Thacher & Rye. 02-11-2021
Chef Bryan Voltaggio stands for a portrait outside his new downtown Frederick restaurant, Thacher & Rye. 02-11-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Since 2008, Volt has drawn foodies from Baltimore and Washington to Frederick, helping lead Western Maryland’s transformation into a Hip Culinary Destination.

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Fans fretted when chef and owner Bryan Voltaggio, of TV’s “Top Chef,” announced that Volt, which shut down for the pandemic, would transform into a new, more approachable eatery. The menu would include casual items like French fries with dipping sauces. You don’t drive an hour to eat fries, one Baltimore friend griped.

Perhaps gourmands worried that in a year that had already seen such upheaval in the hospitality industry, Marylanders might say farewell to one of the state’s most exciting restaurants.

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QR codes allow diners to read Thacher & Rye's menu from their phone as they dine in the new semi-enclosed patio at the Frederick restaurant.
QR codes allow diners to read Thacher & Rye's menu from their phone as they dine in the new semi-enclosed patio at the Frederick restaurant. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

After a brunch visit to Thacher & Rye, I can safely say that fans needn’t worry. The new place is more of an update than an overhaul, bringing Volt up to speed with the dining culture of 2021.

Call it the athleisure movement of food. High-end restaurants everywhere are doffing their white tablecloths and adding fried chicken to their menus. Partly, it’s the pandemic. We’re all wearing sweats and craving comfort food. And part of it is a trend that began years ago. Restaurant owners eschew the “fine dining” label, which makes people think of someplace they come just once a year.

Mackenzie Bainbridge, a server at Thacher & Rye, turns on a heat lamp in the new semi-enclosed outdoor seating on the Frederick restaurant's patio.
Mackenzie Bainbridge, a server at Thacher & Rye, turns on a heat lamp in the new semi-enclosed outdoor seating on the Frederick restaurant's patio. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

But Thacher & Rye doesn’t feel like an everyday restaurant.

Aside from the 15-course tasting menu (which I’d advised against in my review last year; it was too much food), the dropped items aren’t drastic. Rather, Voltaggio has added some crowd-pleasers like sausage and biscuits in a gravy so universally appealing I would defy any carnivore in America to try it without getting hooked.

For appetizers, we enjoyed homey duck rilletes, or shredded duck preserved in fat. It’s served chilled, with house biscuits and an eye-popping assortment of pickles. Part French countryside, part Centre Pompidou.

For entrees, think: familiar classics to diners in the post-pandemic world. “Good, fundamental cooking, I think is what people are looking for,” said Voltaggio, who spent several months of the last year serving dinners to his family — a rare treat for a chef. He also got really into gardening on a small plot of land he owns in the area.

But fundamental cooking doesn’t mean simplistic.

Diners will still find dishes that leave you scratching your head wondering how the kitchen pulled off such a feat. How is it that Voltaggio gets his striped bass seared to a crisp on the outside while keeping the fish so moist and tender on the inside? And how does he make that damn-near-perfect nest of crispy sweet potato that goes on top?

Sausage and biscuits sees juicy fried chicken lathered in that aforementioned gravy, rich and addictive. The dish, which borrows a breading technique from Family Meal, made me wonder about the status of Voltaggio’s more casual eatery. Turns out: Family Meal in Frederick shut down last year and is now called Showroom. (The Family Meal in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor shut way back in 2016. Voltaggio says he has no plans to come back to Charm City at the moment.)

When Bob Dylan performs, people expect to hear “Like a Rolling Stone.” Some chefs have recurring items that they must keep on the menu or risk mutiny from regulars. For Voltaggio, it’s the goat cheese ravioli, wonderfully light and served with a squash puree and pepitas. The presentation changes, but the chef says: “Ravioli itself seemingly will never go away.” Another favorite: 11-layer lasagna filled with rich, smoked brisket bolognese. (All bolognese should be made with smoked brisket, I thought while eating it).

Artistic plating suggests Voltaggio and his team are still doing fine dining at heart. That’s not a complaint. After a year of sloppy takeout, I welcomed the chance to devour something as visually stunning as it was delicious.

The restaurant’s new name is a tribute to Voltaggio’s eldest son, Thacher, and an homage to the region’s distilling tradition, now making a comeback. The regular cocktail menu includes Pikesville rye; look for weekly drink pairings at their “Love Local Wednesdays” events. It’s all in keeping with the new, more community-focused vibe.

Striped Bass in tomato curry broth, with smoked sweet potato and a scallion condiment at Thacher & Rye.
Striped Bass in tomato curry broth, with smoked sweet potato and a scallion condiment at Thacher & Rye. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Service feels more casual at Thacher & Rye than at Volt, but it works in today’s environment. In 2021, we don’t need masked waiters decrumbing our tables like we’re babies. Instead, we care more about the fact that the hostess (behind plexiglass) is taking temperatures and that tables are spaced well apart. And all the requisite pandemic safety protocols are there. Scan a QR code to read the menu. A heated outdoor tent offers space to socially distance in the age of COVID-19.

It may not be strictly for special occasions anymore, but I’d argue Thacher & Rye offers Marylanders the perfect place to celebrate the everyday milestones that 2021 has to offer. A “second dose of the vaccine” brunch or “first burger in a restaurant” dinner. While I was there, I chatted up a longtime Volt regular who was enjoying a solo lunch for his birthday. Voltaggio came out from the kitchen to wish him well.

Isn’t that special?

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