It’s a given today that Frederick is a foodie destination. But that wasn’t the case when chef Bryan Voltaggio opened Volt in a grand old mansion on Frederick’s historic Market Street 12 years ago. Soon after, in 2009, the chef and his hometown gained national recognition when he was a finalist on season six of “Top Chef” (his brother, Michael, was the winner). Look for him to reappear on the Bravo show in a new all-star season of the reality competition that airs March 19.
In recent years, Voltaggio has opened and closed multiple restaurants in the Baltimore area. In Frederick, he operates Family Meal. He and his brother together run the steakhouse at MGM National Harbor, Estuary in Washington and a quick service restaurant in Santa Monica, California. But Volt is special.
“Obviously that restaurant means a lot to me," Voltaggio said. “It’s part of the fabric of Frederick, and it’s helped shape in some ways downtown dining.”
You don’t need to be “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi to appreciate Voltaggio’s dishes. At Volt, the most eye-popping, conceptual plates of food are just as yummy as they are pretty to look at.
We didn’t spot Voltaggio in the kitchen during our two recent visits to his flagship restaurant. But our experiences suggest that his staff are fully capable of executing his vision for food that ignites the senses. For $150, guests can sample practically everything on the menu, as I did during one visit at the chef’s counter. It’s an intimate, unforgettable experience, but I’d skip it for now and just order multiple courses. (My reasoning on that later.)
Dinner in the well-appointed dining room started with a savory macaron with foie gras that my dining companion and I consumed in a bite. As part of the tasting menu, an early course of bay scallop crudo wowed with its mix of green apple in a delectable butternut squash ponzu. It was topped with foam and garnished lovingly with greens and crispy rice. From there, we were delighted by the pink foie gras torchon, as velvety as panna cotta, which received an acidic hit from some baby pickled peppers and some crunch from airy spiced cracker. “Adding textural elements to the dishes is always important to us,” Voltaggio said. Each dish has a soft element as well as a crispy one.
We’ve never seen crumbs put to such good use: At Volt, they’re the base of vegetable appetizers and desserts, helping to bring together their disparate parts. Coffee cardamom soil — a mix of toasted almond flour, coffee and cardamom — lay beneath a beet appetizer and is meant to resemble dirt. The soil concept gets re-introduced during dessert, with a powder made from extra dark cocoa, flour and butter.
Talk about creative plating. “Picasso!” my dining companion exclaimed after the arrival of a remarkable chicken entree, plated with splashes of green herb puree and garnished with a botanist’s dream of mushrooms.
The kitchen offers a few magic tricks to dazzle diners: a circle of aerated goat yogurt that’s been frozen in liquid nitrogen surrounds the beet appetizer, emitting wondrous plumes of fog onto the table. An egg-shaped dessert rests atop a “nest” of chocolate that’s been piped into ice water and is garnished with real flowers. Crack it with your spoon and watch drizzle out a “yolk” made of guava and kalamansi, a type of Filipino citrus that’s Very Hot Right Now.
Such showstoppers are balanced by a solid appreciation for good home cooking. It doesn’t get simpler than the airy chive biscuit that you start your meal with, or the perfect chocolate chip cookie we were given to take home, and swooned over days later. And how could we forget about those crispy Brussels sprouts with bacon and gooey Parmesan, or the delectable ravioli stuffed with local goat cheese? And then there was our favorite dish of all: a classic filet mignon with sweet potato puree, well worth the $56 price. Cut into the gorgeously seared exterior to reveal a buttery, rare interior.
Service had a few fumbles. During an initial visit, I had to ask for a menu and utensils with my third course, and returned from the bathroom to find my napkin on the floor. Probably I had dropped it myself, but at a really, really nice restaurant, you expect your server to replace and refold it in your absence, as though you are not just Olivia Coleman in “The Crown” but the actual Queen of England. We appreciated that sparkling water came gratis — and that staff worked overtime to keep our glasses full. But at this level of dining, you expect everything to be read-your-mind, napkin-refolded-while-you’re-in-the bathroom perfect. It was, but only during a second trip, when our expert servers displayed not only comprehensive knowledge of the menu but an ability to wipe every crumb from the table in just a few graceful motions after clearing plates.
Back to my reasoning on the 15-course tasting menu. It’s an absurd amount of food that begins to feel punishing after a few courses. Halfway through, I, a woman who can eat more than anyone I know, admitted defeat. Staff consoled me by saying that no one ever manages to eat the whole thing. Reached by phone later, Voltaggio disputed that, saying that the portions are meant to be such that a normal diner can finish. Perhaps. But during my visit, servers boxed my remaining courses up for me to take. I watched dejectedly as the sous chef poured foam onto my steak in a little black to-go box. I know this is America, land of excess, but still wished that the kitchen would have quartered the portions.
Still, we trust Voltaggio will continue to find ways to reinvent and re-imagine the tasting menu at his signature restaurant. This is not a man prone to resting on his laurels. After more than ten years in Frederick, he and his staff are continuing to serve up some of the area’s most exciting food, setting a standard that few of their peers live up to.
IF YOU GO
Rating: 4.5 stars
Where: 228 North Market Street, Frederick.
Contact: 301-698-8658, voltrestaurant.com
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday with lunch and brunch served Friday through Sunday
Prices: Starters $12-$18, Entrees $22-$56
Food: Fine dining
Noise/TVs: No TVs in dining room
Service: Harried and slightly forgetful one visit, attentive and expert the next
Parking: Lot adjacent to restaurant
Special diets: Can be accommodated
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]