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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Volt, A modern American restaurant

The entrance to Volt
 Volt in the small town of Frederick, Maryland is the flagship restaurant of Bryan Voltaggio, the eldest of two culinary brothers who are rapidly gaining reputations as leading lights in the rapidly improving American dining world.
The two brothers made the final three of season six of 'Top Chef', an American cookery competition for professional chefs who are at the top of their game, there are no competitors in the show who are purely there to 'make good telly' by screwing up, this is a serious show.
Chef Voltaggio snr also has a family style restaurant and a sandwich shop ( more Fortnum and Mason than pret a manger), also in Frederick, his adopted home town.
Bryan and his sibling Michael also wrote one of the most exciting cookery books of the last few years - VOLT:ink. (ink is Michael's LA restaurant)
Having made plans to visit Virginia, Washington and New York on my #bennettontour trip to the states, I was overjoyed to discover that Frederick was only a short drive from where I was to spend the majority of my trip, Leesburg VA. With the restaurant only accepting bookings one month prior to the date of dining, I set my sister with the task of making the reservation, as she lives in the same time zone and it was far easier for her to arrange. Having made the reservation, time dragged until my journey began despite being hugely busy at work - 80 hour weeks were standard - and it certainly fed my appetite and enthusiasm to try out the famous 'table 21', where Bryan and his team treat guests to a 21 course tour of tastes, textures and unusual preparations.
I should point out that this booking was also a celebration meal, as the main reason for the trip was to commemorate my birthday, so when we arrived I wanted to order some champagne for a toast or two, but my sister and her husband were reluctant, so we didn't. Feeling a bit upset that no one wanted to celebrate with me, I followed our waiter to the table, which is essentially a long bar overlooking the main kitchen, and sat down. Within moments of being seated, the Maitre d' brought me a bottle of champagne and a card, explaining that a 'Mr Barron' ( my best mate) had arranged a little surprise for me. Obviously everyone else had been in on it, but I genuinely had no clue. I wasn't shocked that it had been arranged, just that I hadn't seen it coming or anticipated it. As an extra touch, Bryan himself came over to introduce himself and to congratulate me, telling me he had seen on twitter that I was going to be dining at Volt, and how pleased he was that we had chosen to spend my birthday with him. It was a lovely gesture, and certainly made it special.
Birthday greetings from a friend
Caviar dip and chips

 With a start like that, the food needed to be pretty special to keep the standard up, and it certainly delivered. With prime seats overlooking the larder section we were able to see dishes being created without ruining the surprise element of the tasting menu. As I mentioned, this was a 21 course menu, so I'm not going to go into lengthy descriptions of all the dishes, as that would make for a huge, lengthy blog post, but hopefully the images will do the talking and give a sense of what went on.
The 'chips and dip' course was a lovely start to the meal, equal measures of richness, sweetness and salinity. good technical dish with a light 'quaver' like cheese crisp and delicate sour cream espuma.

Celeriac macaron, foie gras mousse, orange
Great tasting single bite item, crisp earthy macaron filled with a warm foie gras mousse and sprinkled with fresh orange zest powder.

Fake oyster

Salsify spherification, oyster leaf, sea salt, olive oil and vinegar powder recreating the oyster perfectly, and served in their 'shell' dish to be eaten just like the real thing. stunning.
Celery soup,pickled vegetables
Impressive celery soup poured over sweet pickled vegetables, celery salt, verjus gel and celery vinegar gel. pure flavours and again fantastic technique.
Blue crab, avocado. yuzu, soy, wasabi
Sadly not the best photo, but this was one of the standout dishes for me. perfectly seasoned crab served as a spring roll, yuzu dressing and a soy air adding umami and a sweet sourness. The avocado mousse was fresh and earthy and although you cant really see it in the photo, tiny spheres of wasabi caviar lifted the whole dish to sublime, giving heat and an unusual texture. could have eaten this again and again.
Beets, goats cheese, coffee, orange
Another highlight, this took the combination of beetroot and goats cheese we all know, to new heights. didn't think anyone could put up a better beetroot dish than the one Simon gave me at the Elephant in Torquay, but this was amazing.The coffee and orange harmonising with the beetroot so well.

Quail's egg, hen of the woods, asparagus and ramps

Nice Autumnal flavours, the chicken flavoured foam helped bring the dish together. Good use of quality, fresh ingredients.
Goats cheese ravioli, oyster mushrooms, green garlic, sweetcorn
Very good. the garlic, mushrooms and cheese counterbalancing the sweetcorn perfectly, and great textures.
Arctic char, creme fraiche, huckleberries
Delicate dish, the gently waterbathed char perfectly cooked, creme fraiche powder giving a gentle citrus push and the semi dried berries offered sweetness and texture. very clever.
Sturgeon, fennel, fig, cipolini onions
wonderfully cooked fish again, this time caramelised after the waterbath treatment. A surprising depth of flavour from such a simply presented dish.
Maitake mushrooms, grains, seagreens
Nice, but very rich. Like a pearl barley risotto, with huge Parmesan and mushroom flavour, the fried mushrooms and poppadom-like wafer gave the flavours and textures of arancini, but my dining partners and I all found it slightly heavy and a large portion for the level of richness.

Salsify, country ham, apple, hazelnut

A confusing dish, but in a good way. Individual elements include several preparations of salsify, a nut emulsion dressing, caramelised compressed apple, and semi dried Parma style ham. Each on its own was lovely, but put them all together? Wowser. Incredible textures and a natural flavour combination I haven't tasted since Noma. Fascinating thought process must have gone into this dish.

Veal sweetbreads, bacon, fennel

Bryan at work

 So good, I had two! Perfect sweetbreads coated in a rich glaze, with crisp pancetta style bacon, roast baby fennel and fresh kale. perfect simplicity again.


Foie gras, rhubarb, strawberry, coconut
Foie gras mousse in the style of Wylie Dufresne's 'Knot Foie', where he ties it in a knot. Nice roast foie gras flavour paired with the tart rhubarb and sweet berry gel. very nice.

pork belly, cocoa, beans

Basically bacon and beans, but this was so much more. crisp but yielding pork belly sat on a white bean puree, beans cooked in a pork stock and a textured malt and cocoa soil.very moreish.

Rabbit, heirloom carrots
wow, wow, wow. four preparations of rabbit- confit flank coated in breadcrumbs, braised leg, loin wrapped in proscuitto and barely roasted rack. with heritage carrots and vinegar honeycomb. only the slightly bland and under seasoned flank stopped this being my favourite dish. The braised leg would make an incredible dish in its own right.

Loin of lamb, chickpeas, golden sultanas, pearl onion
Lovely meat, wonderfully cooked. possibly the 'lambiest' lamb jus I have ever tasted. Green pea puree, peeled peas, chickpea beignet and sultana puree. Only minor complaint was that it didn't need the maldon sea salt, with just tipped it the wrong side of seasoned.

Raspberry, shortbread, vanilla, basil

Raspberry sorbet and compressed berries, crushed cooked shortbread and nitro raw shortbread, sweet basil oil and delicate mousse. Perfect first sweet course.

Black sesame cake, blueberry, nitro frozen grapefruit curd
Black sesame cake, different angle

Nitro frozen citrus curd with a gooey centre, blueberry sorbet and compote and the sesame cake was the most fascinating flavour I ate that night. mint pesto gave freshness to this sensational pudding. phenomenal.

Chocolate, peanut, marshmallow

Petit fours

Amazing dessert to end on, Nitro frozen milk chocolate mousse, soft caramel, peanut butter and brioche ice cream and toasted marshmallow. Another great textured dish, and flavours which deserve to be together. 

Petit fours of milk chocolate truffle, lemon and thyme marshmallow, pineapple pate de fruits and cinnamon macaron were the perfect conclusion to our experience.
My signed copy of VOLT:ink
As a destination restaurant, which it clearly is as there is nothing like it within 50 miles at least, Volt is exceptional. The fact that Bryan Voltaggio has chosen to create this venue in the sleepy town of Frederick tells you a lot about him, he would rather live somewhere his kids can grow up and enjoy the small town life of the American dream, than in a bustling city where its all about the here and now, and the less than charming side of America.
In the brief time we spent with Bryan after dinner, he happily posed for photos, signed a book for me and seemed like the happiest guy in the world, who had it all- great restaurants, lovely family and all on his terms in a charming town.

Bryan Voltaggio and me
Some of the food we ate at Volt was simply presented, some intricate. Some familiar, some new and exciting. One thing was consistent. The quality. As it seems Maryland is unlikely to ever get its own edition of the famous Michelin guide, I can only guess where it would rate, but for me it was superior to many one star restaurants I have been to and certainly the equal of many of the two star ones.
Thank you chef Voltaggio, for an incredible birthday.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Review- Modernist Vegetarian by Eddie Shepherd

Modernist vegetarian is an E-book available for the iPad by a talented guy called Eddie Shepherd (@vegetarianchef)
It is very reasonably priced at only £3.99, and includes some fantastic food photography, taken by Eddie himself.
Now, I've never been the biggest fan of vegetarians, as a chef and an omnivore I always felt like they were missing out on the best bits, but this book clearly shows that the modern vegetarian is no longer limited to nut roasts and risottos.
What Eddie manages to do in this mini-book is rewrite what is possible for non meat eaters, with some fantastic techniques and interesting recipes for chefs and home cooks alike. Although this appears to be a book for chefs, there is plenty here that the keen home cook could achieve, and even a glossary of the equipment used for the layman.
There is plenty of detail here, with precise methods in the recipes and even some videos of Eddie carrying out some of the procedures, just in case the pictures aren't enough, although the images have all been done on a lightbox, rather than on plates to allow the food to shine.
There is one tasting style menu of dishes, although as Eddie himself states, there are plenty of elements of the dishes which can be done on their own or in other creations.
I look forward to trying out some of the techniques revealed within Modernist vegetarian, and to future releases from Mr Shepherd.

Monday, 20 August 2012

North Road- semi Scandinavian cuisine?

North road, London, has received a lot of praise and accolades during its two year life span, including being awarded a coveted star from Michelin. Their website informs you that head chef Christoffer Hruskova has travelled and worked in Sydney, Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco before settling in London, and opening North road Restaurant.
Anyone planning on opening a restaurant across the road from the icon which is St John, must have pretty big opinions of themselves, and a lot of confidence in their ability to perform. Mr Hruskova certainly has confidence and ambition, but for me this whole experience was somewhat of a let down.
My first indication that this may not have been the place for me was the way I was shepherded to what the waiter told me was 'the best table in the restaurant'.
It wasn't.It was the window table, and it was next to the only other occupied table in the place at 7.30 on a Friday night.Although my neighbours were pleasant enough, even they were bemused by the realisation that we were the only ones in there. They too had been promised 'the best table', as they had told the staff that it was their wedding anniversary. Odd.
Then came the food. I chose North road on the reviews I had read which had compared it with the Danish food Behemoth that is Noma. Having had several great experiences under the guidance of Rene Redzepi's team and at several other fantastic Copenhagen eateries, it seemed like a must do.
I hope I am not doing North road an injustice by comparing it with Noma, but when you emulate something like Noma, and even try and reproduce some of its classic dishes, you have to be pretty damn good at it in my opinion, and frankly, this wasn't.
The bread. The bread was nice, looked and smelled great, tasted good. It was however, the smallest bread I have ever seen. the photo above gives guidance to that, the butter ball you see is a standard melon baller size. The rolls were only just bigger than that.Fine, I understand I was having a tasting menu ( 7 courses plus 'snacks') but they were ridiculously small, and I was not offered any more, despite the butter staying on my table during the whole meal.
While the snacks were nice, the pickled and smoked quail egg ( (C)noma) was very vinegary and not at all smoky, the smoked potato was incredibly smoky and came with a creme fraiche filling. The other was introduced as fish skin pork crackling. it was nice and crispy, but neither fishy or porky.

The first course proper was superb, and really had me thinking i was in for a treat. A delicate scallop tartare with oatmeal crostini and wild garlic, it was delicate, fresh and perfectly seasoned. This was my only really good dish.
Razor clams in a dill cream and sea herb oil was bland, and very under seasoned, although the clams were perfectly cooked.
butter poached lobster was technically fine, but the flavours didn't work at all, and whatever the powder that was sprinkled on it was, it did nothing but remind me of eating sand at the beach as a kid.

White and green asparagus, egg yolk and wild garlic was not great and not exciting, a poor imitation of a dish we have all seen a million times.
sweetbreads in a pork skin crust (airbag) with wild cress salad and watercress puree was bland, virtually free from any seasoning other than the pork skin crust and badly cooked. two nuggets of sweetbread, one badly overcooked and the other was on the wrong side of just cooked.
My main course was lamb, with sweetbreads, purple sprouting broccoli and an egg yolk sauce. Once again, the cooking was fine, the lamb was nice and pink and tender, but it was so boring, no depth of flavour from the meat or the accompaniments. It screamed out for some garlic, herbs or acidic element to enliven it. Its cries fell on deaf ears.

my pre-dessert was a fun thing, a 'pebble' of coconut ice cream, coated in an edible clay called Kaolin, and made to look just like stone.
For dessert, I was presented with a yoghurt parfait with pine 'snow' and a douglas fir and yoghurt meringue. all the elements were fine, but it was also very very sweet, and the lasting mouth feel was like candy floss.A tame end to an overall average meal.
Except it wasn't the end. After the very sugary dessert came some petit fours -even though I didn't have coffee- of a sugary shortbread, sea salt caramel and candy floss. I tasted them all, and exactly as I expected, way too sweet an ending.

The final nail in the north road coffin for me was when I discovered that I had been charged for coffee and petit fours, despite not having the coffee and not asking for the petit fours. When I pointed this out, my waiter merely said "but you ate them sir...". I paid for my petit fours, and when asked as I left if I enjoyed my 'experience', I had no option but to tell the waiter that no, I had not.

As a post script to this page, it turns out that chef Hrusskova had actually parted company with north road at the time of my 'experience' there, a fact which only came to light recently. I hope it explains how a restaurant can go so far out of its way to be poor, and that Crisstoffer is soon cooking again so I can visit and he can prove to me that his philosophy works.