When there's so much hoopla about a restaurant, the pressure must be incredible to live up to the hype. Volt in Frederick was already getting rave reviews from the Washington press before chef/owner Bryan Voltaggio became a significant player on Bravo's Top Chef and Baltimoreans started paying attention.
But as the weeks ticked by, and Bryan and his brother Michael—another cheftestant, who is a chef de cuisine near L.A.—became locked in a battle for the winning spot on the show, admission to Volt became as coveted as tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert. Reservations have to be made weeks in advance for the hour-plus trip to the Western Maryland gateway. And bank statements definitely have to be taken into account. A four-course meal can easily cost $75 a person without beverages.
Of course, the big question: Is it worth it? The short answer: Yes. There is much to like about this wonderful restaurant, housed in a charming 19th century brownstone mansion, anchoring one of Frederick's quaint historic streets. We felt rewarded just to have arrived. The traffic on the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 70 was a quagmire the night we visited. Volt was just the emotional oasis we needed.
The unruffled staff, comfortably attired in quirky sneakers with business suits, added a calming air, excusing our 15-minute tardiness and immediately offering still or sparkling natural water (no charge, thank you) from its own purification system and setting fragrant breadsticks before its weary visitors.
Our likeable waiter explained the game plan to us: You have to order all your courses at once, even dessert. The kitchen wants to make sure the food comes out "properly," he said.
Seated at tables ensconced in billowing white tablecloths with floor dusters, we decided to enjoy the pace. The long dining room is sparse but appealing with pale walls, origami-like beige ceiling fixtures, almost childlike artwork (a simple house, a boat in primary colors), a mirrored wall, and a grand palladium window in the front.
If you really want to hobnob with the chef, you can reserve one of the tables in the kitchen dining room or opt for the 21-course tasting menu served in the kitchen. But, with few exceptions, you won't be disappointed with the front of the house.
Our first courses convinced us that this was an impressive kitchen. New American cuisine is the restaurant's focus. The menu lists a lengthy string of components with each dish, but keep in mind that many are just a flick of an herb, a whisper of an ingredient in the finished product.
For instance, in the yellowfin tuna appetizer, the avocado, yuzu vinaigrette, chili oil, cilantro, and soy air—yes, Voltaggio is an air and foam guy—are all miniscule extras but do contribute to the pleasant complexity of the result. It was similar with the Hudson Valley duck liver. How in the world were Seckel pears, pistachio, emerald crystal lettuce, and vanilla brioche going to come together? Amazingly, they did in a clever ribbon of creamy foie gras garnished ever so lightly with the above accoutrements—a piece of pear here, a sliver of pistachio there. The emerald lettuce turned out to be only as big as my pinkie fingernail!
At some point, you may be curious to see what chef Bryan looks like in the flesh if he doesn't make an appearance in the main room. Our suggestion: Go to the bathroom.
The restrooms are located across from the open kitchen, and it's quite simple to poke your head in and survey the lucky stiffs who have forked up big bucks to eat near the Master.
After that escapade, settle back at your table and await your entrees. The successes are marvels: a pure Alaskan halibut with ruby quinoa and kalamata olive vinaigrette. And a rabbit tasting four ways—fried, sausage, bacon parsley-breadcrumb crust on top, and a rack, like a fan of feathery toothpicks—with finger slices of sweet potatoes and braised Lacinato kale.
Our other entrees had such promise but fell short in important areas. The lobster was enchantingly composed with lemongrass, black forbidden rice, coconut, glazed turnips, and coriander blossoms. But the tail meat, poached in butter (according to our server), was too translucent. It just wasn't done to that delicate sweet pink state you strive for. The accompanying claw meat, though, was cooked to the right texture.
Our other disappointment was the beef strip, two luscious rounds of ruby meat. We could handle the extreme rareness, even though we asked for medium rare, but the meat was surprisingly chewy with gristle in places.
If you're looking for a down-home dessert—something familiar, comforting—this isn't the place. There is a lot of deconstruction going on here. The concept is interesting, but it doesn't always wow you. The dulce de leche with white-chocolate goat cheesecake had a wafer, a small round of cheesecake, a dab of Concord grape sorbet, dry caramel, and some rosemary arranged around a plate.
Other desserts followed suit, though we liked the local pears prepared three ways, especially with the honey roasted fig sorbet.
If you love creative food, surprise pairings, playfulness, and the artistry of a classically trained chef, Volt will please you. If you're looking for more traditional, heartier fare, your palate might not "get" the chef's intentions.
But you'll leave on a happy note. You have to appreciate a restaurant that gives you a parting gift: a fresh lemon poppy-seed muffin. The staff knows you'll enjoy it the next morning as you rehash your memorable experience at Volt.