Young and Hungry

Four Important Lessons About R.J. Cooper’s Rogue 24

On Friday night, Young & Hungry traveled to New York for the preview of chef R.J. Cooper's forthcoming D.C. tasting-menu restaurant Rogue 24 at a pop-up shop in Manhattan's Chinatown called Limited Time Only. The roughly four-hour $180 gastronomic extravaganza, which includes eight drink pairings, not counting pre-dinner cocktails, tested not only my taste buds and bladder capacity but also my ability to perform metric conversions on the fly. Indeed, the presentation of a delicate quail egg, cooked at precisely "63 degrees Celsius," according to the server, had the entire table scrambling on smart phones to figure out the Fahrenheit equivalent. 145 degrees, it turns out. What a group of geeks!

Among the many plates, there were some pleasant surprises, such as the nugget of "liquid chicken" that explodes like a soup dumpling all over your tonsils, and some not-so-pleasant surprises, including the chef's deconstructed take on chips and salsa which nearly made me choke from all the chip dust like the kind you find at the bottom of your average Tostitos bag. After dinner, Cooper tells me he plans to better anchor the chip shards in the future. "We're going to put the avocado puree down on the spoon," he says.

Other than a few minor tweaks, though, Cooper says the menu is pretty much set. So the preview period is a fairly good indicator of what's to come. Herewith, a few other observations about the hugely anticipated Blagden Alley eatery, which Cooper hopes to open in June:

  • The Kitchen Will Have "Wings": No matter how much headcheese, seaweed, and truffle may be employed, the most important ingredient to the entire operation may be taurine. "I just had about 60 ounces of Red Bull," says Cooper, stopping by our table only two courses into the night. Some three hours later, back in the kitchen, where the Rogue Toque fires off expletive-laced orders like a Parris Island drill sergeant (with cooks and servers responding in unison: "chef! yes, chef!"), he's swigging from yet another tall silvery can of the energy drink, with an extra one lined up to go. He suggests to me that one of his staffers may have consumed 14 cans of the stuff that night. He may have been exaggerating. Slightly.
  • NASA Scientists May Not Be Involved, It Just Seems That Way: At times, the Coop's cooking methods may appear a bit over-involved for such tiny bites for food. A slice of eel, for instance, is served with fragments of grapefruit that has been frozen with liquid nitrogen and then smashed to bits. Another course features two types of olives: one liquefied to a state similar to an egg served sunny-side up; another dehydrated into crunchy particles spread across the plate. Cooper has even more technical tricks up his sleeve for the D.C. location, including at least one fancy way of plating fish. "We're going to cut ice, dip it in nitrogen, let the ice become super-frozen, put the fish on and send it," he says.
  • Bathroom Breaks Are Not As Frequent As You Might Expect: With all the drinking, especially, I figured our entire booth would be up and down, back and forth to the lavatory, all night long. In fact, it wasn't until the 12th course that our first dining companion headed to the loo—a big improvement from her first night at the preview, when she visited the ladies' room a total of six times. That's once every four plates. I can proudly report that this columnist's bladder even held out until after the 21st course. The proverbial final straw must have been that "dragon carrot soda" that one of our fellow diners compared to a "blow job shot," albeit a virgin one at that. Gulp!
  • You Cannot Take the Ginormous Tweezers Home With You: One of the best tasting plates of the night, featuring slivers of shima aji served with yeast foam and bits of puffed rice that recall a breakfast cereal from your childhood, also comes with some pretty nifty silverware: a pair of giant tweezers. The average diner may be utterly fascinated by the shiny things, but Cooper says they're fairly common cooking utensils. "You'll see them in 90 percent of the kitchens across the country; you'll see them all the time on Iron Chef," he points out. Still, our table was quite taken with the things and vocally disappointed that the server insisted on taking them away after just one plate. My humble request to hang on to mine was immediately shot down: "The chef would bite off my head!"

Photo by Chris Shott

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