Rammy Contest Winners: Lori Gardner on Table 21 at Volt
In the lead-up to the Rammys, the so-called Oscars of the D.C. food scene, City Paper held a contest in which Young & Hungry readers could submit their own reviews, detailing their best dining experiences of 2011, with the two best submissions nabbing two tickets to Sunday's big soiree at the Marriott Wardman Park. Herewith, winning contestant Lori Gardner of Silver Spring on Table 21 at Volt:
The phone rang at 10:30 am. It was a friend and she was in the car with my husband. That's odd, I thought. They were on the way to the emergency room. My husband had been playing softball with the synagogue Men's Club League and a ball landed square on his nose. "Is he ok?" I asked. "I'm fine," I heard him say, although he sounded like he had the worst cold ever. Oh no, I thought, we have a 7:00 reservation at Volt's Table 21. Those take at least a year to get, unless you luck out and snag a cancellation, as I had. I didn't bring it up. I'm not that insensitive. (I know, I know, I did think it).
As I headed to the emergency room, he called with an update and to reassure me that he would be fine to go to dinner. "We'll see," I said. "Whew," I thought.
My husband's nose was broken and he needed a couple of stitches, but by 6:00 pm that night he was feeling fine and wanted to keep our plans to celebrate both his birthday and an early Mother's Day. (note to my kids if you are reading this: you are not off the hook in terms of getting me a gift. The Mother's Day thing was just a good way to rationalize spending a whole lot of money on dinner).
Volt is one of my favorite restaurants. Chef/owner Bryan Voltaggio was the runner up in Season Six of "Top Chef." I dined at Volt before Bryan gained acclaim on "Top Chef" and I have dined there since. I must admit that there is an added thrill to dining at Volt after watching Bryan on fifteen episodes of a television series, following him on Twitter, and yes even having his Bobble Head on my desk at work (pictured above), thanks to a thoughtful friend.
Volt's Table 21 is a twenty-one course tasting menu. Eight diners are seated around the food prep area, so you have a bird's eye view of artwork in the making. As we are seated, Bryan is already at work two feet away from me. He is working intensely with liquid nitrogen. There is a spurt and spray goes flying onto my husband's face. It seems to be his day for getting hit with flying objects. Fortunately this one is harmless. Bryan barely looks up but apologizes.
I am mesmerized. As an avid viewer of cooking shows, I've watched chefs doing intricate preparations with tweezers and squeeze bottles and other unidentifiable strangely scientific looking apparatus. But this is not television. It is the real thing. I turn to my husband to see if he is experiencing the same kind of thrill. (remembering that this is mostly about his birthday). Fortunately he is.
I am wondering how we are going to handle twenty-one individual courses of food. I expect the portions to be infinitesimal. As the food service begins, I am pleasantly surprised. The portions are big enough so that when you are loving something you can have more than one bite, but not too large that you can't enjoy what is ahead.
If you want to know the punchline, here it is: this is an exceptional meal and experience. Every course is well thought out and presented with true artistry. The care that goes into the elements of each and every dish is extraordinary. Admittedly, there is quite a bit of foam. Foamy food is not for everyone. I like foam. The thing I like best though is that a celebrity chef (I'm sure that Bryan absolutely detests that term) is actually preparing my food. This is a big deal considering how many of us patronize a restaurant because of a particular chef who is actually not anywhere remotely close to the kitchen where our food is being prepared.
I won't bore you by detailing all twenty-one courses, but will share some photos of seven of the courses. My husband, who eats no meat and no shellfish, has some substitutions for my lamb, strip loin and pork belly. But he never feels as if he is missing a thing.
Can we eat all twenty-one courses? When we are on course number fifteen I ask our server weakly "how many more?" "Two more savory and then dessert," she responds with a smile. I power through. I cannot finish my last dessert (textures of chocolate) but considering I've had three others before it, it really is okay.
This is definitely one of the best meals I have ever had. Only one thing would have made it absolutely perfect. A welcome or goodbye from Bryan would have made me ecstatic. He actually served us two of our courses and I was so tempted to say something to him, but he never made eye contact and I just couldn't get up the nerve. And what would I say? I'm a big fan? Your food is amazing? Your bobble head adorns my desk? I could have said any of those things but I knew it would probably make both of us uncomfortable in the end, so I said nothing.
On the way home my sister called to tell us there was breaking news and the President was about to make a big announcement. I thought we had enough breaking news for one day. I turned on CNN and Wolf Blitzer was saying that we would always remember where we were when it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. A visit to the ER, dinner at Volt's Table 21, and the death of bin Laden...a memorable day indeed.
Read Lori's blog "Been There, Eaten That" here.
Photos by Lori Gardner