Young and Hungry

Molecular Gastro-Economy: Two Dozen Unusual Courses at Rogue 24, One $5 Bite at a Time

What was R.J. Cooper smoking? The  concept for his new restaurant, Rogue 24, an astronomically priced gastronomic theater along the lines of Komi and Minibar, seemed ill-timed at best. Slinging the foams, dirts, and sea-floor scrapings of molecular gastronomy in this economy? And in an alley?

Perhaps the most puzzling part was the fact that Cooper had another option in the works: a casual pork-centric restaurant—Pigtails, he called it—that represented just the sort of accessible comfort food that is killing it in the District these days. Why not open that one first and go for the fancy stuff later?

But the Coop cooks to a different beat. A James Beard Award-winning chef, he envisions himself as the conductor of a grand symphony of flavors and textures. Or, more accurately, the lead guitarist in a jam band. The performance is the whole point.

Back in April, he likened an ideal meal to a “really good set” by the Southern rock troupe Widespread Panic: “It’s like, ‘Oh, what are they going to play next?’ You know, they slow it down a little bit, then they noodle a bit, then they just come out rockin’ again. That’s how I like to eat when I go out to dinner. I don’t want a menu. I don’t want to make decisions. I make decisions all day long. Just bring it to me, show me what you got, show me the best, and let me be happy.”

Rogue 24 is the embodiment of that pipe dream: a stripped-down rock club of exposed brick and modish yet minimalist furnishings with an open kitchen at center stage. Swept up in the fog of atmosphere and alcohol (a whopping eight drink pairings with the full 24-course option), you walk away with fuzzy memories of a good time that ages like fine wine. As it happens, tickets to a real rock concert cost a lot less: General admission to see Widespread Panic in Richmond this week will set you back $45. But the cheapest meal at Rogue 24 is $100. My 24-courser cost $120 a person, not including drinks.

In rock terms, if not culinary ones, it’s downright anachronistic. The days of the concept album are long gone. Music has entered the age of iTunes, where a la carte rules. As such, it’s worth evaluating a night at Cooper’s place as a string of two dozen $5 singles—each of them a bite or two—rather than one vastly expensive meal. And so, like a Deadhead-turned-bean counter, Y&H set out to quantify the quality of Cooper’s gustatory jam session.

***

The early signs don’t suggest that the chef’s culinary band was about to break it big. I count 12 cooks, servers and other staffers, but only eight diners inside the 52-seat eatery over the entire evening. The plentiful elbow room is comfortable but the vibe is rather subdued.

And then the show starts. Here’s how it went, one track at a time:

1. “Palm bone,” heart of palm sculpted into the shape of a small bone with liquefied olive where the marrow should be. Gone in one sour bite and quickly forgotten. Five bucks down the drain. Not exactly the riveting start you expect from a guy who pledged to “come out swinging like Muhammad Ali.” More like Jimmy Robinson. (Look it up.)

2. “Cracklins,” a crispy, puffy chip similar to a pork rind but made of kimchi. I’d pay $5 for a bag of the tasty snacks, not a single chip.

3. “Ossetra,” a tiny dollop of top-shelf caviar lost in a pouf of champagne foam atop an edible pedestal of cauliflower. It’s a pretty confection, if not particularly palate-friendly. Some salt shines through, but it’s pretty mundane overall. Fifteen bucks in the hole and so far little to savor. I thought we came to jam, man, not wallow amid some sappy ballad.

4. “Razor clam,” teeny tender chunks in a creamy potato pudding with razor-thin slivers of sweet apple. Delicious! Finally! Something worth the money. Maybe. “I feel like I would have served this in a shot glass at a dozen parties in the ’90s,” my friend says.

5. “Fried rice special #2,” crispy rice puffs with dried peas, carrot shavings. and tiny bits of duck jerky inside a small hand-held glass bowl. A fun finger food and delicious would-be bar snack. Worth the fiver.

6. “Sea floor,” precisely like it sounds: a gritty platter of sea urchin and seaweed awash in super-salty foam, served with giant tweezers instead of traditional silverware. The gleaming utensil is the lone bright spot. “Absolutely revolting,” my friend says. “I wanted to wipe my tongue off on the napkin.” I wanted my five bucks back.

7. “Hail Buben,” Cooper’s “bent and twisted” take on shrimp ‘n’ grits: a gooey ball of cornmeal topped with what my friend describes as thinly shaved “shrimp salami.” Intricate and interesting, but not incredible. “Liked it—but wouldn’t pay a ticket at Taste of DC for it,” my friend says. But five bucks? Maybe.

8. “Fowl play,” a salt-cured quail’s egg in a nest of fried corn silk, served inside an enclosed glass jar filled with smoke. Lifting the lid unleashes the savory vapor. Perhaps the most playful dish of the evening, though the edible nest isn’t particularly pleasing to the eyes (it looks like a scouring pad or thatch of thick pubes) or the tongue. “Make it with those canned shoestring potato sticks and it would be great!” my friend says.

9. “Hog jowl,” a bready bite topped with onion ice cream and crispy pork. Wonderful and oddly accessible. But for $5, I’d expect more than a single bite.

10. “Mountain potato,” a lukewarm and somewhat bland almond-milk soup with small grayish-purple potatoes. An advertised hint of truffle proved undetectable. Refund!

11.  “Fried chicken 2011,” aka “liquid chicken,” a breaded ball of fowl that explodes like a juicy soup dumpling in your mouth. Best part: the waiter’s warning to eat it in one bite and keep your trap shut to contain the bursting broth. Fun enough to hand over a fiver.

12.  “What’s up doc,” tender but somewhat under-seasoned rabbit loin with an earthy soil made of ground coffee and pecans and bits of root vegetables strewn about the rectangular plate. “Carrots and turnips are not exciting,” my friend says, “except maybe during the siege of Leningrad.” Saving $5 could buy a lot of Soviet ration books.

13.  “Tomatoes,” slices of the seedy fruit dressed in balsamic during an unfortunate period of prolonged rain that seems to have compromised the ripeness of the produce. I’ll keep my $5 for some lottery tickets, thanks.

14. “Foie gras,” thinly sliced and possibly frozen shavings of the fatty goose liver. They provide the typically rich flavor in a fascinating texture, served with touches of lavender and huckleberry. A fiver for effort.

15. “Bull’s blood beet,” granita with smoked char roe, fennel and yogurt; ultimately uncaptivating and largely unmemorable. No $5 for you. And, for me, time for a restroom break. How long is this show going to last?

16. “Shabu shabu,” a lovely, rich, and silky broth with mushroom whose flavor persists long after the last sip. A virtuoso guitar solo that surely deserves a Lincoln.

17. “Forest nage,” a frothy chocolate mushroom soup. To my surprise, the flavors blend quite nicely. Tastier than a tall latte, thus $5.

18. “Pigeon,” perfectly cooked slices of squab. Delicious! Cooper’s getting into a steady groove here—and I’m whipping out another bill.

19. “Border springs lamb neck,” perhaps the most substantial serving of meat all night—maybe four whole bites, juicy and nicely cooked. Give that man a fiver! Could this be the crescendo?

20. “Garden mosaic.” Carrot Jello? More dirt? The gimmickry is suddenly getting old.

21. “Pipe dreams,” a liquefied olive resembling a sunny-side egg that runs when pierced, served with goat cheese and red pepper. Arguably worth $5.

22. “Kuri squash,” an orange vegetable-flavored ice cream with pecan crunch. It’s refreshing, but far from rapturous. By this point, I’m not necessarily full, but am so tired that it’s hard to tell what’s worth another bill from my dwindling stack. Is this show ever going to end?

23. “Tennessee,” fancy chocolate, cremeux and yet more dirt. Time to pocket the money and start heading for the exit.

24. “Happy endings,” a trio of sweet gooey confections. The middle one is pistachio—typical of the complimentary candies you get at the end of any meal. Certainly not five bucks’ worth. No encore, please!

***

As we head out into the night, it even feels a bit like leaving a big concert. Part of me remains wowed by the pyrotechnics, the volume, the arena-rock-like pageantry. But another is bummed by the fact that a lot of the tunes between the big hits were kind of lame. Still another familiar post-rock show sensation: I’m sort of in the mood to grab a half-smoke on the way home.

Rogue 24, 1234 9th St NW (rear), (202) 408-9724

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

  • Jane

    I truly enjoyed everything except the rabbit, the shrimp and grits and liquid chicken. Even the unexceptional dishes (the "bone marrow" and vegetable garden whatever) weren't bad. To me it was worth the money not just for the food, but the experience. We had seats closest to the kitchen and chatted with the chefs a bit as we ate. Service was fast, splendid and impeccable. After dish 1 the servers figured out I was left-handed and set out plates accordingly.

    Their beverage pairings were, in my opinion, second only to Cityzen's and much more affordable. The "hickory highball" cocktail is also one of the best drinks I've had in this town.

    And yeah, we got more food later, although I prefer that feeling to a post-Komi coma. Indigestion ahoy.

  • Mike

    Chris

    You just diminished the most exciting restaurant to come to DC. You have missed the point of Rogue is.

    You should move back to NYC with boring restaurants with no balls.

    Rogue does much better the Komi and Minibar with alot more personality and balls.

    The food writers in this city are horrible and without refined palates.

    Recent Guest of Rogue24.

  • John

    Chris,

    You and your friend are out of your minds!!! The urchin dish alone steals the show.

    My wife and I have become regulars at Rogue 24. The staff, cocktails and food are some of the best in the country.

    I don't understand why all the writers in this city want to bash Chef Cooper. He has the integrity, passion and forward thinking this city needs in a restaurant.

    All you the writers are hung up on tv stars and celebrity chef bull shit. Graffiato is a prime example of uneven food that is brought to the center of attention by media.

  • Dan

    The sea urchin, which swept me to the edge of the beach in Cape May. Littoral-ly luscious; a texture somewhere at the intersection of goose down, custard, and a flower petal; the squid ink chip and seaweed further enhancing the sensation. I could have laid there on the sand with the waves crashing and sea air filling my lungs, but then I wouldn't have come across....

    The tomato course, which whisked me to my friend's tomato garden back home, where on sunny days we'd pluck a tomato off the vine and eat it like an apple. I don't know where they sourced the tomatoes at Rogue 24, but it surpassed even my friend's fine fruits. Accented by balsamic pearls, olive oil, and basil, it's a classic combination executed to perfection. I'm pretty sure every tomato I eat for the rest of my life will be a disappointment now, but were I to stay there to relish that tomato for eternity, I'd never have reveled in...

    From real diners Chris, not bashers or haters!!!

  • http://samedayessay.com/essay write my essay

    I really enjoyed this article. It is always nice when you read something that is not only informative but entertaining. Excellent!

  • Jane

    John, I was quite impressed by Rogue 24 (not as good as Komi measure for measure but excellent overall and damn good for a new place) but why would you be a regular at a place with one menu that hasn't even changed yet? Or are you going just for drinks?

    Chris is entitled to his opinion and it's interesting to see how people's experiences have varied. I loved the sea urchin myself.

  • Ryan

    The fact that there are people who can afford to be "regulars" at a $100 a person (minimum!) restaurant hurts my soul a little.

  • amethystdeceiver

    "You should move back to NYC with boring restaurants with no balls."

    Ahahahahahahahahahaha. Wait.

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

    You city paper commenters crack me up.

  • Kat

    Great article!! And fun to read. Chris, ignore the elitist haters.

  • nafnaf

    Mike through Dan sound like paid PR writers for the restaurant.

    Agree with most of the commenters here (and Chris, most likely). It was probably worth the price and a good experience, but it is no Komi. I was also unimpressed with how much "cooking" goes on in the kitchen, if that's really a key part of the concept. All they're really doing is composing dishes (tweezers everywhere!) that were "cooked" well in advance. I was interested in seeing technique, but dunking in a nitro bath or gently placing an edible flower petal just-so is not really a skilled technique.

  • Ant

    Finally a someone who doesn't sugar coat and cover up for mediocre restaurants who fail to deliver Rogue 24 every dish needs to be out of the park not just okay

  • Gus

    The problem is bigger then you imagine: none of the dishes are OKAY.
    They all miss their mark in a way or another.
    Would you like to go to a restaurant where you actually feel welcome and each and every dish is a homerun? The Inn at Little Washington!
    RJ please take note of what customer service is all about from first greetings to food quality and experience.
    I would gladly give my 5 bucks to Mc Donald instead at least they pretend to like me there.

  • Mike

    Gus and all,

    You all really being completely kattie. Rogue24 is the best restaurant to hit the DC area.
    We just finished 24 great courses with people whom are friendly and real.

    The food was amazing. And we over heard others say the same thing.

    Third rate food writers don't get this. And people whom don't understand the adventure don't either.

    Above and beyond our expectations.

    Chef Cooper this Rogue 24 is to good for DC.

  • Robin Weistein

    Mike,
    I know who you are and I know you are currently employed at Rogue 24
    What a SHAME!!
    The only thing above and beyond your expectations at this restaurant is the check you get at the end of your sleepy 4 hours meal.
    Also,if the food was so amazing and your experience was so great why the restaurant only hosted 8 guest?
    Reality check! This restaurant will close by March......Washington does not support arrogance and cockiness especially when you dish out a $250 tab per person....get real!! Rogue 24 is only good to feed the chef's ego. PERIOD.....Cooper must have taken lessons from Roberta Donna of Galileos

  • Sophia

    While in Washington, I experianced Rouge 24...and should note I frequent Inn at Little Washington, Per Se, French Laundry, Fat Duck...etc and agree with Chris, will not return nor recommend. In fact, warn others to stay away!

    If you've forgotten what it's like to be appreciated and leave with a feeling you want to return...book a night at the local Ritz Carlton. If looking for something of quality in Washington, buy a pair of Farragamo shoes...or give that 500 you'd spend at Rough 24 to a local charity, I'm confident they'll appreciate you! Don't think for a moment, you'll receive anything of quality, enjoy luxious surroundings, want to return or observe anything less then a repugnant chef...at Rouge 24.

    From real diners...just the facts of reality...think about it!

  • Ruppert

    Ritz Carlton it is ......

  • Dan

    Sure you do Sophia. And you know Chef Cooper personally so you can attack him.

    If you haven't been to Rogue24 your missing out.

  • Ruppert

    Hahahahhaha RJ,I mean Dan c'mon Relax ........at the Ritz Carlton.......

  • Sophia

    nafnaf....agreed, Dan and Mike do sound like paid PR writers...in any event...

    Dan, I do not know the chef personally and have been to Rouge 24, which is precisely why I commented....MOREOVER, I don't know anyone at Per Se, French Laundry, The Ritz Carlton nor do I know Ferragamo personally, but HIGHLY recommend...because of quality, customer satisfaction/appreciation and the feeling I want to return often-- regardless of price.

    Someone once said; if they get you once, it's ok...you made a mistake...but, if they get you again, you're just plain stupid.

  • Robert

    I've eaten here twice. I had a great meal both times. The author of this article seems more concerned with poison than meat. The chef, a funny and amiable presence in the restaurant is trying to do something unique. Sure, there's an off dish here and there, but the overall meal is fun and intriguing. And the wines are delicious.

  • Jeffrey

    For the record: the above comments from Dan, Robert, Mike and John defending the vision and the quality/excellent work of the restaurant/chef if RJ Cooper's writing.
    I am not guessing: I know for sure. We (current and past employees) all know that. As anyone asked why is he losing employees every day at Rouge 24? Kitchen/Dining Room/Management They all quit or walk out.
    It seems like Cooper is the only one left in there who cares about this project. Good luck Chef......can you work alone and do everything by yourself?

  • Lisa

    What strange commentary. I don't know any of you and I'm not an elitist but I like a good restaurant and I ate at Rogue 24 and I found it to be a BLAST.
    Some dishes were more delicious than others, others like the Sea Floor I wouldn't ask to eat every day but the smell, texture and flavor of it whisked me away to my childhood summers at the beach - it made me happy. Yes it was food as theatre and yes it was small plates - but there are 24, right? I mean, how big do you want your portions on 24 courses? And I'm surprised to read others' reactions to the service. Everyone who came to our table - which was a lot of people - was gracious, friendly and unpretentious, which is something I definitely look for when I know I'm going to spend upwards of $300 on a meal. I don't need to be treated like a rube and I won't go back if I am. I'm very much looking forward to going back to Rogue 24 - I'll be there in November when I'm hopeful the menu will have changed and I'm taking friends. I wouldn't be a repeat customer of other gastro-uber-trendy-arty joints I've tried in Manhattan, SF, Seattle, Chicago or here in DC. We had fun in the environment and we had fun with the food and the drinks. I recommend.

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