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
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Photographs by Darrow Montgomery