Scrolling through the Washington, DC Zagat Guide last Saturday morning I was stunned to find that 2 of the top 10 and 4 of the top 50 restaurants in the DC area are in Frederick, Maryland. Making the pilgrimage to The Inn at Little Washington is one thing, but really, Frederick, MD, best known as the home of the nation’s bio-warfare labs at Fort Detrick. That was a shocker. With DC in the full throes of the foodie revolution, we wondered how Frederick could make such a strong showing.
We had to see this for ourselves, so off to Frederick for lunch at what Zagat says is DC’s No.6 restaurant – Volt. It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for a drive in the country. Frederick is exactly 51 miles from the Washington Monument and with different routes to choose from we took the more scenic drive up River Road, along the Potomac, instead of the 270 freeway.
Approaching Frederick from the river takes you through miles of nothing but farmland dotted with a few really small towns. Well, not really towns. More like a few buildings at a cross road. The outskirts of the city has the same retail and fast food sprawl you see everywhere, but the city center itself seems to have been transformed by the money that has poured into the Washington, DC metro area over the past 15 years. Market Street Frederick gave up trying to meet the shopping and service needs of the city long ago, abandoning that to the outlying retail stores. Now the city center is a virtual restaurant row with the expected trendy shops. Volt’s own website describes the Frederick historic district as “hundreds of specialty stores, antique shops, bed and breakfasts and restaurants”. I don’t know about hundreds but that description is pretty close to the mark. Whether you like these cutesie-type downtown areas or have had enough of this trend with it’s $6.00 cups of coffee and $5.00 cupcakes, on a sunny afternoon in July it all makes for a nice presentation.
In just a short walk from our parking garage we passed three of Frederick’s top rated restaurants: The Tasting Room, Isabella’s, and of course, Volt.
Having done almost no research except reading a few diner’s reviews the first thing you realize is that this isn’t just any small restaurant in out of the way Frederick. Volt is the creation of superstar chef Bryan Voltaggio, who just happens to live in – you guessed it – Frederick. So pretty good luck there. The restaurant itself is in an old brick brownstone with a stylin’ decor and several options for seating. Although we couldn’t touch a table for Saturday night, brunch, including our choice of seating, was no problem at two on a Saturday afternoon.
We’re greeted by a kid (all in black of course) who looks to be about fifteen, with perfect Justin Beiber knock-off hair, but he’s very nice and has no problem letting us look around before deciding where we’d like to sit. We choose the outdoor courtyard because even though it’s hot, there’s plenty of shade and a nice summer breeze. A great spot for al fresco dining which we always prefer. Maybe it is mid-July but we’re still warming up from the horrible DC winter of 2014.
If outside’s not your thing or the weather isn’t cooperating, Volt has a very nice dining room, separate Chef’s Kitchen seating with a view of the cooking in progress, and for dinner the so-called Table 21 which seats eight and not only lets you watch the cooking but throws in a 21 course tasting menu. There’s also a good size bar and I thought it was a nice touch that the TV was showing a live feed of the chef’s at work in the kitchen. No question who the star is here and it’s not the Saturday Game of the Week.
Volt, at least for our visit, is all about one of dining’s popular trends, the Tasting Menu. For brunch you have two choices, five courses selected by the chef, or a smaller three course menu which gives you a little of the a la carte feel by letting you design your own tasting menu.
While we’re on the subject, let me digress a moment. One of the few negative reviews we read before we headed to Volt (I confess I’m always drawn to the few people who trash even the best restaurants) had small portion size as it’s principal complaint. OK can I just say that whether you like the concept or not this is a TASTING MENU, defined by Wikipedia as a menu that offers “small portions of several dishes as a single meal”. Emphasis on the small. So be warned, if you’re looking for that 22 oz. steak or a huge bowl of pasta, you might want to give that some serious thought before selecting Volt. Or go for dinner when I think there are more a la carte options and the 21 course tasting menu. But again, lets face it, how big can a portion size be if there are 21 of them?
So we’re seated in the garden enjoying a glass of prosecco and a really fresh Bloody Mary. Very nice and a very relaxed setting. In fact, pretty ideal. I chose the five course tasting menu with paired wines and my wife got three courses so she could make some of her own picks.
Highlights were the amuse-bouche, a sort of round, crispy duck flavored cookie with a liquid center of foie gras, the pasta bolognese with a deep, rich sauce made from pepperoni stewed with roasted tomatoes, and the braised lamb with greek yogurt, which while not the most visually appealing dish, was tender and fantastic. Both fish courses were delicious with crispy skin and the inside perfectly done. I’m always impressed by perfectly done fish. Not that it shouldn’t always be. Just that too often it isn’t. In fact, the only disappointment was the green tomatoes which my wife compared to a corn dog; too much and too heavy a coating which didn’t allow any tomato flavor to come through.
Our servers at Volt were all young and trying really hard to live up to the restaurant’s name and the image of their celebrity boss. They are unfailingly friendly; none of that superior attitude you sometimes get. They were very attentive and although they seem at times to be struggling to memorize the food descriptions, it’s really nice to see what looks to be a group of local kids who are serious about what they’re doing and making every effort to see to it that you have a good dining experience. The high marks Volt gets for service reflect this attitude and are well deserved.
Finally, let’s talk price. Volt is not cheap. Let’s say about $100 per person for brunch depending on what you drink, and, as always, much more if you like expensive wine. The five course tasting menu is currently $55, plus $35 for the paired wine. Three courses are $35 which I think is a pretty good deal. Dinner is considerably more expensive, so lunch is a good way to give Volt a try. Too much? Only you can decide. All the prices are shown on the online menu so it’s easy to do some figuring in advance without getting sticker shock once you’re actually at the table.
One last item. Even if you don’t usually indulge, definitely try the bread. It is fantastic.
All in all a fun day out and a wonderful dining experience. OK Frederick, we were impressed and we’ll be going back. Sorry we doubted you.