The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

Lovettsville, VA

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm has garnered a lot of praise for its approach to local, organic and seasonal ingredients in its cooking, and Chef Tarver King has been recognized by no less than the James Beard Foundation as the vision behind the menu. Although difficult to get a table and somewhat out of the way, we had a chance to try the restaurant recently and came away with decidedly mixed feelings.

Many reviewers note the beauty of the setting and the view. We agree that this is a lovely rural setting and the principal view of the bridge at Point of Rocks is peaceful and serene in the early evening. The restaurant’s website has a nice picture of what you can expect. We were a little less thrilled with rest of the view which included the parking lot and the outside eating area which was not open and looked pretty disheveled and abandoned. In fact, the outside area in general wasn’t too appealing at this time of year. Not the same thing you probably see later in the season when the plantings are in but we’re reviewing the restaurant we saw – not the one that appears later in the growing season. This lack of attention to detail, ambiance and design is one of the restaurant’s principal failings.

The dining area has been generally described as a greenhouse. Accurate yes, but from the inside a little more of the feeling of a temporary structure – like a special event tent – surrounding a partial greenhouse. The glass generally gives a nice open feeling but, honestly, the first impression of the dining area is that it’s bare, diner-like and somewhat unappealing. At the far end of the dining area is a sort of hodge-podge of Haitian art, hung with no discernable pattern and no apparent rhyme or reason as to how it ended up in a Virginia farm inn. The floors are brick pavers and the tables are a simple wood design without table cloths. Surrounding the room is an odd collection of mismatched portable heating and cooling devices like free standing air conditioners and electric fireplaces. Decidedly odd.

Other reviewers have commented on this problem, including the Washington Post who said simply “the greenhouse could use some design help.” A vast understatement. We get that the owners treasure their art collection and the contribution their purchases made to the relief effort in Haiti. That’s fine, but you either need to incorporate the artwork into some sort of overall design concept or hang them in your own home. In the current restaurant they look disorganized and out of place.

Restaurant at Potowmack Farm

We’ve looked at YouTube videos and online photos of the dining area and what we saw on our recent visit was not the restaurant Patowmack Farm seems to promote. We could not find an online picture or video which did not have white table cloths on the tables, including the restaurant’s own promotional videos. I’m not saying table cloths are essential, but given the rest of the décor the lack of table cloths does make for a somewhat cold feel. The management has already responded to this criticism by saying it prefers the natural look of the English oak tables. Fair enough, but then why do all the promotional photos and videos include table cloths? Table cloths or no the dining space needs a major makeover. There is a reason that even James Beard gives awards for restaurant design. Design of the space is an important part of the dining experience and Patowmack Farm needs to step up to the plate on this one.

The second weak link is, I’m sorry to say, the service. Other reviewers have commented on the restaurant’s service problems but management does not seem to be taking these comments to heart. We arrived 15 minutes early for our reservation, were seated immediately and ordered a glass of wine. We could see other guests outside enjoying the view, and had seen them leaving their table to do that. But when we told our server that we were going to enjoy our wine outside he set us straight. We were told the restaurant was very busy that evening and that it was imperative that we order. As in now. Really. I think we can agree that no server should ever have made that comment to a guest and when I got home and watched the restaurant’s promotional video in which the owner recounts the story of a group that arrived late and amid profuse apologies were assured by management that, “when you have a table here, it’s your table for the evening”, I had to smile. This message needs to get to the staff.

The servers are young and clearly inexperienced. This is not a sin in itself but based on other reviews they seem to lack the guidance required to improve. They appear unfamiliar with the menu except for the course they are in the process of serving, and even on that score they often struggle to describe it. Keep in mind there are only three possible menus. Even so, our server got confused about which menu we had each ordered and continued to serve us the wrong dish throughout the meal. So while we were there for the food, the service is an important part of the experience and the restaurant needs to begin to take comments about service to heart and work with their servers to provide a more enjoyable dining experience.

On to the food. At first glance the choices appear fairly straightforward. There are three tasting menus: Found, Grown and Raised. Each has four or five dishes. But the simplicity is deceiving. This is cooking as an art form. The dishes are complex and many of the ingredients and dishes will be unfamiliar to the average diner: hickory bark syrup, smoked grapes, cashew cheese and chicken skin quiche to name a few. This meal is not about an interesting twist on a familiar dish, it’s about the Chef immersing you in his world and dazzling you with his creations. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. I can give you an idea of what we had but since the menu is constantly changing you’re not likely to have any of the same dishes.

The Razor Clam preparation suffered because the clam itself was flavorless or could not be tasted through the sauce. I’m not sure how Razor Clam makes it onto the Found menu in rural Virginia but given all the choices of going off the Farm for ingredients when necessary, this was not a winner in my book. The Gnocchi Nero was delicious, especially the garlic mousse. The Pork Shoulder was great with a deep, rich pork flavor that you won’t get buying pork at your local supermarket. Here the chef’s attention to sourcing shines through. But although extremely flavorful, the dish was visually bland. Taste is key and the taste did not disappoint but where you are elevating cooking to this level visual appeal is important and was lacking. I will say that the pork shoulder looked and tasted exactly like pork belly. This is probably my inexperience with pork shoulder but it sure looked like pork belly. The Cedar Needle Bubble Tea was sort of off the wall and very, very sweet. But again a chance for something new and different. The Sassafras Cream with Crunchy Choux was one of the best things on the menu.

My wife had the Grown menu and here we ran into a problem. As I said, these are complicated dishes and ingredients, so we appreciated the chance to review the menus in advance online. What we did not realize in our rush to order was that a key ingredient in the Grown menu had changed from the previous day’s online posting which described the dish as “grilled” Mackerel. For our meal this had changed to Mackerel Bao, or essentially mackerel in a steamed bun. These two preparations could not be more different and our mistake led us to a main course that we never would have ordered. Don’t get me wrong, the menu clearly said Mackerel Bao. If our server had pointed out the menu change it would have been helpful. If he hadn’t been insistent on prompt ordering we might have caught the change. In any case, if you are reviewing the online menu, which is new every week, ask about changes from the online version when ordering.

That said, the White Gazpacho was surprising with ingredients like smoked grapes and uni battarga, another good example of the chef’s skills with the unexpected and unusual. Very flavorful and very good. The Carrots Baked in Honey suffered a similar fate to the Razor Clam, an ingredient that was over-shadowed by the sauce to the degree that it was lost. Simply too sweet for us. The Mackerel Bao was a mistake in ordering so in fairness we won’t review that.

A quick word about the wine list. It’s nice to see a restaurant that can find good wine at reasonable prices. Patowmack Farm manages a wine list with prices that end where other restaurants of this caliber begin, with many bottles in the $40 to $60 dollar range and I don’t think a single bottle over $100.

Dinner at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm is like a performance piece with the Chef at center stage. You are meant to understand his skills and his devotion to use of local and fresh ingredients. How else to explain Cedar Needle Bubble Tea as an entire course on the tasting menu? As I’ve said, the preparations are complex and will be unfamiliar to most. In our opinion some succeed, others do not. But like any performance, the supporting characters also play an important role in a truly great experience, and it’s here that Patowmack Farm falls flat. We’re not the first to say it but service and ambiance need improvement.

While the foodie in us often appreciated the Chef’s efforts, I’m not sure we wanted to work quite so hard to figure out where this story was going. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw on the menu. Perhaps it was simply too early in the season for the farm to have produced the ingredients for which its dishes receive such praise. In any event, not the experience we had hoped for.

Volt, Frederick, MD

Volt, Front ViewScrolling 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.

Black Bass with Crispy CauliflowerHighlights 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.

Fluke Sashimi Style

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.

Cheese Plate with Carrots

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.