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May 4, 2010

Blue about Volt

Volt beetsI had the chance to eat a 21-course meal in the kitchen at Volt Sunday, the night before chef Bryan Voltaggio lost out on that James Beard award.

And that extraordinary personal splurge -- i was there not on the Baltimore Sun's dime, but as a civilian eater with my husband and two dear friends -- produced this theory about why Voltaggio lost out to some guy in Philly for Best Chef -- Mid-Atlantic. 

I suspect Voltaggio gave the James Beard judges a case of "blue buds."

That's how one of my dining companions described what we were all suffering from after dinner. Plate after teensy-weensy plate of mostly delicious, beautifully presented, expertly served food had gotten us all excited. But there was no, you know, climax.

We were put off by some of the molecular gastronomy frippery. The tomato-fennel "dipping dots," little savory ice cream pebbles that accompanied a playful take on chicken parm, quite literally left us cold. Some sort of strawberry "noodles" evoked Gummi Worms.

But mostly we loved the food. There just wasn't enough of it - or rather, not enough of any one thing.

That is not to say that after 21 courses we left hungry. Rather, that 21 courses is simply too many. The sheer number demands that each one be tiny. And by tiny, I mean pieces of protein that never exceeded the width or depth of a Wheat Thin. A scoop of spectacular Granny Smith apple sorbet the size of a marble. A single, thumbnail-sized goat cheese raviolo.

When was the last time a sentence demanded the singular for "ravioli"?

I realize that this sort of small-bite tasting menu is all the rage. And I'm not looking for a big bowl of those ravioli. OK, wait, that's a lie. I do want a big bowl of those ravioli. Right now, in fact. But in the context of a tasting menu, I'd settle for, say, four ravioli, even two. Ten, two-ravioli-equivalent courses would do it for me.

I simply need more than a bite to savor each dish -- and to ward off gastronomic ADD. 

if I had it to do over again -- and I don't, at least not with my current husband, who downed the kids' leftover mac-n-cheese when we returned home from the most expensive dinner of our lives -- I'd order off Volt's regular menu and get more than a tease.

Which brings me to this week's list: Top Ten reasons Volt will give you 'blue buds'

No. 1: Prosciutto Chips, Potato Dip

The portion size here would have been totally appropriate for an opening course -- if the frothy Yukon Gold puree hadn't been so fantastic. I would have licked the bowl if the lights had been lower.

No. 2: Lobster, Sunchoke, Fennel, Olive Oil

Think lovely Jerusalem artichoke soup -- about spoonful of it. There were two or three pieces of what the server called lobster gnocchi, each about the size and consistency of a piece of puffed rice. 

No. 3: Soy Air

A dab of this molecular gastronomy fluff topped a tiny slab of Toro. As filling as it sounds.

No. 4: Celeriac Macaroon, Vanilla, Foie Gras

I found this single, savory, foie gras-filled macaroon delightful, even after one of my companions noted that it tasted a whole lot like Pirate's Booty. Like any snack food, you can't have just one.

No. 5: Cherry Glen Farm Goat Cheese Ravioli, Celeriac, Maitake Mushrooms, Sage

The keepsake menu says ravioli, but I'll never forget, it was a single raviolo. I needed more, plus bread to sop up the luscious creamy sauce.

No. 6: Softshell Crab, English Pea, Trumpet Mushroom, Kumquat

I had an advantage here. My husband is not fond of seafood, so he gave me his crab, which, like mine, was about the size of a quarter. That gave me two bites.

No. 7: Tuscorora Beets, Upland Cress, Beet Mergingue

Another delicious course that left us wanting more.

No. 8: Hudson Valley Duck Liver, Seckel Pear, Pistachio, Vanilla Brioche

Don't stop! Don't stop! Don't stop! 

No. 9: Longnecker Farm Rabbit, Summer Truffles, Asparagus, Polenta

I'm good with a bite of rabbit, but how about a whole plate of that polenta?

No. 10: Textures of Chocolate, Caramel, Ice Cream

I'll take that in a triple-decker cone, please.


Volt beets, supersized for the regular dinner menu for $12. Sun photo by Algerina Perna

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 5:28 AM | | Comments (31)
Categories: Top Ten Tuesdays


Reminds me of a $9.00 appetizer I had at b in Bolton Hill two years ago, which consisted of a one inch (at most) beet, quartered and arranged in the shape of a cross, accompanied by a dot of goat cheese, a few shreds of greens, and a dash of walnut dust. Its ridiculous presentation clustered at the center of a huge charger had me hoping this was but a Candid Camera moment, but, alas, twas just another "little food" experience at b. Never been back.

Just a suggestgion, but perhaps do your homework before attending a meal like this.

I still remember the first time I went to the French Laundry. As you probably know, if you order the tasting menu there, the format at the FL is pretty much identical to what you experienced at Volt. However, the website also tells you what to expect (and what the chef is aiming for), the waiter tells you what to expect, and you can read countless entries on the internet about what to expect.

That being said, it's your decision as to whether or not you want to go with the tasting menu at the FL (and Volt). If a diner wants a "climax," then by all means order off the ala carte menu. However, most folks want to experience the full creative genius of the chef, and so they go for the tasting menu. Given the number of courses (and richness of the dishes), small plates are the only way this is possible. Even with "just" 14 or 15 courses (the FL includes a number of "chef amusement" courses and several desserts in addition to the listed courses), the two times I went to the FL I left feeling as if I was about to explode. As our waiter pointed out, the dishes may be small, but they tend to add up over the course of the evening.

My point is simply this. You're the customer and ultimately it's your decision as to what you want to order. You didn't have to order the tasting menu; if you wanted a "climax" then you could have just as easily ordered ala carte. Ordering the tasting menu and then after the fact complaining that it left you somehow dissatisfied... look in the mirror if you want to find someone to blame for that.

Next time do your homework and figure out in advance what you want and I dare say you'll have a happier experience.

I don't disagree with you. I'm just saying that all those teeny tastes didn't add up to dinner for me. For someone else, it might. LV

Bravo for the post. As you said, this type of meal is "all the rage" so by going against the grain you open yourself up to criticism from fanboys (see above)

Look we all know Baltimore (or at least as represented on this website) likes to (ironically) make fun of this kind of dinner-theatre so why do we keep posting about it?

This type of food really isn't about sitting down and getting full and then undoing your belt. It's not about saying "wow what a great deal!". LV didn't mention that table 21 is in the kitchen and you get to see the inner workings of the restaurant, or that you are literally IN THE KITCHEN.. why? I'm sure because they didn't really care about that stuff, which is fine, but then you use your soapbox to make fun of it, which is pretty funny in and of itself.

And honestly, if you look at the menus of the winners of this years Beard awards (which Im sure you all do, right?), you'll see that small bite menus are really not all the rage, and haven't been for a few years. But Baltimore is always a little behind the times when it comes to food trends (cupcakes, anyone).

Anyway I'm sure these comments will quickly degrade into the meat-and-three crowd vs the molecular gastronomists.

captcha "in idolatry"

Also i dont know if they jacked up the price of table 21 but when I went it was $121 dollars which is quite a bargain for such a meal.

I find your post a little confusing- I ate at Table 21 last August, and maybe the portion sizes have changed considerably, but by the time dessert rolled around I couldn't even look at food, I was so stuffed. In fact, each piece of protein we had was about 3 ounces, which, when you consider the number of courses you're consuming, seems more than generous. So either the portions have changed, or you and your husband are shoe-ins for the next competitve eating competition. (My guess is the former, as we dined at Volt before Top Chef aired, and they probably downsized the portions after it became wildly popular).

There was nothing approaching 3 ounces in the protein department. LV

The idea of a multi-course dinner with tiny dribs and drabs strikes me as a bit of a cheat. Back when my wife and I lived in England, we were fortunate enough to be invited to an annual dinner hosted by a renowned chef who'd retired to run a small country pub. Each of his 14 courses were full sized, including sweetbreads financiere, rack of lamb, dover sole (with a champagne/caper sauce) and so on. Most were complemented by well-chosen wine including perhaps the best Pommard I've ever had the pleasure to drink. We sat down at 6:00 PM, there was a palate clearing sorbet (and musical entertainment) at around 8:30 and the evening concluded at about 11:00 PM. It was a truly unforgettable evening, made moreso not merely by the chef's talents but by his lavish hand.

I find this review of Volt unintentionally perfect. A tasting menu is just that - a taste of each dish. Your review of this experience shows that Volt and it's talented staff left you with exactly what they were intending - to want more of each delicious and unique plate presented. The fact that you and your party left with what you call "blue buds" is great news for them. They're not hoping you'll walk away disgustingly full, ready to burst from some heavy cream-laden dish as so many restaurants do. Rather, that you'll remember the unique and the (somewhat) strange molecular feats achieved on those dishes. Bravo Volt.

RoCK and I once got a cheese tasting plate for $12 at a restaurant in Fredericksburg, Virginia. They took a mandolin and shaved off three varieties of cheese that you could get at Whole Foods. I remember one was like, Drunken Goat. RoCK nudged me, egging me on: "Go say something, go say something," 'cause I'm the lawyer, the Colonel, etc.

I asked the staff if that were indeed the correct plate. They sniffed as if I just removed my head from the trough and said, "It's just supposed to be a tasting portion." $12! Fredericksburg! Grocery store cheeses!

Are you saying you left VOLT hungry? Did you feel like you needed to eat again- or are you saying, You just didnt get it? A tasting menu is not for everyone. However as someone who routinely writes about food
I would think you would appreciate the time and talent taken to produce such a menu (btw refered to as a TASTING)and enjoy the extraordinary surroundings that only a few can experience. Perhaps Fodo de Chao next time.

To EA and the article author:

Then DON'T order it! Obviously this is not for everyone, but you make it sound as if you literally had no choice but to order the tasting menu.

Personally, I can't count how many times I've been with friends and family, and have someone exclaim after looking over the menu "oh, everything looks so good. I want to try everything." The tasting menu allows you to do just that, which probably explains why they have become so popular at finer restaurants.

On the other hand, places like Volt and the French Laundry do not require you to order the tasting menu, and so if you find eating multiple small portions somehow dissatisfying, then by all means order a steak entree or a couple of crab cakes. I'm sure they can accommodate you.

and EA I wouldn't worry. Tasting menus may be popular at fine dining restaurants, but my guess is that you'll still be able to find plenty of places where you can order a slab of beef with corn and potato on the side, with a nice dish of vanilla ice cream for dessert. It's all good, no?

Obviously this is not for everyone, but you make it sound as if you literally had no choice but to order the tasting menu.

I didn't get that impression at all. It sounds to me as though the writer approached the tasting menu willingly and with anticipation, and is now reporting back her response to the experience.

I've never had the opportunity to partake of a 21-course meal, so I found this feedback to be valuable. Should I ever find myself in Frederick and in funds, I now have ten good leads on dishes to order in a quantity sufficient for enjoyment.

In January, I called Volt for reservations for dinner in April. I was told I needed to wait until February, but if I wanted chef's tasting table reservations, I could get those. I told the hostess that was fine, and asked what she had available. I was told March of 2011.

Yes. 2011. 14 months later.

So I'm curious as to when your party made their reservations.

I did call in February for the April reservations in the main dining room. The standard four course meal was perfectly portioned, and excellent. I left full, but not stuffed.

Two nights before visiting Volt, I had the good fortune to eat at Per Se. Chef Keller offered only two choices for the evening - the 9 course vegetarian tasting menu, and the 9 course chef's tasting menu. The portions at Per Se were smaller than Volt, but not minuscule. However the entire service took just over four hours. Again, I left perfectly full (and fearful that I will never again have such a wonderful meal).

So it seems to me that the "tasting menu" concept isn't the problem... the number of courses is. 21 is just too many to make acceptable portion size. Give the diner too much in entree #10, and #19 on will be wasted. Give too little, and the diner is left wanting.

I called back in December, right after the "Top Chef" season concluded, and asked for the first available weekend date for Table 21. They offered December 5 -- 2010. And that was a Sunday. If I'd wanted a Saturday night, my first shot would have been February 2011. So I booked Dec. 5 and figured we could use the next year to save up. Then a couple months ago, the restaurant expanded Table 21 from four seats to eight and asked if I wanted an earlier date. That's how I wound up with May 2. LV

Anonymous - "Also i dont know if they jacked up the price of table 21 but when I went it was $121 dollars which is quite a bargain for such a meal."

That was exactly my reaction as well. According to the website, that's still the price.

When you consider what a multi-course meal goes for at Le Bec Fin, the Inn at Little Washington, the French Laundry and even a 6 course meal at our own Charleston, I thought the $121 price tag very fair.

Now if they could just do something about their wine price mark-ups...

I would point out to kitten that LV is not a professional food/restaurant critic and does not present herself as such.

John M.,
Thanks for proving my point. Any dissent must be met with loud, swift, and insulting action from fanboys!

Blue buds! That's great.

Oh come come now EA. You can't do better than that? Fanboy? That's really the best you can do?

You can't make a cogent point, so you resort to name calling? And then when you're served in kind, you get your panties all in a bunch. Ah well...

Of course, the funniest part is I didn't share an opinion on the tasting menu or attempt to make any point. Just complimented Laura on her sharing of an "against the trend" opinion that would surely elicit negative responses (which it has).

Someone on the internet doesn't share my opinion? Quick, to the keyboard ... we attack at dawn!

You know, she never said she didn't enjoy the food. In fact, she's saying that she enjoyed some of it so much that she wished she'd had a bit more of it.

So maybe the tasting menu wasn't for her. Is it a crime now to try something and realize it wasn't quite what one was looking for?

I don't think I'd do something like this because I personally don't really want to spend that much on a meal. Me, personally. Note that I am not saying I am a superior person because I don't want to spend that much, or that I can't understand why people would spend that much or that it's wrong to spend that much. Just that I, personally, have this opinion. I think that's something that gets lost in many internet comments. Disagreeing with someone's opinion on something as subjective as dining is not a personal attack. Neither person is wrong.

(Also, the captcha is amusing: 555515 beef)

Laura, I thoroughly enjoyed your take on the Volt tasting menu. I agree with kam, you clearly liked the food, but you wanted more of me, that was perfectly clear in your writing. For those who have not had a tasting menu, LV's insight gives them an idea of what to expect. I had the tasting menu (with wine) at WD50 in New York. It was the most expensive meal I've ever had. I'm glad I did it, but I'd never do it again. It sounds like you had a similar experience. Reading your take on Volt's Table 21 was entertaining, insightful and hilarious ("blue buds" ha!).

Everyone is entitled to their opinion......
Even if it is wrong.

This conversation reminds me of a comment one of my friends made, that in turn, became a running joke - "Your opinion is false!"

Or, on a lighter note, this dinner did not inspire a recreation of that one particular scene from When Harry Met Sally. ;)

I had the tasting menu (with wine) at WD50 in New York.

I had the tasting menu at WD40. It was awful.

Owl, a little greasy, eh?

Fogo de Chao might be up your alley.

Blue buds - really? - please explain

"Your opinion is false." I LOVE THAT!!!!

Oh, TS, even I got "blue buds." Really now.
Think of another one-syllable word beginning with B.

Wow. Sort of amazed to see people jumping in to 1) let LV know that she doesn't have a clear sense of her own OPINION of a dining experience b/c her feeble mind didn't get the "concept", and 2) she's no professional, therefore....
I appreciated her view on this. I've been disappointed myself on occasion by places that are widely touted as culinary Nirvana, then prove to be not nearly as satisfying as a local fave. It doesn't mean the reviewer suffers some sort of cognitive disability - it simply means the experience didn't jibe with the hype. It happens! It's what makes the "foodie sport" so fun for all of us. Be nice. Or go get a real hobby.

Captcha: "hungriest given" (I couldn't make this up)

It's the subjectivity, stupid!

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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