Molecular gastronomy met the ballpark masses in Frederick Tuesday night as former "Top Chef" contestant Bryan Voltaggio played stadium concessionaire during a Frederick Keys game at Harry Grove Baseball Stadium.
Voltaggio, who threw out a respectable first pitch with his 3-year-old son, Thacher, at his side on the mound, ran the concession to benefit the Keys' charitable foundation.
The Orioles farm team had first suggested that the owner of Frederick's Volt restaurant put on a $100-a-head, sit-down charity dinner for about 80 people. But Voltaggio wanted to go the concession route, which would give people a chance to have a taste of his cuisine for just a few bucks.
With entrees topping out at $10, the menu was financially accessible. Physical accessibility was another matter. The Volt concession stand was at third base. Within minutes of the gate's opening, the line stretched to first. People waited hours for food from a 2-year-old restaurant that had put Frederick on the culinary map -- Harrison Ford flew in just for dinner recently -- but had remained out of reach for many residents.
"We're going to see what all the fuss is about," said Anne Nelson, 34, a McDaniel College philosophy professor who at the bottom of the fourth inning, stood at the end of the line -- still snaking all the way back to first base. "I'm a vegetarian, so it's rarely worth it for me to spend $300 on dinner."
Attendance was 7,315 -- more than double a usual Tuesday night turnout, said Keys public relations director Adam Pohl, who said he hoped a Volt concession stand could be reprised annually. Bryan Voltaggio bobblehead dolls, given free to the first 1,000 fans, ran out half an hour after the gates opened.
Voltaggio's menu included playful takes on classic stadium chow.
"We tried to [combine] ballpark and some of the things we do at the restaurant," Voltaggio said.
Standing in for the standard mystery-meat ballpark frank was a succulent Border Springs Farm Lamb Hot Dog ($8), created with pasture-raised local meat that Voltaggio describes on the farm's website as having "great mineral characteristics that do not overshadow the mild grassiness in the finish." (I think the last time a ballpark frank had a grassy finish was when some kid dropped his on the field.)
While there were gourmet twists -- truffle oil on the $3 popcorn, for instance -- much of what set Voltaggio's offerings apart from modern stadium fare was the quality of his ingredients. You can find a pulled pork sandwich in any number of baseball stadiums. You surely won't find another made with Red Wattle Pork, the obscure, flavorful variety prized by chefs. Shrimp po' boys probably can be had, too, at least on the club level of Major League parks. But try finding one made with Marvesta shrimp, which is raised naturally, and in eco-friendly tanks, on the Eastern Shore.
One truly outside-the-park item was Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho "Dipping Dots" Rock Shrimp Ceviche with Petite Cilantro ($4). I'd had Voltaggio's savory "ice cream pearls" once before, as part of his whimsical version of chicken Parmesan. I wasn't crazy about the combination of cold dots with warm chicken in that dish, which I'd had at the restaurant. (I'm sure the warm-cold combo is all part of the molecular gastronomy fun, and I accept it as a personal failing that it did not do it for me, but it did not.) But in a shrimp ceviche, which I want to be cold, the dots bowled me over.
There were red dots and white, plus some sort of green foam that might have been avocado, or basil or lime. The chef was a tad too busy -- Voltaggio waded into the line and started handing out free food late in the game -- to discuss just what was in that creamy, citrusy, cilantro-y, shrimpy bowl. It was the first thing I tasted. I could have gone home satisfied had it been the last.
But it was not the last. Not by a long shot.
Sun Food Editor Sarah Kelber and I came up with this dream assignment: We'd check out the Volt concession stand, blog about it and post a photo gallery of each menu item. Sarah writes the reality TV blog Reality Check and, unlike me, can take decent photographs.
The photos are online here.
Full disclosure: as with ordinary restaurant reviews, we paid for everything we ordered. But unlike a formal review, we were not incognito. We worked with stadium and Volt personnel to interview Voltaggio and, later, to place our unusually large, one-of-everything order. Otherwise, we'd still be in line.
We ended up with so much food that, after cutting off bits for a taste, we gave a good bit away. It was all tasty, but it was an absurd amount of food.
But I didn't part with a single tomato dipping dot. I just about licked that bowl clean. And we left not a crumb of a heavenly little slice of Key Lime Pie.
Sun photos by Sarah Kelber