Saturday, December 5, 2009

Table 21 at VOLT: 21 Courses of Voltaggio Goodness

by Erin and Xani

This is the post you've all been waiting for! For those of you who don't know (not sure how - both of us tweeted and Facebooked the crap out of this news), we scored a reservation at Table 21, the chef's table at VOLT. VOLT is Chef Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant in Frederick, MD, and as we all know, Bryan is one of the 3 finalists (and quite possible winner!) of Top Chef this season. What an exciting time to go to this restaurant!

Getting a rez at Table 21 is kind of difficult, especially these days as Chef Bryan's fame grows exponentially (we heard they are currently booked through October 2010). So, it was a huge surprise when friends Emily and Josh couldn't use their reservation and offered it to us - what amazing friends! We gratefully accepted and the excitement started to build...

Friday night was the big night. Neither of us ate very much during the day in preparation for the ridiculous meal that lay before us. We left plenty of time for the drive to Frederick so we wouldn't be rushed. Needless to say, we were excited!!

In front of VOLT! The lady who took our picture was like "Oh, you're actually eating in there??"

We arrived in adorable downtown Frederick and gave the hostess our name (well, Emily's name!). She coolly replied, "Table 21. Right this way." SO A-list. We were led into the kitchen and seated at the 4-person table tucked away in a corner, with a perfect view of the happenings of the kitchen, including Chef Bryan! He was working away, quietly directing his staff and plating dishes; he even presented several dishes to us throughout our meal!

There's the Chef! Second from the left.

Anyway, let's get to the FOOD, shall we?? This meal was 21 courses and took us approximately 3.25 hours to finish. Each course was beautifully presented and, since we didn't order any of these dishes and therefore didn't know what to expect, our server would describe each dish as it arrived, kinda like they do on Top Chef (or Iron Chef). Eek!

Course #1: Housemade ginger ale, absinthe foam, CO2

This cocktail was our first course. The homemade ginger ale with bourbon was served warm, and the absinthe whipped cream was served cold. The flavors surprisingly worked so well together, and the hot and cold together made it even more interesting. A great kick-off to the meal!

Course #2: Proscuitto chips, potato dip

The best chips and dip we ever had! The potato dip was more like a foam and had SO much potato flavor - this would be a theme in the coming courses. The "chips" were dehydrated pieces of salty, yummy Iberico ham that went so well with the potato dip.

Course #3: Tuna tartare, avocado, wasabi whitefish roe

This dish had a lot of wonderful flavors going on: tuna, avocado, spice, wasabi, tobiko, cilantro. Plus, it was texturally very delicate - everything was soft and went so well together. We were huge fans of this dish!

Course #4: Trio of macaroons

You Top Chef fans might recognize these macaroons! Chef Bryan made these on one of his earlier episodes (maybe the Bachelor/Bachelorette ep?) and they are as interesting as they sound. The white one was filled with guacamole with dehydrated corn on top. The green one was filled with caesar salad dressing (and the shell tasted like romaine) - we toasted to our wonderful mom as we ate this one since she is famous for her caesar salad. The last one was beet flavored outside with foie gras on the inside. Obviously anything with foie gras will trump - it was so good! The others were really good too - the outside was crunchy but then sort of melted, and the fillings were very flavorful.

Course #5: Shiitake, pine nut, chili oil, basil

For some reason, I cannot stop thinking about this dish! This was a creamy pine nut veloute with chili and basil, plus it had gelatin-encased pockets of maitaki mushroom soup! They were sort of like egg yolks but with a thicker outside-- they burst when you put them in your mouth. Again, everything tasted so much like itself - pine nuts, mushrooms, chili. Mmmm....

Course #6: Chicken wing presse, lobster noodle, coconut

Xani called this "the best chicken of her life." It was a crispy, pressed chicken wing (which as we all know has the most skin & fat: meat ratio, atop "lobster noodles" with celery pudding and coconut "air". Wow. The noodles were so interesting - they were essentially liquid that had been turned to gelatin and pressed out into noodles. While they did taste like seafood in the end, both of us had the initial impression that the noodles tasted like our mom's chicken soup! There was a strong celery flavor too, but I say that in a good way, for once!

Course #7: Cherry Glen Farm goat cheese ravioli, butternut squash

This was another dish that scored high high marks from us! This was an awesome goat cheese ravioli covered in a brown butter and butternut squash puree, topped with sage foam. Ridiculously good! The tang of the cheese cut through the richness of the squash and brown butter, and it was a great and unexpected addition to the classic combo of squash, sage, and brown butter.

Course #8: Scallop, lentils, cauliflower

While neither of us are huge scallop fans, we both enjoyed this dish. The scallop was perfectly seared and served with lentils and multi-colored cauliflowers. That's microplaned purple cauliflower on top!

Course #9: Sturgeon, ruby quinoa, black trumpet mushrooms, prosciutto nage

This was one of EP's favorite dishes. The sturgeon was firm and crispy on one side, and the ruby quinoa went so well with it and the mushrooms. There was a prosciutto nage (I just learned what "a la nage" meant here) which went well with the fish. Also on the plate, "variations on salsify", meaning several different preparations of salsify in the dish. The little white round on the side of the quinoa was cooked (baked, poached?), the white frill on the top was dried salsify (entangled with the black trumpet mushroom), salsify in the sauces, etc. Several of the dishes had variations on some ingredient. The scallop dish had variations on cauliflower.

Course #10: Sweetbreads, lemon, olive, caper

Now we're getting into the meats! This was a breaded and deep fried sweetbread served with a variety of delicious flavors: kalamata olive, meyer lemon, golden raisin. It was perfectly cooked and as one former Top Chef winner once put it, "it tastes like a really great chicken nugget."

Course #11: Slow-braised pork belly, calypso beans

This dish was interesting because the pork belly was rolled up (as you can see) and not too fatty. Also, there was some sort of cure on it that made it taste a little bit like corned beef. It wasn't a favorite of ours, but the crispy pancetta wheel alongside was A-okay.

Course #12: Hudson Valley duck liver, seckel pear, vanilla brioche, pistachio soil

This foie gras was very good: rich, fatty, buttery, and served with pear butter and pistachio alongside a sweet brioche (toasted, of course! and buttered!!). However, the foie didn't really taste like foie/liver - it tasted like butter. And while we love butter, it was a little disappointing not to get a stronger classic foie gras flavor out of this dish (especially since so many of the other things we'd eaten had tasted so strongly of themselves).

Course #13: Longenecket Farm rabbit, hernandez sweet potato, lavender

This dish had rabbit prepared 4 ways - wow! The first was a pancetta wrapped loin (that hot dog shaped piece in the pic), then a braised rack (you can see the tiny bones...sad), then a sous vide leg with bacon, and then a final piece prepared like a little schnitzel. They were all served with mashed sweet potatoes, super-yummy braised brussels sprouts, and some other sauces we can't remember. The sous vide leg was the best part - tender with a little bit of fat in the cut, with a lot of great rabbit flavor. Hoppity hop hop...

Course #14: Lamb, curry yogurt, cauliflower

This dish had a seared lamb loin with spinach, a curry yogurt, edamame, cauliflower, and "garlic transparency." The lamb was well-cooked, though it didn't have a very lamb-y flavor, which we would have liked. The spinach was very strongly flavored, as was the garlic transparency - SO garlicky! Poor Xani got it stuck to the top of her tongue, like one of those mint films for breath freshening. This was the opposite.

Course #15: Pineland Farm striploin, ratte potato, broccoli, dragon carrots

This beef dish was one of our favorites of the whole night! The meat was intensely seasoned on the outside and perfectly cooked through (as you can see), plus it had excellent potatoes, broccoli, and you see that thing that looks like an egg yolk? It's another one of those gelatin-encased sauces-- this time, carrot juice. This was an outstanding end to the meat portion of the evening.

Course #16: Cheese (Monocacy Gold), tarragon, orange gelato, balsamic

Cheese course! This was a great palate cleanser before we got into our dessert courses. Our dining companions were familiar with the Monocacy Gold cheese (from Cherry Glen Goat Cheese Co.) and schooled us on this great line of cheeses. The cheese was a soft and creamy goat cheese, almost like a brie. It was served with orange sorbet and a balsamic sauce.

Course #17: Dulce de leche, granny smith apple

Awww yeah, this dessert was our favorite of all of them! This was a super-rich and creamy cheesecake with granny smith apple sorbet and dulce de leche powder. The intensity of the flavor in the sorbet was unbelievable, and the dehydrated caramel turns to liquid in your mouth!Out of control good - we could have eaten many more of these little cheesecakes (er, maybe not at that point of the meal, but you know what we mean).

We ordered coffee and espresso during our dessert courses. I thought the little sugar lump holder looked like Tick Tock from "Return to Oz".

(Flying) pigs and coffee - BCD girls' favorites!

Course #18: Coconut, vanilla, lavender

This was a very interesting dish because it was all white - kind of trippy that way. The coconut sorbet was excellent and was sitting in a cup made of frozen coconut milk, which was very rich and fatty. Next to it was a lavender dust, and there was also a vanilla custard, both of which worked well with the coconut flavors.

Course #19: Chocolate peanut mousse, tonka bean

This was our final official dessert, which was a peanut butter brownie with a super crispy, crunchy crust on the bottom, which was surprising and a great texture contrast to the thick, rich brownie. There was also a tonka bean ice cream and a tuille cookie. The little green blob you see on brownie was "cilantro pudding"- but we didn't taste much cilantro.

Course #20: Ice cream sandwiches

Our last little bite of the evening: mini ice cream sandwiches! These were adorable and amazingly, we found room for them even after 19 previous courses. We were so impressed with how clean and beautiful these were, considering the one time we tried making ice cream sandwiches with cookies, they came out significantly less...beautiful.

Course #21: Muffin to take home

So classy they are at VOLT! Each of us got an orange-ginger muffin to take home to have for breakfast the next day.

We finally looked at the clock after the meal and it was almost midnight! We gathered our things as we struggled with whether we would bother Chef Bryan for a picture. We thought he might come over to talk with us at some point during the meal but he didn't. In the end we decided we would play it cool and not ask for a photo with him - sorry folks!

What a meal! We will both remember this for a very, very long time. Truly outstanding, surprising, delicious, and fun - thanks Chef Bryan and staff! Also thanks to Emily and Josh, and to our wonderful parents for giving us this dinner as our Hanukkah presents. So, you could say we didn't get 8 presents this year, we got 21!!

Good luck to Bryan as we head into the Top Chef finale part 2 - it's only fair to root for him now that we have tasted his food! Go Bryan!!


EP & X

Sunday, November 29, 2009

T-Day 09 Post Mortem

by Xani

While we didn't do too many (read: any) pre-Thanksgiving postings, we're about to make that all up to you. Here is a down and dirty run-down of Thanksgiving 2009 at the BCD house. It was another one for the books....

Just to set the mood of the ridiculousness, I'll start off by saying that the night BEFORE Thanksgiving, we just "whipped up" an EIGHT POUND, bone-in, wet-aged prime rib roast for dinner. And Yorkshire pudding. My Dad claimed it was necessary to "make room in the freezer." Yeah.... gluttony, here we come!

Because we had a grand total of five people at Thanksgiving this year, we decided it was imperative we have TWO turkeys, lest we might starve. OK, the actual reason for the two-turkey plan was to allow us to use two very different, and somewhat experimental, preparations (in case one failed miserably, we'd have an emergency backup turkey!)

Turkey #1
Turkey #1 (a fresh, 12-lb, additive-free bird) was prepared by awesome boyfriend and meat-smoker extraordinaire, David. He started the process many days in advance by rearranging all the contents of my fridge to accommodate the giant bucket he needed to brine the turkey. The brine included apple juice, ginger, cloves, oranges, and, of course, salt. After a 24 hour soak, it came out of the brine and air-dried for a day in the fridge. Then, into the smoker, and David worked his magic...

there's magic in that smoke...

beautiful bird!
omg, it worked!

with amazing results!! Have you ever seen a more gorgeous bird!? When we carved it it was amazingly juicy, with a sweet-and-smoky flavor. Well done David!

Turkey # 2
Turkey #2 was the smallest turkey I've ever seen. At only 7 lbs, we started calling it a "turk-lette." Not that I'm complaining, as we're already up to 19 pounds of turkey, or almost four pounds per person, if you're keeping track. It was an all-natural bird my parents picked up fresh from the Amish market in Easton, Md. They dry-brined it using a revised dry-brine method from the LA times (you might recall we used this LA Times method last year.) By including black pepper and bay in the dry-brine mixture, they infused lots of flavor into the bird. But the true genius move in the preparation of Turkey #2 came from BCD Dad. We were running out of precious fridge space on the big day, and the turkey, while small, was still taking up more than its share as it was drying out (after we removed it from the brine). Dad suggested the weather on Taylor's island that day was a perfect "mock fridge"-- about 40 degrees, dry, and 35 knot winds! Moments later #2 was perched on the deck, skin flapping in the breeze, enjoying his last moments of glory. The fridge was suddenly that much roomier, and all we had to do was make sure no one let the dog onto the deck... and keep a lookout for hungry eagles. In the end, the air-drying worked PERFECTLY-- the bird was totally transformed after a few hours out there. We roasted it up, and aside from a few timing issues (tiny turkeys cook WAY fast, who knew?), it came out with super-crispy skin, and moist, flavorful meat. Success!

fly, turkey, fly!

into the great blue yonder...

Dad's hand for scale

Turkey was clearly the star of the show, but we had plenty (and I mean plenty) of other great dishes. Our family starts every Thanksgiving with some traditional nibbles- crudite, blue cheese dressing, olives- and this year we added BCD Mom's fantastic chopped chicken liver, dressing it up with some pickled red onions to make a fabulous little crostini.

Alongside of the turkey, we enjoyed a lovely bacon, onion, and rye bread stuffing, goat cheese twice-baked potatoes, cranberry sauce, glazed brussels sprouts and apples in browned butter and cream, and two kinds of rolls (yeast rolls and sweet potato rolls). These were all brand-new recipes, with lots of new and interesting flavors. Maybe we'll go back to traditional recipes next year, but this year was all about trying new things!
the Thanksgiving plate-- never a pretty sight

The rolls were from a local vendor, but everything else we cranked out from scratch over a day or so before Thanksgiving. And they were all big successes! I especially liked the stuffing and the cranberry (which had a very deep, spicy flavor to it), but the brussels were SO rich and delicious... and who doesn't like a twice bakes potato?? No friend of mine! What can I say, I liked it all!

The sweet finale was a sweet-potato pie with marshmallow meringue. I was making sweet potato pie for the first time and little worried-- first, that it might not come together correctly, and second, even if it did, that I might not like it (I'm not a fan of pumpkin pie). Turns out I didn't need to worry on either front-- it was delicious. Buttery graham cracker crust, rich, sweet, and earthy filling, and marshmallow-y soft topping. YUM!

Another delicious Thanksgiving has come and gone, and even the leftovers are dwindling (ok, that part is only partly true- still LOTS of turkey in the fridge). Guess that means its time to start planning yummy holiday meals. Plus, EP and I have a super-special, like, once-in-a-lifetime experience coming up very soon that will MOST DEFINITELY be a blog post. Coming soon...

Hope you all had a wonderful holiday and celebrated all you have to be thankful for. I know I did!


update/P.S. OMG, I forgot the gravy! After a life-long struggle (?) to create a delicious, rich gravy, this year, I finally achieved my goal. The secret? Make turkey stock a day or two BEFORE Thanksgiving. To make the stock, we roasted up some turkey wings until they were nice and brown, then threw them in a pot and barely simmered them for about 6 hours. Then added carrot, celery stalk, onion, garlic, a bay leaf and a few peppercorns. An hour later, strained, cooled and chilled. On Thanksgiving, I added this glorious stock to a roux made from 50% chicken fat, 50% butter, and flour, and voila! Gorgeous gravy. A drop of apple cider vinegar was the perfect finishing touch.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Lexington Donut Challenge

by Erin

About a week ago, Xani blogged about National Donut Day (or rather, it's mysterious reappearance after we already celebrated it back in June?), and a reader named Kalee commented with a simple question: "May I ask if you know of good places to get donuts here in Baltimore?"

I began to reply to Kalee but realized that there were only two donut places in all of Baltimore that I could even think of for donuts: the old favorite Dunkin' Donuts, and the MD chain called Fractured Prune, which I associate with the beach since that's where it got started, but apparently they are now located all over Maryland (and elsewhere).

Then, I remembered one of the fondest memories of law school: exam snacks. In the midst of stress, lack of sleep, too much coffee, and the elements of second degree murder swimming through our first-year heads, the Maryland Law Alumni Association always provided snacks for students on exam days. Afternoon and evening snacks were just lame packaged crackers and cookies, but morning exam-takers got the best of the best: coffee and some of the best donuts I've ever had! And these donuts were from the famous Lexington Market, just up the street from the law school.

With this memory recalled, my co-workers and I got to researching the bakeries at the Lex to see if we could find the one that had provided our exam donuts. Unfortunately, there were FIVE bakeries in the Lex that sold donuts - how would we ever determine who had those great donuts?! There was only one way: a donut tasting. (Recall that this was not my first donut tasting; we had a glorious donut tasting experience in NYC with Doughnut Plant donuts....mmm square donuts...).

A reminder of the Doughnut Plant tasting of '08

Early the next morning, co-workers Ray and Bianca joined me on the quick trip to the Lex where we planned on buying donuts from several bakeries to bring back to the office for a blind taste test. We ended up getting donuts from Harbor City Bakery, Donut Delite, and the Berger Bakery (maker of those irresistable, classicly Baltimore cookies: Berger Cookies).

We tried to get similar flavors from each bakery for better comparison. We also compared prices. Here was the breakdown:

Harbor City Bakery: $2.25/doz ($.19/donut)
Donut Delite: $1.90/half doz ($.32/donut)
Berger Bakery: $3.25/half doz ($.54/donut)

So clearly, there is a price discrepancy. But how did they taste?? We set up the conference room table in a grid formation, where each column was a different bakery (they were anonymously labeled A, B, and C), and then the rows were the different flavors of donuts. As you can see, we didn't have a perfect flavor match-up between the three bakeries. Ah well.

Flavors included a chocolate-glazed cake, a glazed raised, a pumpkin spice, double chocolate, boston creme, and sour cream (sometimes called sour dough - any thoughts on this discrepancy?). Everyone from the office came to try a taste of each kind.

Surprisingly, many people loved Donut Delite, but lots of folks also preferred the Berger donuts. I personally thought Berger blew everyone else out of the water - the sour cream was phenomenal, and the chocolate glazed cake was extra special because it had a regular glaze on it in addition to the chocolate glaze. A-mazing. As a donut connoisseur, I can tell you these were outstanding donuts, to rival even the fanciest donut shops.

Doubly-glazed Berger chocolate-glazed cake donut...drooling now...

Sour cream donut, ready for taste-testing

Glazed donut, ready for taste-testing

Chocolate-glazed cake donut

Another hot topic of conversation was the boston creme donut: the group was seriously split about which was the best, partially because there are so many components to analyze: dough, creme, and frosting. The group never quite came to a decision on which was better, but Donut Delite and Berger were the two everyone was talking about. Sorry Harbor City...

Berger Bakery Boston Creme donut

Donut carnage

By the end of it, we were all in a sugar coma and trying to kill time until the afternoon when several of us in the office were to receive our highly-anticipated bar exam results. I'm happy to report that later in the day, I found out that I PASSED!!! Thanks to all my friends and especially the BCD family for helping me and putting up with me during the bar - I truly couldn't have done it without you. And to say thanks, donuts for everyone!! :)

Thanks to Ray, Bianca, and Dave for helping me with the Lexington Donut Challenge, and thanks Kalee for your comment - it turned into a delicious experiment! And, to answer your question, I recommend the Berger Bakery donuts in the Lex. Soooo good...

Happy donut tasting,

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