Sitting down in the salon of Rogue 24 before my inaugural Rogue Session with Bryan Voltaggio, the strains of a rocked out cover of the Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” drift over; “To die by your side/Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” Considering that I’m about to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime journey, it’s a fitting opening couplet.
Looking into the dining room beyond is like a peek into a heavenly otherworld. A gauzy curtain separates the central space, where floating orbs of light softly illuminate the proceedings. The house is packed tonight — the whole week sold out in a flash — so culinary team and the servers have their work cut out for them.
These Rogue Sessions came about after chef-owner RJ Cooperwas diagnosed with a life threatening heart defect that required immediate and extensive surgery that would keep him out of the kitchen for several months. So, he started calling culinary colleagues to see if they could take over his duties while he was away. Ultimately, ten chefs stepped up to helm the burners, including recent James Beard Award winner José Andrés, SMOKE’s Tim Byres, The Source’s Scott Drewno, Woodberry Kitchen’s Spike Gjerde, Blackbird’s David Posey, Top Chef season 6 finalist Jennifer Carroll, City Grocery Restaurant Group’s John Currence, and former minibar chef Katsuya Fukushima.
Weekly emails from Gilt City DC reveal who is coming in next for 24 rounds. Each chef in this impressive lineup will be cooking for 50 people a night for just five days, so scoring a seat will be challenge. The only way to get tickets is through Gilt City DC and the reservations themselves are then handled by CityEats.
The menu is divided into twelve dishes from the visiting chef’s recipe collection and a dozen culled from RJ Cooper’s arsenal. Menus aren’t revealed in advance, though, so you don’t know just what will happen until you sit down. By the look of the focused flurry around the center stage kitchen, it looks like Chef Bryan Voltaggio is pulling out all the stops. No matter what, I’m sure that the pleasure and the privilege will be mine.
After a palate cleansing shot of ginger-vinegar aperitif, these two tiny treats kick off the epic proceedings. The ecru celeriac macaroon contains a surprise: whipped foie gras.
House fried rice/duck/vegetables/soy/sesame
“Hold out the hand you don’t write with,” the servers instruct. Into our outstretched palms, they place a clear glass bowl that looks like a ‘60’s Aarnio ball chair. Using a small spoon we scoop out the Kashi-like fried rice mixed with corn kernels and slivers of duck jerky. From the ensuing silence, you can tell it’s clearly a table favorite.
This thin, Oreo-sized disc seems unsubstantial, until you let it sit on your tongue for a moment and it dissolves into a full-on flavor blast. It’s all the flavors of a classic Neapolitan pizza abbreviated into a single, bombastic bite.
Oyster/smoked potato/bacon/black truffle
The shellfish is absolutely velveteen and nicely complemented by the smoky whipped potatoes and bacon powder. Yes, bacon powder. Unfortunately, it’s not available in cute pig-shaped containers to sprinkle on your scrambled eggs at home.
This play on baba ghanoush looks like an artfully exploding supernova. A golden pool of olive oil sits in the center of thick Greek yogurt surrounded by concentric circles of pureed eggplant dappled with candied sesame seeds. To scoop it up, there are crackly, jagged shards of lavash cracker.
Only at Rogue 24 would you be given a giant pair of tweezers to eat a dish. This oceanic milieu is one of RJ Cooper’s signature dishes, and it’s as thoughtful as it is tasty. Even if you think “brackish water” isn’t your trip, you’ll be surprised. The uni is so silky and smooth that it carries the entire dish.
The fatty fish, slightly bitter fennel, sweetly acidic blood orange and zingy ginger work together to create dish that is rich, yet clean. Simply sensational.
This is a two-bite course, but the zing of the grapefruit lingers until the next plate arrives. Between this and the previous dish, my palate has been scrubbed and prepped for the next 16 courses.
Served on a miniature cake stand, this extravagant morsel earns raves from the whole table. The cauliflower is transformed into a gelatinous cube that provides a nice backdrop for the caviar, which pop in your mouth like little Russian fireworks. There are ohs and ahs from around the table
Swordfish/mortared scales/cara cara orange/samphire
After so many delicate creations, the swordfish provides a meaty counterpoint. Its substantiality is well offset by a dot of sweet-then-slightly-bitter Cara Cara navel sauce and a scatter of earthy olive oil soil. A smaller version of this dish was served at GiltCity DC’s launch party for the Rogue Sessions earlier this week, but this larger portion size allows the various flavors to work in concert better.
This Volt classic is a perfect bite. Just spoon the sweet foie gras onto a buttery toast point along with some punchy coffee dust and understated coconut sauce. If I get to choose my last supper, I want this on the menu.
The various “textures” of Brussels sprouts adds a subtle sweetness to the small, understated filets. It’s hard to believe that this is only the halfway point, even though we’ve been eating for over two hours. Surprisingly, I’m not anywhere near full. Since the portions have been restrained to a few bites at most, we haven’t eaten as much as a dozen courses would imply.
Ravioli/parsley root/ash/black trumpet
Voltaggio comes over to the table to personally introduce this dish: a single black ravioli stuffed with slightly sour (in a good way) Monocacy Ash from Maryland’s Cherry Glen. This highlight dish tastes particularly delightful when eaten with a sip of coffee cherry stout with heady espresso foam, one of the custom-made non-alcoholic pairings that makes me wish I was on the wagon.
Ox tongue/sour dough/mostarda/bitter herbs
At first blush this is a challenging dish: ox tongue with sour dough foam and some other bitter, biting components? Are you kidding me? Evidently the joke is on me, because it actually comes together quite nicely; the tender tongue sure to convert some anti-offal diners.
The earthiness of this dish is tempered only somewhat by a twinge of sweetness from the dates. The wood pigeon is well cooked, but still has a gaminess that might turn off some diners.
Oyster root/quince/country ham/almonds
Apparently, this is the “challenging” section of the menu, because a quick look at this plate makes me believe that I’ve been served a small log camouflaged by a trio of uneven triangles of salted country ham. The wood is actually a slightly spongy oyster root, which grounds the dish well, and the pork is pristine.
Inhaling deeply, the apple vinegar punches before I even take a nibble. The tangy sauce takes the form of a gelée, which provides a nice balance to the richness of the pork. I’m beginning to feel mildly full. Thankfully, there’s a longer gap between courses, so I find myself rallying.
Basil-fed snails are the latest rage in gourmet circles. There’s definitely an herbaceous tone to this escargot, which pairs well with the taste-of-the-wild mushrooms. If you want to try some, you can always wait and see if Gilt Taste will get them back in stock.
This lamb is so perfectly cooked that instructors at the Culinary Institute of America should cryogenically seal it in a temperature-controlled display case and show it off to future students. Too bad I ate it all.
Endives/perigord black truffle/truffle caramel
This is a triple truffle threat: truffle braised mini endives, match-sticked Périgord black truffles, and a halo of truffle caramel that’s so delightful that I’m compelled to run my finger around the plate to make sure I get every last drop. Not one server looks at me askew. Either they’re too polite or this sort of thing is normal. I’m guessing the latter, though their civility definitely isn’t in question.
Apparently Bryan Voltaggio loved oatmeal piled with brown sugar as a child, but he lost his sweet tooth as he got older. As a result, this savory reinterpretation flips your average breakfast cereal on its head. It’s a whimsical departure from the usual AM routine and a nice late-night buffer between dinner and dessert.
This is not your mother’s PB&J. No offense to your mom, but this kicks her sammie’s ass! The plate is a veritable artist’s palette full of flavor, color and texture. Fill a fork with the smooth peanut butter “cake” and a dab of jam and you’re golden. Everyone at our six-top table loves it so much that I’m wondering how Voltaggio can top it.
Turns out there is a dessert that can rival the previous course. This deconstructed s’more showcases a fire-kissed swoosh of marshmallow and a gnarled “tree” of bittersweet chocolate formed in liquid nitrogen. An ovoid of hand-paddled caramel ice cream rounds out this highlight composition.
Happy endings/little things/small bites
A trio of treats finishes the meal. My favorite is a miniature meringue with a slightly luminous sheen billed as Mr. Bubble. It does taste faintly of a flowery Lush bath bomb, but in a good way. Dissolving on my tongue in seconds, it’s a cleansing finale after an epic meal that pleasantly stretched past the four hour mark. I’m definitely full at this point — anyone who needs a sandwich after this meal needs to recalibrate their concept of ‘full’ — and so are my dining companions. The table breaks up in a flurry of handshakes, warm goodbyes and information exchanges. It’s well after one in the morning; time to head home.
***Starred courses were the highlights of the meal.
To give live updates about my Rogue Sessions tastings, please follow me on Twitter @nevinmartell.