When a new restaurant from a star chef opens, it tends to be one of two kinds. One—Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola comes to mind—is a lovingly rendered portrait of the chef and his vision. The other is, much less romantically, created as a “concept”—say, a carbon copy from a restaurant empire or a hotel dining room with a celebrity chef’s name above the entrance. Just don’t look for the actual person in the kitchen.
When Bryan Voltaggio, the chef behind a trio of Frederick restaurants, announced his first venture in DC—a giant eatery in Friendship Heights’ Chevy Chase Pavilion—it was easy to think he was headed for concept territory. The new place takes up more than 14,000 square feet in a mall. Its neighbor is the Cheesecake Factory.
But the instantly popular Range is the most fully expressed reflection of the 36-year-old Frederick native yet. The curving, white-on-white dining room is coolly minimalist, with gunmetal leather placemats and sleek booths. Look at the servers’ feet, though, and you’ll see Chuck Taylors. The Nirvana-heavy soundtrack feels like a mix-tape salvaged from the early ’90s, when Voltaggio was in high school.
Dashes of his other places are all over the menu. A simple-sounding beet-and-goat-cheese salad turns out to be an artful arrangement sprinkled with espresso “soil” (pulverized coffee beans with almond flour and cardamom) that wouldn’t be out of place at his modernist flagship, Volt. Homier fare—say, a lovely skillet of baked-to-order cornbread with bacon jam—is reminiscent of his upscale diner, Family Meal. Myriad cuts of meat, from the familiar (a $42 rib eye) to the obscure (a coulotte, the tender cap of a sirloin), recall his time manning the kitchen at Capitol Hill’s Charlie Palmer Steak a decade ago.
And then there’s Top Chef—the TV culinary competition that made the Voltaggio name known outside the food world (Bryan came in second, losing to his kid brother, Michael, who works in LA). There’s not one open kitchen but seven, and fans of cooking-as-theater will appreciate the Carrera-marble dining counters that let you watch cooks toss pans of pasta or arrange glossy bonbons.
The menu is dizzyingly long—you could eat here for a week and not get bored—and it mixes such crowd pleasers as a moist, pan-roasted chicken with boundary pushers such as thinly sliced beef hearts with oily chimichurri. Servers recommend three to four shareable dishes per person, but that seems excessive, especially if there’s a pizza or bigger roast in the mix.
I found the most pleasure in the pastas, which include goat-cheese ravioli with excellent meat ragu and a mascarpone-enriched lobster mac and cheese. They aren’t always consistent, though: One night, a bowl of kimchee linguine featured beautifully cooked orange pasta, sweet bay scallops, and melting spoonfuls of briny sea urchin. Another evening, the dish was a sodium bomb. And a play on a Reuben—stiff pumpernickel cassarecci tossed with lamb tongue and Gruyère—tasted heavy and flat.
Vegetables are generally good bets: roasted sunchokes (which taste like a hybrid of artichokes and fingerling potatoes) spritzed with lemon, a kale Caesar with garlicky punch, zataar-spiced cauliflower with raisins.
A $10 bread basket might make you skeptical, but it’s worth the price for the terrific cornbread, ciabatta with smoky cream cheese and gooseberry jam, cheddary biscuits, and flatbread with hummus. Order it and you could do without appetizers, though it would be a shame to miss the well-shucked Virginia oysters and stone-crab claws from the raw bar. There’s lobster, too, but it’s best roasted with chilies in the wood oven.
Voltaggio has hired three talents to keep glasses full—Keith Goldston and former Citronelle sommelier Kathryn Morgan oversee the wine, while Owen Thomson, who came from José Andrés’s Think Food Group, handles the cocktails. His creations—smooth, oak-aged gin with a pineapple shrub; a smoky, tart mix of mezcal with Lillet and egg whites—are reason enough to angle for a seat here.
And you’ll likely have to—the bar and restaurant were packed each weeknight I visited. Part of that is because of the Voltaggio name. But Range is off to a strong start, and for once a mall restaurant has the soul of a chef.
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.