Unusual ingredient mixtures such as goat burrata with pickled peppers, citrus ash, dehydrated kalamata olives, and olive paper (left) and sea urchin, squid-ink, and seaweed (right) are transformed into works of art at Rogue 24. Photographs by Scott Suchman
“We’ve been manipulating a lot of melons and fruit these days,” the server intoned as he deposited two shot glasses of pear soda on the table.
I looked for a smile—at the very least a hint of irony in his expression.
Rogue 24, a new restaurant from James Beard Award–winning chef R.J. Cooper, is in an alley a few blocks from the Washington Convention Center. It’s an odd duck, at once revolutionary and reactionary. It presents itself as a ballsy experiment in recreational dining, an attempt to redefine eating out in an age of limitless options, while operating with a stagy formality that feels clinical, even cold.
Upon making a reservation, you’re e-mailed a contract that lays down the rules. When you arrive, you aren’t ushered to your table but directed to a seat in the “salon,” a sort of waiting room, giving the staff time to prep for your meal while you sip that $14 aperitif. The appetizer/entrée/dessert format is jettisoned in favor of a stately procession of 16 or 24 tiny courses, many no bigger than palate cleansers.
It’s dinner as experimental theater, and Cooper has staged the show “in the round”—the eight cooks work in the center of the room, making every table a chef’s table. But don’t come expecting operatic f-bombs, plate-banging theatrics, or other made-for-TV bombast. This is a surprisingly muted show. Watch as a cook employs giant tweezers to lay tiny orange balls of masago, or capelin roe, atop a dish and you might think you’d wandered into a surgical theater.
As an exploration of what can be done with food, of the ways ordinary ingredients can be transformed—and occasionally transcended—Rogue 24 is a fascinating place. If you weren’t investing close to $400 for two, you might see it as a grand piece of performance art or as a glimpse into the hyper-niched future of fine dining.
As dinner? As a night of sumptuous indulgence? Not so much.
You might even go away hungry, like a friend of mine who downed 16 courses and several glasses of wine, then drove home and dove into a bowl of pasta.
Cooper says the idea for Rogue 24 grew out of a menu he dabbled with toward the end of his tenure at Jeffrey Buben’s Vidalia in downtown DC. (“You’re going rogue,” Buben told him.) But in Washington, the concept of a restaurant built around a menu of multiple tiny bites originates with Minibar, the six-stool operation inside the old Café Atlántico that has long functioned as a test lab for José Andrés’s most daring experiments—olive oil transformed into a solid, mojitos turned into a spritz, clam chowder broken down into component parts.
A meal like this is meant for a miniaturist, for a chef who excels with tiny compositions of jewel-like precision and intensity. Cooper is a big-canvas sort of guy given to luscious bands of paint and vivid snatches of scenery. At Vidalia, he nudged the Southern-themed kitchen toward greater experimentation—you might encounter Ritz Cracker ice cream with onion soup—but the flavors were deep and true, and there was always a logic undergirding his attempts to make it new.
In turning out miniatures, the chef is playing against his considerable strengths.
Imagine the passed plates of hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. Now imagine them coming in orchestrated intervals and being worked on by a team of 16 hands. Cooper says the kitchen puts out nearly three dozen sauces, and the degree of detail for each dish is exceptionally high.
Among the dishes one night was a heart of palm that had been turned into a veggie alternative to that lusty bistro classic, roasted bone marrow, with a liquefied-olive center subbing for the rich, gooey innards. It was perfectly realized—a marvel to look at and contemplate. It was also entirely forgettable.
This tension between perception and reality ran through my meals, as much a motif as the various crumbles, powders, and infusions I ingested.
Because there’s no traditional menu, dishes aren’t grouped into categories. But that’s not to say categories don’t present themselves.
There are bites in which ingeniousness runs in tandem with deliciousness (an Asian fried-rice dish made of crispy rice puffs) and bites in which deliciousness is sacrificed to ingeniousness (a fried ball of chicken that explodes in the mouth, flooding it with hot soup broth).
There are well-executed examples of dubious ideas (shrimp and grits in which the grits are a crunchy ball and the shrimp a nearly translucent slice of charcuterie) and experiments that ought never to have graduated from the rough-draft stage (thin, squishy ropes of parmesan-and-marshmallow—yes, the key component of s’mores—pasta with tomatoes).
There are concoctions that buy into the avant-garde idea that a chef’s job is to create jolting sensations, not satisfy bourgeois expectations: “Ocean floor” sets a lobe of sea urchin, salty and sweet and creamy, against an intensely brackish and salty foam, as if to tweak the food-writerly notion that pristinely fresh fish tastes like the ocean.
And then there are dishes that don’t make you think at all: The cerebral gives way, finally, to the visceral, and you’re no longer so conscious of a chef constructing a “journey” and straining to create the shock of the new. You settle in to appreciate the simple magic of an exquisitely prepared dish.
A rendition of vichyssoise was a thrilling demonstration of how good a humble potato can be, while the rich, clear beef broth of a shabu-shabu hinted at hours of complicated labor but tasted simple and pure.
One night, a friend and I gushed over a pan-roasted pigeon, its salty, almost crackling skin framing a piece of meat so flavorful it was as if the bird had been killed only hours earlier. There was, alas, only a tiny slice of it. We were left to imagine the dish that wasn’t, to fill in the spaces of the entrée we wished we’d been served.
“I’ve never had a meal like that,” my wife said one night on the way home from the 3½-hour, 24-course show. She wasn’t enraptured. She wasn’t dismayed. She was just stating a fact.
This review appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.