Chef Bryan Voltaggio and his California-based brother Michael Voltaggio have teamed up for their third restaurant together. Following Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse at MGM National Harbor and fish sandwich shop STRFSH in Los Angeles, their latest spot offers a modern seafood menu in CityCenterDC’s new luxury Conrad hotel.
The restaurant, which opened last week, is named Estuary after the Chesapeake Bay, where the Maryland-born brothers draw inspiration and ingredients. “Everything we are making here has a story to it,” Michael says. “Everything is sort of familiar in its flavor but surprising in its presentation.”
For example, every meal starts with breadsticks dipped in pimento cheese and dusted with Old Bay—a nod to the Ritz Handi-Snacks crackers with cheese spread that the brothers ate as kids in Frederick. Another complimentary snack to start: miniature croissants stuffed with homemade tomato jam and topped with fennel pollen and togarashi. When you pop them in your mouth, they tastes like pepperoni rolls, a West Virginia classic, despite not using any meat.
Steamed, dehydrated, roasted, and glazed celery root is served with a heart of palm “bone” so it looks like a veal shank, then paired with kale rigatoni and kale pesto. A striped bass ceviche with avocado and pear is topped with smoked sweet potato carved in the shape of Goldfish crackers. Despite the elaborate presentations, Michael says the goal is for the food to taste familiar, not interesting. “When people use that word to describe food, it makes me nervous,” he says.
That said, expect some unexpected flavor combinations. Soy-and-mirin-marinated sugar toads (a species of pufferfish) are accompanied by banana tartare sauce and pickled banana peppers. You might need to try it to believe it, but the Voltaggios say the combo just works. For something simpler, they’re also serving cured ham with baked-to-order cornbread.
The lunch menu has a lot of crossover with dinner plus some more casual dishes. The brothers wanted to offer a bacon-cheeseburger for people who don’t eat pork, so their version swaps in cured beef belly. The burger’s sauce is meant to resemble In-N-Out’s sauce but is elevated with tomato jam and yuzu kosho (a Japanese citrus-chili paste).
Going forward, the brothers are looking to introduce a tasting menu of five or six courses. While the hotel restaurant offers breakfast, they’re not behind that menu.
As for the dining room, it looks moneyed with its custom red Moleni stove, herb-covered private terrace, and floor-to-ceiling windows looking down on Gucci and other luxury shops below. Just how expensive was the buildout? “We have no idea,” Bryan says.
This is the brothers’ first hotel partnership, which gives them freedom to just concentrate on the plate. “They’re giving us everything we need to be able to just go back to focusing on cooking food,” Michael says.
“We don’t want to just drop this off,” Bryan adds. “We want to be very present.”
For a while, the Voltaggios had more than a dozen restaurants between the two of them. But over the last few years, most of them have shuttered, including Bryan’s Range and Lunchbox in Chevy Chase, four locations of Family Meal, and two locations Aggio. (His flagship fine dining restaurant, Volt, Family Meal in Frederick, and the casino steakhouse are his only local restaurants remaining.) In December, a Maryland court ruled that Bryan and his business partner Hilda Staples owed more than $3 million in unpaid rent and loan payments from their two Baltimore restaurants. Meanwhile, Michael closed his LA restaurant Ink.Well last year after just eight months.
“We were both like, ‘What the fuck are we doing right now? This doesn’t make any sense. We’re not doing anything well. We’re just doing a lot. We’re tired,'” Michael says. He explains that they grew their businesses too big without having the proper infrastructure around them.
Now though? Michael says they have time to do things properly and be happy about them. They still get a lot of offers for new ventures but are cautious.
“We learned a lot along the way to get to this point,” Bryan adds. “I don’t have any aspirations for doing much more than what we have right now.”
Estuary. 950 New York Ave., NW. (202) 844-5985.