By Amanda McDougall - 10/13/11 10:27 PM EDT
Going rogue in Washington seems to be trendy these days — not just for politicians, but for chefs, too. Chef RJ Cooper conceptualized his new restaurant, Rogue 24, to be the exception to many “rules” of dining in D.C.
To begin with, there is no menu. You choose between a 24-course or 16-course meal at the time of the reservation (the restaurant’s website is updated weekly with the menu, though it’s fairly vague). What comes to the table is at the whim of Cooper and his team; a printed menu isn’t presented until the end of the meal — more like memorabilia than anything else. And unlike any other restaurant in D.C., upon reserving a table, the reservationist emails a form to be filled out detailing your menu choice, dietary restrictions and credit card information (cancellations must be made 72 hours in advance to avoid charges).
Unlike the restaurant’s location, the kitchen inside of it is anything but hidden; it’s placed prominently, in the middle of the dining room, an arena stage of culinary arts. Instead of being the wizard behind the curtain, Cooper acts as an on-stage director and occasional server — mingling with his guests was a primary reason for the centrally placed kitchen.
His staff of 10 or so cooks work quietly and diligently, arranging each item on a dish just so. Don’t expect a flashy show of flaming pans, roiling pots and hot-headed cooks firing off orders and insults. This is a quiet and controlled kitchen performance. White clouds billow up from liquid nitrogen and a hand-held smoker every so often, and long-stemmed tweezers gleam in the light as garnishes are precisely placed.
So much of the experience of dining at Rogue 24 is the anticipation: What’s coming next? Will it be that little glass cloche filled with woodsy smoke or that tiny porcelain pedestal with something golden and crispy-looking on top? Rogue intentionally divests its diners of control over their meal, and that’s what makes it exciting and almost unparalleled in this city.
Each dish is precious, not only in its size but also in its careful and artistic presentation. Some items are served on 4-by-4-inch slate slabs, in tiny glass fishbowls, or on flat, black silicon placemats. The serving vessels are just as noteworthy as the food itself. Cooper’s culinary sensibility at Rogue is unambiguously modern — you see gels, foams, airs and soils throughout the meal — but the flavors are firmly rooted in the familiar, and some are downright homey.
A trilogy of “snacks” starts the meal; the standout was the head-cheese croquette with bacon powder, mustard and pickled wax beans. It was crispy, fatty, salty, smoky and tangy all in a single bite.
One of the more intellectual dishes was described as “recreating the sea floor.” Plated by the chefs at your table on a black silicone mat, it’s gilded with sea urchin, crunchy black “lava rocks” made with squid ink, pickled seaweed, bright orange Clamato fluid gel (representing coral) and sea beans, and crowned with a wisp of bubbly “sea air.” If it sounds strange, put aside your seaweed bias and give it a try; it really does taste like the ocean.
Cooper counterbalances his more daring dishes with light-hearted plays on classics, like the Fried Rice Special #2, a handheld fishbowl of puffed rice with dehydrated vegetables and chunks of duck. It’s supremely crunchy and fun to eat (think fried rice in cereal form), but could perhaps use a bit more duck meat for added lushness.
Another envelope-pushing dish was the Fowl Play, in which a raw quail yolk sits in a nest of smoked corn silks studded with turkey bacon and chicharrones; it’s served under a small glass cloche that releases trapped smoke upon arrival. Cooper is tapping into experiential dining with this one, when a dish takes you back to a specific time and/or place. This combination takes you straight to a lodge breakfast, camping, a fireside morning.
Another delightful morning reference is a one-bite version of French toast, coming in the form of a slice of miniature brioche loaf decked with a quenelle of caramelized onion ice cream and superbly crisped bacon surfing on top. It’s something you’ll want any time of day.
A foie gras dish was a marvel on its own, paired with lavender meringues, duck glace (highly reduced stock) and huckleberry puree. The fatty liver was frozen and then shaved over the dish, creating small sheets of impossibly thin foie that melted in your mouth. The interplay of floral, sweet, tart, fatty and rich meat flavors were nothing short of remarkable.
The most substantial dish, at three or four bites, is the lamb neck. Along with the foie gras, it’s been a staple menu item since the restaurant opened in late July, and for good reason. The meat is succulent and yielding with just a light lamb flavor that perfectly takes to the accompanying yogurt, lemon compote, eggplant puree, candied sesame seeds and black garlic.
Not every dish is a culinary revelation, but each one is unique, intriguing and worth the adventure. Perhaps the parmesan marshmallow noodles were too sweet, but where else can you try puffy cords of marshmallow dusted with grated parmesan and paired with a tomato gelee and white truffle shavings?
No doubt Cooper is brave, if not brazen, to launch such a high-concept, high-ticket restaurant in this economy, but if you’ve got the cash and guts for molecular gastronomy, Rogue 24 is a must-try.