Saturday, July 27, 2013

Inspired Volt - Restaurant Review

For those uninitiated to the Washington, D.C. food scene, here is a quick crib-notes primer: it's all about the chefs. Whereas in other big cities, foodies plan their nights out based on rankings, specific neighborhoods or types of cuisine, those in our nation's capital - and by extension the adjacent region - focus on the individuals at the helm.

The celebrity is the standard, from local to international to rising star. High-ends and dives, both ends of the spectrum are covered in various iterations and every publication from the Post to the Post's blog has been there for a review. But between these establishments and a never-ending chain of chain restaurants, there's very little gastronomic ground to tramp. Of course, the mom and pops and lesser-known local favorites exist, it's just not typically the route one takes to get culinary attention in this town.

This focus on the flare has its advantages. Competition between incredibly talented people is never a bad thing, and boundaries are often pushed with flavors, ingredients, presentation and ambiance. But luckily for anyone in need of an escape from The National Mall or the Halls of Congress, literal boundaries are also pushed as some of the areas top chefs venture outside the city.

Less than an hour north of Washington in the quaint, historic town of Frederick, Maryland, executive chef and Top Chef runner-up Bryan Voltaggio has set up shop in an old brownstone. From the outside, the semi-eponymous Volt elicits a rustic, historic charm that suggests countrystyle homecooking. But the sleek metal lettering above the door is a hint at the sleek modern vibe slicing throughout the restaurant's inside. The sharp lines and clean, minimalist coloring is surprisingly welcoming and comfortable. It is a combination of recognizable and modern that extends from the atmosphere to the menu.

I strolled along Frederick's North Market street on a Saturday morning, taking in the quaint shops and galleries before arriving at Volt for brunch. Immediately I noticed the courteous and professional waitstaff, all of them. Although we had one waiter dedicated to our table, the brunch crew worked together in a seamless team, clearing tables and delivering - and explaining - the food. Normally I would hesitate to compliment this style of service, as it can be less personal, but at Volt it worked, mainly in part to the friendliness of the staff and their absolute knowledge of the cuisine they were serving.

The brunch menu was divided into five-course, wine paired tasting menu for $55 and a three-course for $35. I chose the three-course tasting menu, perusing the options for each course with wonder.

With a spicy / sweet bloody mary in hand, I snatched a watermelon salad for the first course, while my wife chose a sourdough linguini with clams. While we waited, our waitress arrived with a basket of bread for us to choose from - cheese/chive biscuits and a hop roll made with the local Flying Dog brew took top billing and were offered again and again throughout the meal.

The watermelon salad was comprised of tender, sweet cubes of fruit, shaved serrano ham, greens and underneath it all - peanut butter. The combination was refreshing, light and summery. The peanut took it beyond a fruit salad, and worked surprisingly well with the watermelon, a complimenting sweetness rather than an over-abundance of it.

On the other side of the table, the linguini and clams could have been an entree had it been a larger portion. Simply put: it was delicious, one of the best linguini in clam sauce dishes I've ever eaten. It was a perfectly balanced salty/sweet bite, cut by a soft tang coming from the sourdough pasta.

The second course arrived, bringing a braised rabbit omelet and a pork belly and farm-fresh eggs over potatoes dish. The earthy rabbit meat was tender and shredded into the fluffy omelet, along with mushrooms and  cippolini onions. The yolk on eggs on the pork/potato dish glistened like tangerines, so obviously fresh from the look and the flavor. Pork belly is generally difficult to do well, given the challenges of cooking a piece of meat layered with thick fat. Volt had no such difficulty. The generous hunks were crisp in the the right places, but kept the meat itself tender and not chewy - a culinary feat in itself.

When all was said and done, the dessert course arrived. The chocolate marshmallow and frozen custard was indulgent and a sweet treat at the end of a hearty meal. But it was the meyer lemon dish that playfully danced between tradition and fantasy. On the menu the dish was described thusly: "Meyer lemon, white chocolate, ruby grapefruit, celery, bitter cocoa and cardamom." Celery? I thought it seemed like the odd man out in that flavor party. Instead, it was the life of it.

The plate had a smooth lemon sauce at the base, with white chocolate, bits of grapefruit and cookie. In the middle was a dollop of minty-green sorbet - celery flavored sorbet. I typically think of celery as being flavorless, or close to it. But Volt's chefs somehow, literally froze the very essence of the vegetable, which coincidentally was also sticking out of my bloody mary in its raw form. The basic, well-known taste hitting my tongue in an ice cream texture surely tilted my head into a "huh?" gesture. It was creative and worked so well with the lemon sauce and other textures and flavors, it ceased to be a vegetable and became an exquisite, memorable and unified bite.

As a recognizable chef, Voltaggio obviously represents some of the best the DC region has to offer. But out in Frederick, Volt stops being about the celebrity and quickly becomes a personal trek around interesting flavor combinations, originating from recognizable and fresh ingredients.

To cap the entire meal, our waitress delivered two complimentary, individually-wrapped coffee cakes as take-home gifts, adding, "now you have breakfast for tomorrow." We certainly did.

Next time you're in DC/Maryland/Virgnia, visit Volt at:

228 N Market St, Frederick, MD 21701(301) 696-8658

Sunday, July 21, 2013

BOSTON: All it's quacked up to be

Check out my article about my hometown of Boston in the July issue of Destinations Travel Magazine.
Read the full article at:

Boston is all it’s quacked up to be
By Michael Hartigan

When you know a dozen alternate routes, getting stuck in Boston traffic becomes a series of brake-pumping rage control tests. Then the quacking just makes it worse.

As a local Bostonian, I do not begrudge visitors for taking a Duck Boat tour, an amphibious excursion through Boston’s streets and waterways, past some of America’s greatest historical landmarks. Many big cities have these tourism vehicles in one form or another. I’d encourage it as a fun family excursion that incorporates bits of Boston’s living history and lively culture. The Duck Boats have become a part of the city’s tourism landscape, and as the transportation of choice for championship parades in Massachusetts, they hold certain sentimentality.

But no one I know born and raised within 26.2 miles of Copley Square ever boarded one. Sitting alongside one in traffic, my long-standing resolution to never get on a Duck Boat was reaffirmed each time the kid hanging out the side screamed, “quack” in my general direction.

Most visitors to The Hub walk the Freedom Trail, shop at Faneuil Hall and take in the view from the top of the Prudential Tower. Many hop on a Duck Boat. These are all good stops, but not necessarily how I would spend my time in Beantown.

Like any big city, the capital of Massachusetts has its fair share of sites to see. Like any good city, the locals know the ones worth seeing. One last glance at the kid in the Duck Boat, and I made a last minute decision to visit some of the city’s other gems.

With the energy of Boston’s own Paul Revere, I embarked on a trek through my city, gathering and heralding valuable information to be used for the good of our nation. Unlike Paul Revere, I first had to get out of traffic.

My first stop was the Museum of Fine Arts. I have visited museums around the world, from the Louvre to the Smithsonian, but Boston’s MFA remains a favorite.

The museum’s vast array of world-renowned pieces and lesser-known treasures runs the gamut from Egyptian artifacts to unique musical instruments. The MFA has a comfortable feeling of accessibility. It is big but not insurmountable, full but not oversaturated. The Impressionist paintings collection houses some of Monet’s and Renoir’s best.

The shiny and sprawling new American Art wing, opened in the past few years, highlights the best our nation has to offer, including a very appropriate selection of history-themed pieces.

Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley did many of my favorites, including 1778’s Watson and the Shark, which depicts a moody sea-scene where a man is being pulled into a rowboat, a shark’s razor-toothed jaws snapping at his heels. Perhaps Copley’s most famous is the portrait of Paul Revere, in which the subject cradles a piece of silverwork with a face full of curiosity and hint of mischief.

The wing also houses some of Paul Revere’s actual silver pieces, which you will see scattered throughout. Further along hangs another portrait of Paul Revere, this one from later in the silversmith’s life, showing a venerable, white-haired and stately patriot. In this 1813 painting, Gilbert Stuart provides a contrast in time for one of Boston’s historical heavy-hitters, but makes sure to include that distinctly mischievous look first depicted by Copley. 

When you’ve had you’re fill of trying to differentiate between Monet and Manet, you’re in prime location to indulge in another of Boston’s great tourist spots. Take a quick walk across the Fens to Yawkey Way, to the capital of Red Sox Nation.

With some of the highest ticket prices in Major League Baseball, seeing a Red Sox game at Fenway Park requires a combination of luck and a loose wallet. But even if the Sox aren’t in town, the park itself offers an opportunity to dive headfirst into baseball, and Boston, history. Taking a tour of Fenway Park will put you up close and personal with the famed Green Monster, Pesky’s Pole and every nook and cranny that makes this venerable stadium more than just a sports venue.

Particularly enjoyable is the broadcast booth and adjoining section where baseball beat reporters sit during games. High above home plate, these are the seats where they nit-pick batting stances, comb over pitching rotations and investigate dugout drama. In a city that devours sports, this is the 5-star kitchen cooking up the meal.

For a taste of Boston a step above a Fenway Frank, I and probably every guidebook will veer toward the North End on the other side of the city. A tightly packed brick playground for Italian grandmothers, Boston’s version of Little Italy has more recently gained ground as a residential area for young professionals (and a few sports celebrities).

Nevertheless, most every restaurant will offer you nothing short of home-cooked Italian meals. I have been going to Giacomo’s on Hanover Street since my days as a food critic for my high school newspaper. The line starts forming early evening at this small, tightly packed eatery but the sidewalk wait is a very fair price to pay for the fare inside. They specialize in seafood-based pasta dishes and a Frutti di Mare with the house’s unique Giacomo sauce, will explain why it’s so special. Smooth, with just the right balance of sweet and tang, the sauce compliments the array of shellfish perfectly, dragging your mind and belly to the Italian coast in each bite.

Across Hanover Street is the popular Mike’s Pastry, which boasts its own long line. But you don’t need to wait when around the corner at 134 Salem Street is Bova’s Bakery. Bova’s offers some of the most delicious Italian pastries in the city, twenty-four hours a day.

Near the North End on the northern outskirts of the city is Charlestown, home to the Charlestown Navy Yard and the U.S.S. Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides. The ship is a living legend and the U.S. Navy officers manning her from top to bottom are a stark reminder of our country’s adherence to loyalty and duty. A free tour of the ship gives an intimate look at the lifestyle aboard during the early 1800s. Last year Old Ironsides celebrated the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the engagement that made her famous.

Outside the shipyard, at the start of the walking path opposite the venerable vessel hides a small piece of American history. There lies a rock with a plaque signifying the spot where Paul Revere came ashore to begin his famous midnight ride notifying the people that the British were coming.

Boston certainly offers an array of art, food, history and culture. There is one spot that brings it all together in one sweeping panorama.

Across the Charles River on the Cambridge side Memorial Drive runs almost parallel with the river. On most days, the green space along the water is filled with joggers, walkers and bikers. Most every person along the river is there in as much for the breathtaking panoramic city skyline as they are for the outdoor activity.

At riverside, the entire breadth of the City of Boston undulates from the harbor, over Beacon Hill and the gleaming golden-domed Statehouse, over the John Hancock tower and the Prudential before stepping down to the Citgo sign and bright lights of Fenway Park. On a good day, the white sailboats and collegiate crew teams bring the river to life, creating a moving piece of art worthy of a hall in the MFA.

This is Boston, tip to tail, past and present all in one eyeful. Sprinkled amongst those skyscrapers and brownstones are a few places, some touristy and some not, stamped and approved by the locals.

I was about to turn back to my car and shoot down Memorial Drive, which also happens to be one of those alternate routes I sometimes use to avoid Boston traffic. As fate would have it, a Duck Tour boat chugged past along the river.

Maybe that would be a nice way to see the city. And then I remembered the quacking.

It looks nice, but I knew of a few other things I’d like to do.  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Disney World: Making magic for big kids

The following was printed in the MetroWest Daily News on July 11, 2013.

Every 5-year-old dreams of visiting Mickey’s house. But what happens when Mom and Dad get a yearning to escape reality? The destination doesn’t have to differ.

Walt Disney World may just be the happiest place on earth for kids of all ages; even those who don’t really expect to act childish. The collection of famous theme parks and resorts that put Orlando, Fla., on the map (and every child’s wish list) specializes in removing its visitors, young and old, from the trappings of everyday life. This means deftly balancing equal parts kiddie rides and a full-on indulgence for adults.

If you step back from the princesses and space rangers, a different Disney comes into focus. This is the Disney that harkens to the 20- and 30-year-olds who grew up hooked on classic Disney flicks, each one holding a special place in their nostalgia for Simba, Belle and Aladdin. All they had to do was weave in some adults-only attractions, sprinkle on some magic pixie dust and — poof! — big kids come pouring in.

It may not be apparent at first, but Walt Disney World truly is a destination for anyone without children. Foodies can take advantage of some top-notch restaurants. Relaxation-seekers can indulge in some serious pampering at various spas. And for those looking for thrills, Disney has created some surprisingly exciting rides.

There are ways to avoid frustration and lines. Visit in May or September, before school ends or after it begins, and not during the school vacation or summer swamp-sweat season. Use your time wisely by taking advantage of early park openings and late park closings, which typically are offered as "Extra Magic Hours" to guests staying on-property. And of course, snatch up Fast Pass line-cutting stubs.

The real treats for adults are no secret. They’re right there in plain sight, next to the teacup ride and turkey leg vendors. However, you won’t see every family of five skipping off to partake. Golf, for example, is one way to escape the castles and pirate ships, unless of course you’re mini-golfing.
But there are many experiences at Walt Disney World that make a big-kid trip a magical experience. 

Dining can be hit or miss in Disney World, with generally more hits than misses. Follow one general rule: eat at hotel restaurants over parks, unless absolutely necessary. EPCOT countries have their moments, but even there you must choose wisely. Germany and Mexico offer tasty, authentic fare, but China isn’t so lucky.

The best dining experience in Disney World is more geared toward Mom and Dad than Junior. Most would rate Victoria and Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa the top spot for fine dining. A AAA Five-Diamond Award recipient, the classic ambiance and expertly prepared modern American dishes make it a destination in itself.

For something more reasonably priced, head to the Boardwalk for the Flying Fish, a charming and energetic seafood restaurant that pairs the ambiance of the Boardwalk outside with delicious, colorful ocean-based dishes.

The high-quality fare provided at both of these restaurants is a nice departure from the theme park vendors and mouse-shaped snacks.

After a long day at the Magic Kingdom, take a short walk next door to Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Perched atop is the California Grill, a contemporary (obviously) restaurant serving modern takes on West Coast dishes, inspired by wine country and everything else that region has to offer. From sushi to steaks, California Grill is a high-quality meal in a fantasy setting, with panoramic views all around of the Magic Kingdom and the sprawling Disney property. It’s like eating your way through EPCOT’s California-themed ride Soarin’.

The real treat, though, comes with just a little planning. Time your reservation (and definitely make a reservation) with the Magic Kingdom fireworks. Whether from your table or from California Grill’s outside roof walk, the nightly extravaganza of colors will seem to be exploding just for you.

Currently in the final stages of renovation, California Grill will reveal a new look later this summer when it is slated to reopen for business.

Across the lagoon from the Contemporary is The Polynesian Resort, world-class by day and hip-shaking by night. Partake in the authentic luau or dine at the Ohana, serving tasty courses family style, on skewers roasted just steps away on massive open-flame grills. Wash it all down with a Mai Thai, served in cups the size of bowling balls that require a solid two-hand grip. A lot of alcohol gets packed into these behemoth beverages, but the tangy-sweet taste transports you from mimicked Hawaii to real Polynesia. Even if you aren’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt, you’ll feel like you are; even if you don’t know how to hula, you’ll try to.

How can you grab a margarita in Mexico, sake in Japan, wine in Italy and a frozen cocktail in France all in one night? Walk briskly. EPCOT was built as the community of tomorrow, but while we’re all waiting for the future, why not have a drink?

The trick to the EPCOT around-the-world is to start early. Pick a country, say France, because it is easily accessible and right over the bridge from the back entrance. Locate its alcohol dispensary, typically a cart, kiosk, bar or pub, and begin the journey.

Stroll your way around to other countries like Italy, which has a wine bar that specializes in the exceptional Banfi wine collection. Japan recently opened a new sake bar and almost every adult in Mexico is carrying an oversized frozen margarita. The German beer garden is a rollicking, raucous good time, complete with an oompa brass band, long tables and hefty steins of lip-smacking German brew.

End the day in the United Kingdom’s pub, sipping an ale next to tired dads who just "ran to the bathroom."

For a unique take on Disney World’s theme park rides, make sure you aren’t lined up on Main Street or around the EPCOT lake just before dark. Why? Because Disney parades are the best thing to happen to adults at Disney World since they started selling alcohol in souvenir cups. Not because of the twinkling lights and dancing movie characters, but because of the vacuum-like effect the parades have on ride lines.

Of course, this is not a fool-proof tip, but it proves true in many instances and is worth a shot regardless of what time of year you’re visiting. When the parades rev up in a Disney park, head for the big-kid rides.

If it is a nighttime parade, all the better. You haven’t seen Disney until you’ve seen it at twilight from the top of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror; or teetering at the pinnacle of Splash Mountain about to plunge into darkness; or screaming around corners of Thunder Mountain while shadows creep over the track. When the masses get distracted and the sun goes down, Disney takes on an even more surreal atmosphere than normal.

When you need a break, tuck into one of the premier spas dotted around the Disney World property. As with most anything here, Disney caters to the client and offers packages to fit most anyone’s desires. There are many high-end choices for pampering, with perhaps the most well known being the spa at Disney’s Grand Floridian. But the zen-like Mandara at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel and the traditionally exquisite Spa at Disney’s Saratoga Springs sure do the trick. In a place that specializes in removing its visitors from reality, these corners of heaven take it one step further.

To cap off a day of relaxation, stroll along the boardwalk at Disney’s Boardwalk Resort, designed to resemble the beach towns of the old Northeast. At night, carnival games with prize hawkers stir up some nostalgia. Food vendors pump tantalizing aromas along the boards and the lighthouse across the lagoon at Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club boat dock tips a cap to New England.
Lined with restaurants and shops, it is the perfect place to end an evening in a way that is very rare in Disney World – free. It doesn’t cost anything to peruse the boardwalk.
All good Disney World experiences remove you from reality, especially the big kid ones. Work doesn’t reach you here; neither does the headline news. The real world can wait because in the happiest place on earth, you’re always just a kid at heart.

If you go
Where to stay:
Disney has so many possibilities, but check out the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin. It is on the Disney property in a spectacular location near EPCOT, offers most of the same perks as other Disney resorts, but is run by Starwood resorts and thus can sometimes offer discounts not available through Disney.
Where to eat:
Victoria & Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
Flying Fish at Disney’s Boardwalk
Ohana at Disney’s Polynesian Resort
California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort
Reservations are recommended for sit-down dining at any restaurant in Walt Disney World, at any time of year. For reservations at any Disney World restaurant, call 407-WDW-DINE. Be sure to book early, months in advance if possible. But if you must book at the last minute, the operators are typically very helpful with finding you a table somewhere.
For more information about Walt Disney Word, visit