Counter Intelligence

A Top Chef on the Farm

Posted in District of Columbia by melissamccart on September 16, 2009

Top Chef contestant Bryan Voltaggio of Volt at Whitmore FarmDespite the rain in the District, last night’s Volt dinner at Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Maryland could not have been more lovely. Storm clouds bypassed the goings-on outside the stunning, refurbished home from the 1700’s, where owner and farmer Will Morrow hosted a nine courses dinner for nearly 40 people prepared by Top Chef contestant, Bryan Voltaggio and his staff.

Bryan showcased a parade of canapes– including the avocado meringue that earned him a win earlier this season, though my favorite first bite was between a tempura sweetbread garnished with rice wine vinegar infused raisins, or the thinly sliced lamb heart served atop farro.

Morrow gave the green light for Voltaggio to set up as close to a professional kitchen as I’ve ever seen, in a workspace adjacent to the barn, with enough table space for two rows of 20 plates, industrial ovens, and a separate area for  dishwashing.  Framing the line were fun farm reminders, like the half dozen pairs of wellies hanging from the ceiling, stacks of hay in a corner, and a row of yellow slickers on hooks. Voltaggio tweeted the event, here.



Dining Magellans

Posted in District of Columbia by melissamccart on September 10, 2009

Something that’s often neglected in food writing is the importance of how we eat, not just what and where. I’m not talking about protein/carb/veggie or organic and local versus anything else. I’m talking more about an attitude, the way we approach a restaurant or a meal. When dining companions are milquetoast or less than enthusiastic, it affects everyone else’s dining experience at the table. It can change a restaurant experience from technicolor to grey.

I’m not saying to be insincere if something isn’t up to par. I’m celebrating people I’ve eaten with with whose joie de vivre makes an experience infinitely better. Their knowledge and enthusiasm helps transform a meal, a restaurant, and evening into something magical.

Two examples. After going to H Mart for an article with Scott Drewno of The Source, he suggested we hit up Four Sisters for lunch. Drewno hovered over his pho like a mad scientist, adjusting flavors with lime, Thai basil, salt, hot chilis, pepper, bean sprouts, and sriracha (Apparently it’s only lay people who call it rooster sauce or cock sauce.)  Even the waiter caught Drewno’s enthusiasm, shifting gears to recommend things he loved rather than dishes that were safe. Our dining adventure for three people was eight dishes long. I ate shrimp heads, burned my taste buds off with chilis, and I was introduced to new dishes I now love but would never have explored, despite that I’m an adventurous eater. Drewno’s enthusiasm and sense of adventure has infused in every trip I’ve made to Four Sisters since.

Another industry person whose attitude I admire from afar is Mark Kuller, owner of Proof. When I was at (–here we are again) The Source for a Chinese banquet lunch, Kuller showed up with a companion for a lunch stopover of Singapore street noodles and Thai noodles since, “they’re the best in town.” I love that he’s so tuned in to what the best dish is at his destination restaurant, be it noodles from Drewno or roast chicken at Palena. Dining with someone like Kuller is fun because you’re seeing the strengths of the chef and are bound to be pleased.  He, in particular, is a foodie Magellan.

My next craving is dim sum brunch or Korean with Kay and Dean Gold of Dino. They organize outings over on And their posts about their adventures are downright inspiring.

What do you look for in dining companions? And do they shape your experience or am I making too much of it?

Apple Season

Posted in District of Columbia by melissamccart on September 3, 2009

This morning’s poem on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac is Joyce Sutphen’s “Apple Season,” a reminder of fall along with the lovely cool mornings this week.

Is it apple season yet? I haven’t yet meandered toward anything apple at the farmer’s market yet, aside from Loic’s Feillet’s delicious apple turnovers at the 14th and U farmer’s market on Saturdays. 

For this weekend, anyway, I’m planning on enjoying the last days of summer’s bounty. What’s on your docket for Labor Day weekend eats?