The Gist: Taken directly from the website because I couldn’t possibly sum it up better myself, “Rogue 24 is all about the unexpected…to wildly imaginative dishes and the theater-like setup where the kitchen acts as a culinary stage. Rogue 24 exemplifies thinking outside the box, exploring possibilities while maintaining the fundamentals of classic cooking techniques honed in centuries of home and commercial kitchens. The culinary team applies advanced kitchen technologies and equipment to classic dishes to create a new way of looking at food.”
The Why: During my May 2010 visit to the Nation’s Capital I took a chance on a 24-Course menu from a chef I knew only a little about – RJ Cooper at Vidalia. That night, served by RJ and one assistant at what was essentially a modified table in the lounge myself and seven other guests experienced the brilliance that would blossom into Rogue 24 and subsequent to that visit I would also get to know RJ more as we chatted and e-mailed, often about food and equally frequently about the Buckeyes and Wolverines. In a trip that included meals at CityZen, Citronelle, Restaurant Eve, The Inn at Little Washington, Volt Table 21, and more it was Vidalia 24 that stood out and it was only my work and travel schedule that had prevented me from going Rogue for so long.
The Reservation: Okay, so here is the part where I disclose that this whole meal was on the house. Why, you might ask? Well, because RJ Cooper is an unfortunate optimist who likes to bet dinner on the Michigan Wolverines. In theory he still owes me a dinner in DC – purportedly at minibar – but I’ll save that rant for another time (let’s just say their reservation policy is not as egalitarian as they’d like to pretend) and simply say that while I did not have to deal with the reservations policy and did not receive a bill I left an appropriate tip and was treated identically to the tables surrounding me…aside from, getting an extra earful of harassment from the Chef.
The Space: Admitting that Blagden Alley is not exactly the most glamorous locale in Washington DC the area certainly doesn’t seem as ‘dangerous’ as many have claimed…as a matter of fact, I saw far fewer vagrants hanging around Rogue than I did the prior night at Elisir and with free parking (or Valet) readily available the best way to describe the setting is ‘industrial’ – no different than Saison in San Francisco or Publican in Chicago – and much better lit than either.
Getting past the location and walking through the door in the wooded façade the first thing one sees is the hostess stand and lounge, the former occupied by a pleasant young woman who confirmed my reservation and the later filled with wooden furniture, leather seating, and various flowers and gadgetry. Beyond this – the restaurant – a space that without lie or bias I can say is the coolest restaurant layout I’ve ever seen…the kitchen literally in the center of the room with tables on all sides providing a true sense of dining theater unlike even the best “kitchen tables” or “chef’s counters.”
All stainless steel, ovens, burners, steamers, and prep stations at the center with brick walls and custom lamps overhead the diner is next sat at sturdy wooden tables sans tablecloth where the choice of focus is one of two things – your dining partner or the kitchen itself, a kitchen where RJ works, roams, mentors, and mingles seamlessly acting as chef, teacher, host, and occasional server. With a bar at the back and mixologists crafting up cocktails for the lounge and dining room plus a soundtrack rife with the Strokes, Stones, Who, White Stripes, and Johnny Cash the space is lively but not loud – a place where you can get totally lost in the full experience without feeling overwhelmed by any single detail, station, or person. For me, it is the perfect restaurant for a solo diner and a great place for anyone who truly wants to see how a professional kitchen really works – there are no secrets here and no place to hide.
The Service: I’ll admit I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to service at a restaurant with Rogue 24’s price point – I’m the sort of person who likes a captain with one to two servers in his/her brigade and this is largely due to my attention to detail regarding plate presentations as well as the idea of getting a ‘feel’ for your server. Obviously such a setup is difficult to accommodate in a setting like that on Blagden Alley not only due to the sheer volume of courses but also due to the layout of the room and as such Chef Cooper has found a way around it – by making sure that every single person who delivers a plate, from the hostess to the pastry chef to the kid working stage, presents the dish with thorough description of sourcing and technique along with a smile and some whimsy. To me, the service was Alinea with a little more tongue-in-cheek and my primary ‘captain’ (though I have no idea if they use such terms at Rogue) was a delight…it felt like everyone working there loved working there and watching all of the tables around me the mood was contagious – everyone seemed to be having a great time.
The Food: The reason the restaurant is called Rogue 24 is the 24-course menu entitled “The Journey,” a $135 chef’s tasting whose low cost defies logic. The diner is additionally offered a variety of beverage pairings to go with the menu and having heard many persons with far greater tolerance than I state that they left rather inebriated I asked to have a mix of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages totaling 3 drinks worth of alcohol delivered over the course of the subsequent 4 hours.
Drink 1: R24 Cream Soda with Madagascar Vanilla and Caramel: Served to me in the lounge while I waited for my table to be readied it was here that I knew a mixed pairing would be just fine. Sweet yet just a touch savory from the addition of pickled cherries and with bubbles more befitting champagne than soda plus fancy ice cubes this was my favorite non-alcoholic beverage of the meal (and I’d see it again later as part of the pairings.)
Drink 2: Smoked Cola with Hickory and Lime: Making quick work of the Cream Soda as I waited in the lounge and talked with RJ about the Kings ongoing run to the Stanley Cup my second beverage would not quite measure up to the first but this was probably only because I really love cream soda. Featuring those same bubbles, ice cubes, and steel straw this ‘cola’ was not dissimilar to lime coke, but with the added nuance of woodsy notes the flavor was almost boozy like a rum and coke without the buzz. If I had this sort of kitchen gadgetry at home I’d be smoking all my diet colas daily.
Pairing 1: Rosewater with Hibiscus and Lemon: With herbal infusions all the rage at many fine dining establishments and rosewater often tasting soapy to me I met this drink with a touch of trepidation but after taking a sip to acclimate I was admittedly impressed by the restraint shown in the florals – a slight linger on the palate after a punchy lemonade front side.
Course 1: Compressed Melon/Meringue/Cracklings: Served as ‘snacks’ this trio of bites consisted of a compressed musk melon stuffed with whipped parmesan, a slice of crispy iberco ham, and a slice of green almond at the right, a crispy Pork Rind with Detroit BBQ Spice at the center, and a tomato macaron with white truffle furthest left. Sweet with salty, salty with a touch of heat, and finally acid and umami you could call these canapés or an amuse – either way they were complicated, flavorful, and a great opening volley (they also would have cost $4-5 each at The Aviary in Chicago.)
Course 2: Madai/Lime/Coconut/Ginger/Tapioca/Coriander: Served with tweezers this plate, perhaps best classified as an amuse following the canapés, was a great glimpse of what was to come in terms of complexity, balance and nuance. Beginning at its base with a smooth and lean slice of fish and subsequently accenting with frothy coconut milk with hints of ginger, chili, and lime plus cilantro and crunchy puffs of tapioca it touched on so many tastes and textures at once that one only wished there was more than a single bite of this Thai inspired Tai.
Pairing 2: Cuvee No 734 Champagne Jacquesson: An obvious choice for caviar you’ll never hear me complain about good champagne and this one, requested as a small pour, was rich and acidic with just a touch of fruit that worked beautifully with the only dish with which it was paired.
Course 3: Sturgeon/Osetra/Cucumber: Having had something similar at Vidalia 24 this impressive portion of briny Osetra was delivered over cucumber gelee and smoked sturgeon alongside a toasty brioche roll rife with butter. Generally not one to fancy smoked fish I will simply say here that when done right, as it was here, I could certainly get used to it – it was so mild, so tender, and so flavorful that had RJ not told me I’d have assumed it was king crab just as it is at Joel Robuchon. Once again, I really have no idea how they are making money charging $135 for this menu.
Pairing 3: Riesling Lactart/Pickled Grapes: Composed to compliment the next three courses this drink was described as sweet Riesling cooked down to syrup and mixed with soda water plus pickled grapes to form a flavor reminiscent of the Alsatian wine minus the booze and while I’m certainly not an expert on wines, regions, or Rieslings the slight sweetness, impressive minerality, and rich mouth feel were quite dramatic.
Course 4: Urchin/Ink/Lardo/Squid/Bread: Read the ingredients and I’m rather certain you can guess just how good and just how umami laden this dish was. Featuring squid ink soaked bread, creamy urchin draped in lardo, clamato Gel, a firefly squid, and something my server referred to as “sea air” this was one of the best dishes of the night – an assault of brine at first that slowly gave way to a sweet gossamer finish.
Course 5: Ox Heart/Strawberry/Smoked Mustard/Ice Fungus: In a meal with two dozen courses I guess it should come as no surprise that one simply did not work for me, and this one was it. Clearly focused on the interplay of tastes, textures, and temperatures with the offal shredded, the strawberry a silky potage, and the mustard an ice cream while the fungus and mustard seeds were presented in their natural state this was simply too ‘mustardy’ for me – a dominant flavor that overshadowed the rest to the point where the ox heart could have been any protein confit and the strawberry just came off as a non-descript sweetness.
Course 6: Scallop/Peas/Vanilla/Lemon: Moving back to dishes that wowed (and continuing this pretty much through the rest of the savories, this squared dish reminded me of Guy Savoy’s “Peas all Around” in that it took the simple pea and truly explored all that it can be. Comprised of a pea veloute, a spheriphication of pea juice, dressed pea tendrils, and fresh English peas garnished with vanilla, salt, pepper, and finally a grilled scallop plus “mint air” there was no part of the palate that went unaddressed; a beautiful dish both on the plate and on the tongue and a deft juxtaposition of classic skills and cutting edge techniques.
Pairing 4: Bombs Over Blagden: A play on both an Outkast song and the Irish Car Bomb this two part drink consisted of a shot of John O’Sullivan Irish Whisky with Caribbean Sunset Tea Spheriphication alongside a Vermouth Cocktail with Allspice Dram, Orange Bitters, and simple Syrup. Not a whisky drinker by any stretch of the imagination and also not keen on the alcoholic kick of Vermouth I tasted each separately – bitter and slightly less bitter – before pouring the shot into the cocktail and finding by some miracle that the flavor was mellowed slightly and even juicy, aromatic, and pleasant despite still being very bitter. Interesting, and best enjoyed in very small sips, it did go nicely with the majority of what followed.
Course 7: Tuna/Avocado/Fried Rice/Smoked Chili: A unique spin on sushi, this brightly colored dish featured supple tuna tartare wrapped in compressed avocado and topped with wild rice fried to crisp and then completed the composition with “smoked chili” paste, sriracha mayo, and finally a wasabi leaf giving the whole plate a lingering burn that much to my surprise worked point and counterpoint with the cocktail with each mellowing the other and giving rise to smokiness in the fish and sweetness in the drink.
Course 8: Foie Gras/Mango/Benne/Sesame: To the best of my knowledge benne is just another name for white sesame seeds but whatever the case may be, this was shaved foie gras served over a sort of black and white sesame seed crumble along with a few dots of mango puree adding just a bit of sweetness. Light but full of flavor it really does not take much to wow me with foie gras and the impressive bitter/sweet and crunchy/creamy juxtapositions worked very well.
Course 9: Mushroom/Asparagus/Parmesan: One bite, and probably the best single bite item of the meal, this dish featured an earthy chanterelle mushroom crackling topped with chopped morels, sautéed asparagus, and a dusting of sharp parmesan. Earthy, vegetal, and the very definition of umami I could have eaten a bowl of these sort of chips.
Course 10: Crab/Rice/Blood Orange: The entry to double digits proved to be another dish where one flavor unfortunately seemed to overwhelm the others, though not quite to the same degree as the mustard dish. Featuring tender and sweet Chesapeake Bay crab over creamy Chawanmushi with puffed forbidden rice and “jasmine rice air” adding texture and aromatics, respectively, my first bite of this dish was excellent but having neglected to fully mix the composition subsequent bites were largely nothing but citrus, an effect of both powdered orange zest and blood orange gel. Generally not one to fancy shellfish with strong citrus components I’m sure part of the unbalance of this dish was my own palate and pattern of consumption, but it probably also could have done without the intensely tangy powder/zest.
Pairing 5: Jasmine Rooibos Tea: Having stuck largely to water and tiny sips of the B.O.B. during the previous four courses this was a nice change of pace – nothing fancy, just really good tea, unsweetened, and served hot.
Course 11: Tomato/Suspended Garnishes: An interesting dish in its execution and a delicious dish in its flavor this semi-solid shot of tomato, chive, thyme, and watermelon was something like a tomato gazpacho with a bit more sucrose and with a texture not dissimilar to an posset I particularly liked the presentation – a true work of art.
Course 12: Potato/Ocean Grass/Rouille/Mussel: A spin on moules frites this clever presentation placed two briny mussels in a sort of glass ash tray and paired them with a sauce of olive oil, garlic, saffron, and chilis while an orb of purple potato accented with crunchy ocean grass and breadcrumbs for texture served as the ‘frites’ component. Non-traditional to be sure but buttery, briny, and aromatic in spades this was another highly successful dish that additionally went very well with the herbal earthiness of the tea.
Pairing 6: No Gin ‘n’ Tonic: I like gin but was already feeling the previous alcoholic beverages and as such this reduction of gin syrup with lemon and orange oil, juniper berry, bay leaf, and fever-tree tonic was quite welcome. Apparently made much like the Riesling Lactart and again “boozy without the buzz” I particularly liked the use of bay leaf, a liberal aromatic note on the palate that served to meld the bitter and the citrus without muting either.
Course 13: Dover Sole/Brandade/Lemon/Squash: My favorite dish of the evening (if not of the entire trip) was a tender strip of Dover Sole simply prepared in a pan and presented on a large white plate atop brandade pudding with a light garnish of squash blossoms, shredded summer truffle, and confit of lemon. Generally not wowed by sole as I find it somewhat bland and almost always overwhelmed by its sauce (whether butter, mustard, or otherwise) this presentation took the fish to a whole new level by instead exploring its subtleties – at times herbal, at times sweet, and even by forcing it to be ‘fishy’ with the brandade. It was inspired, it was beautiful, and if served in the ‘whole’ sole format that so many restaurants use when serving this fish I’d happily pay the $135 tab for this dish alone.
Course 14: Gyro/Tzatziki/Cucumber/Butter Lettuce: A one bite wrap wearing its influences on its sleeve this dish consisted of a piece of crunchy lettuce cupping lamb tartare, Tzatziki espuma, zatar, and finally a cucumber blossom. A play on expectations the flavor said gyro while the texture and temperature harkened salad – a light and refreshing bite well placed between two of the more substantial courses of the night.
Course 15: Asparagus/Porcini/White Chocolate: Described as “Soup and salad” by RJ and then elaborated on by my captain this dish featured a salad at center and a soup chaser, the first an exploration of white asparagus featuring blanched white asparagus beneath an asparagus chip and asparagus “air” along with emulsified olive oil and grilled porcini and the second a creamy porcini veloute topped with white chocolate foam, and chive oil. Earthy and aromatic yet surprisingly light the focus of this dish seemed to be the contrast of textures but at the same time I’d be remiss not to mention my shock at how delicious the soup – flavors I’d never dreamed of pairing – was.
Pairing 7: Orange Bitter, Vermouth, Pickled Cherries, Scotch: Clearly the mixologist was having a ‘bitter’ sort of night and having already mentioned my personal tastes it goes without saying that this drink was a challenge for me – much like Bombs over Blagden small sips were key and most went back to the kitchen unconsumed.
Course 16: Pigeon/Bull’s Blood/Onion/Nasturtium: Next to the Sole this was my second favorite dish of the evening as half a pigeon was presented alongside accoutrements including beets, green strawberries, sorrel, nasturtium, and Vidalia onion marmalade in a low bowl. With the breast skin crisp while the meat remained tender, the leg a sort of confit disc, and offal including the heart providing a light but notable gamy sapor each bite of this dish was a bit different than the last but all were excellent and the heft of it stood up admirably to the pairing.
Course 17: Araucana Egg/Migas/Bacon Bouillon/Flowers: If you know me or have ever dined with me you know how I feel about egg based dishes, particularly those in a broth or porridge, and this one was no different. Featuring a “63 Degree” Egg – perfect and runny – in a broth of garlic, pimenton, alfalfa, and pork harkening the traditional Spanish flavors of migas and touched with a small spoonful of breadcrumbs this was at once comfort food and fine dining, an ethnic classic all gussied up but maintaining its flavors – a recurring theme from the talented and diverse kitchen staff.
Course 18: Carrots/Terrarium: Much like the soup and salad dish after some hefty protein dishes this elegant dish came at a perfect time and served in a sort of half glass it featured smoked carrots amongst earthy colors, shapes, and textures created from crushed hazelnut “soil,” orange gel, green goddess ice cream, and the carrot’s greens dressed in light vinaigrette. Not wanting to repeat the mistake of the crab dish given the orange gel I made sure to mix this dish thoroughly and the results were beautiful, a highly vegetal mélange with sweetness, bitterness, acid, and earth all in equilibrium.
Pairing 8: R24 Cream Soda with Madagascar Vanilla and Caramel: A return from my beverage in the lounge, just as good the second time.
Course 19: Snails/Ham/Potato/Duxelle: In a word, rich. In two words – really rich as plump Burgundy snails and fragrant morel duxelle swam in savory ham consommé topped with potato espuma and foam rife with the essence of buttery baked potatoes. Small in portion but enormous in flavor this was another standout and probably the most “French” dish in an evening that spanned globally.
Course 20: Ox Tail/Artichoke/Sorrel/Onion: And speaking of rich, there was this – the final savory of the evening as my captain would inform me – where shredded and braised ox tail met with cipolini onions, a puree of artichoke and sorrel, and various micro greens. Collagenous but muscular, rife with flavor, and just enough as I neared the fourth hour of my meal and the combination of food and fluid was becoming quite substantial even for myself.
Course 21: Rogue Blue/Kumquat/Almond/Apple: A logical cheese course both in name and progression this intense and creamy cow’s milk blue was served up on a glass tile with a wide ranging list of accoutrements including apple and kumquat preserves, pistachios pralines, almonds, and a tiny gougere – each flavorful on their own and each nicely complimenting the complex fromage with the pralines particularly acting to accent deeper woodsy notes while the fruits brought forth subtle sweetness.
Pairing 9: “The Dude”: Yes, seriously, a drink inspired by The Big Lebowski, and the best of the night for my palate featuring a boozy concoction of coffee infused Brandy, orange Curacao, sweetened condensed milk, and salted cream foam. Call it a fussy White Russian or just call it delicious – I abided.
Course 22: Lemon/Marshmallow: As you don’t get a copy of the menu until night’s end I’d originally thought this was the last dish of the evening but clearly having lost count this was actually the first of two desserts and featuring a squiggle of lemon curd atop bruleed marshmallow foam and shaved candied nuts plus a toasted honey crisp top the end result was that of a smooth lemon tart complete with toasted meringue – deconstructed but delicious.
Course 23: Coffee/Cream/Caramel/Hazelnut: Never one to be satisfied by a fruity dessert this thick glass bowl would arrive from the pastry kitchen and perhaps inappropriately expecting the typical chocolate conclusion I was surprised to instead receive an elegant presentation of hazelnut praline, milk sorbet, milk foam, and caramel chocolate sauce alongside a golden nugget of coffee cremieux. Rich and creamy – a dynamic take on the caramel macchiato – it was a great end that I only wish would have come alongside or after the soon to arrive coffee.
Pairing: R24 Blend from Counter Culture: Served up in a Siphon the last show in a night full of showmanship was this aromatic blend with topnotes of fruit and lingering chocolate. A lovely blend roasted specifically for Rogue 24 I inquired as to whether this can be purchased and was told it could not, but that did not stop me from picking up some slow roasted Pacamara single origin and farmhouse blend before leaving DC.
Course 24: Happy Endings/Little Things/Small Bites: The mignardises of the night would arrive as a quintet of Cassis Gelee, Orange and Chocolate Truffle, Chocolate Bon-Bon with Coconut, Chocolate and Raspberry Truffle, and a Shortbread Cookie with Guava Jam. Generally not a fan of fruit truffles I surprisingly enjoyed the subtleties of the raspberry option but it was no match for the cassis gelee – every bit as good as the best ones in Paris.
The Verdict: After chatting with RJ at the table for a short while as he continued to monitor the room and act as chef, expeditor, teacher, and host I stepped out of Rogue24 just prior to midnight and with the streets empty made my way to the car full but not ‘stuffed’ and more than happy with the meal just past. Taking into account the food, the setting, the price, and the overall ‘experience’ it would be hard not to call RJ’s vision one of a kind and although not ever dish was perfect Rogue 24 is absolutely a destination restaurant on par with the Volt Table 21s, Inn At Little Washingtons, and others in the city at less cost and more convenience; it is a restaurant that takes chances, a restaurant that will challenge both the diner and the norm, and a restaurant that I hope to revisit very soon.