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Kimchee linguini puts a spin on spaghetti

Home on the RANGE

by George W. Stone | Photo: Ken Goodman Photography | DC magazine | February 26, 2013

Penn Quarter is over. 14th Street is done. H Street has jumped the shark. The District’s embarrassment of good restaurant riches has become so obvious that even The New York Times recently called DC “trendy.”

If the capital is officially cool, what’s next... Friendship Heights? Don’t laugh. With the debut of Bryan Voltaggio’s 14,000-square-foot, 300-seat RANGE on the second floor of the Chevy Chase Pavilion—in the former Stein Mart space, no less—the nearly unthinkable becomes real. Give an ambitious Top Chef star free rein and millions in funding, and what you get is an outrageously good restaurant that delivers stellar dishes and the rare thrill of a reverse dining commute.

A lesser celeb chef would have entered the DC market slinging burgers to tourists. But Voltaggio is an axiom-buster set out to prove that location is (next to) nothing, and food is everything.

Illuminated from beneath, a luminescent disco-diva staircase leads from Military Road to a glass-lined wall of wine—there are some 7,000 bottles in-house—and to the sweeping second-floor expanse of RANGE, which forms a crescent along a mall atrium (a second entrance leads from a hotel lobby). Silvery beige defines the suite of tables; woodgrains, steel and butternut-squash accents enliven the interior. And 55 countertop seats face open kitchens at seven culinary stations (raw bar, wood-fired pizza oven, bakery, rotisserie, salumeria and cheese, candy counter and coffee bar). Don’t try to make sense of it all; focus on sitting down.

Order a Vegan Sacrifice, and let “meat ice” bounce on your tongue. Bringing a chill to this concoction of scotch, ginger and cayenne is a pair of frozen clarified veal stock balls, garnished with a lusty red carrot. Like other sips on beverage director and head mixologist Owen Thomson’s cleverly named list—Inept Carnie (scotch, pumpkin shrub and Averna), Mexican Warhead (mezcal, apple, strawberry, apricot and vinegar), Playground Meltdown (rum, coffee liqueur and butter)—the saucy cocktail is unexpected, balanced and playful.

RANGE’s menu is divided into kitchencentric themes. Hats off to anyone who can make a stop in every section. For me, a rambling route is the best way to sample an array of dazzling dishes. From the raw bar, a crudo of kampachi with pine nuts, lemon and coriander is truly sensational; its vibrant sprouts contrast with pink fish and thinly sliced, diaphanous radish to create a study in texture and freshness. The salumeria delivers rich tastes for the charcuterie-crazed—hams from Virginia and Kentucky, country pork and pâtés in pastry, garlic sausage with pistachio, pork rillettes—though my favorite was the silky potted foie gras with fig compote. Salads rarely get ink, but the Kale Caesar (a good pun from a chef!) is so delightful—its smartly chopped, dark-green leaves are dressed in a zippy anchovy-egg-garlic dressing and piled high under a blizzard of Parmesan—you hardly notice you’re eating something healthy. Isn’t that what everybody wants from health food?

Would you like to change your life? Order the skillet cornbread. Yes, many dude ranches serve cornbread. But none that I know of deliver it topped with honey-chive butter and a smearable side of bacon-onion marmalade. This sinful spread should be sold in RANGE’s dubious kitchen shop, alongside stainless steel whisks. A second standout is the seamless goat-cheese ravioli atop braised meat ragu. Possibly because of their round shape, the ethereal ravioli are airier than any other I’ve had, making a dish of pasta, cheese and rich sauce seem surprisingly light. A third standout, kimchee linguini with uni, bay scallops and nasturtium, is a mind-blower. Who knew spicy Korean cabbage and sweet, buttery scallops were such a match?

At this point, you may think that a sensible menu would limit its inspirations to Mediterranean, American and Asian flavors. But neither Voltaggio, nor his chef de cuisine, Matt Hill, will stop. From the wood grill, tender slivers of beef heart are served with a taste-bud-tingling garlic-parsley chimichurri that every Argentine gaucho would devour. The French are represented by the pillowy pork boudin blanc with pears and parsnips. Neapolitans have seven gorgeously crusty pizzas to pick from—the cannellini bean, arugula, lardo and olive pie is a nifty choice. And then it’s back to the South, with striped bass and barbecued hazelnuts over a sweet sorghum sauce, a dish that exemplifies the imagination behind the menu.

The flavor barrage comes in liquid form, as well. Nine taps serve up mid-Atlantic beers, and one is (shockingly) dedicated to the herbal French liqueur, chartreuse. But wine takes center stage, with two master sommeliers, including Wine Director Keith Goldston, angling to get a bottle on every table. Wine prices are daringly fair, and the extensive list is full of surprises; the somms are seductive, which is how I ended up losing my mind over a German riesling I would have never chosen on my own.

The moral of that story: RANGE is one of those restaurants where you don’t need to stress over what to order. From venison with espresso spaetzle to sturgeon with rice porridge, lobster and caviar, it’s all good; it looks fantastic; and there’s lots of it. When I realized that I could stop kvetching, an unprecedented feeling came over me. Somehow, in spite of dining at a multimillion-dollar, celeb-chef showpiece amid a social swirl, I was having actual, spontaneous fun. How often does that really happen?

Which leads us, inexorably, to the bonbons. That decadent candy counter? Thank God it’s half a football field away. But wait! It makes tableside deliveries of lavender honey truffles, hand-dipped Earl Grey chocolates and caramel confections. Composed desserts reveal the same deft preparation. Warm apple crisp with brown butter pecan ice cream is an artfully deconstructed salty-sweet experience, and the chocolate ganache tart is richer than David Rubenstein.

With RANGE—and with style to burn—Voltaggio is moving into José Andrés territory. It’s sort of funny that DC’s best new restaurant is about 10 paces from Maryland. Just don’t tell the hipsters.

5335 Wisconsin Ave. NW

Open daily for dinner, 5:30-11pm. Lunch service will begin later this year.

Salads, salumeria, starters: $5-$21
Pasta and pizza: $9-$16
Entrées: $12-$65
Sides: $5-$10
Desserts: $2-$10
Chocolates and candies: $2-$3

The Shock of Volt
Bryan Voltaggio’s first DC restaurant follows his three successes in Frederick, Md.: culinarily daring, white-linen Volt; truck-stop diner with sustainable street cred Family Meal; and sandwich shop Lunchbox. His business partner, Hilda Staples, downplays their latest coup: “It’s a restaurant,” she says. “It’s not rocket science.”

Veggies on the Side 
Pizza aside, RANGE isn’t a vegetarian hothouse. But... roasted cauliflower with golden raisins and zhatar; sautéed oyster and shiitake mushrooms; oven-roasted sunchokes with watercress; mashed potatoes seasoned like “everything bagels”; and even creamed Swiss chard are genuine earthly delights.

Shop Talk
RANGE’s artisanal candy counter, kitchen boutique (Voltaggio has a deal with Williams-Sonoma) and emerging charcuterie dominance (the chef has big plans in this department)are interesting enterprises that will broaden the restaurant’s range, so to speak. Could this be DC’s next big export?