From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com.
Will the multi-course tasting menu become an artifact of the 2000s?
This past February’s edition of Vanity Fair featured an article by James Beard award-winning food writer Corby Kummer entitled, “Tyranny – It’s What’s for Dinner.”
In the article, Kummer makes the case that an increasing number of chefs are holding diners hostage to their artistic whims — and any interest in what (or how much) the customer wants to eat is ignored.
He writes, “Mercy is a rare commodity at restaurants like this where the diner is strapped into a chair and expected to be enraptured for a minimum of three and often four or five hours, and to consume dozens of dishes.”
Fate of the Tasting Menu Experience
So, that got me thinking about the fate of the tasting menu experience — will it survive the test of time or will diners ultimately tire of giving themselves over to the whims of a chef dictator? As luck would have it, I had a reservation at Rogue 24 on the calendar in later February to test the waters on Kummer’s theory myself.
Rogue 24 is the brainchild of the brilliant R.J. Cooper, a 2007 James Beard Foundation award winner for Best Chef (Mid-Atlantic) and Iron Chef competitor. The “24” in the name is the number of years he worked in the restaurant business; the “Rogue” is a reference to his desire to defy the traditions of the traditional fine-restaurant experience.
True to form, Rogue 24 is nothing like other restaurants in the DC area. It is located in an old industrial garage in an alley behind 9th Street, NW. The exposed brick, high ceilings, and piping make it clear that the space has not traveled far from its origins, though the solid wood tables and elegant lighting civilize the space.
The most striking part of the set up — the kitchen is smack in the middle of dining room, allowing the diner to see the action from a 360 degree angle. It’s akin to watching a dinner-theater where the kitchen takes center stage.
There is no menu to order from — which is actually sort of nice, freeing you the usual decision-making process that can be burdensome. You choose either four, 16 or 24 courses, and you get what Cooper wants you to get (no substitutions are allowed, although they will make accommodations for vegetarians or food allergies if told ahead of time.) Cooper’s style is a sort of home-spun molecular gastronomy — not quite as structured as Jose Andres’s Minibar, but also not the sort of comfort food you find in a Restaurant Eve.
Is That Tyranny?
Is that tyranny? Personally, I like the high-drama of having a master cook for me and not knowing what intricate surprise awaits next around the corner. I also thoroughly enjoy tasting delicious food for hours on end — as long as it isn’t an everyday occurrence, and I can do it on a weekend evening when work is not on my mind.
Rogue’s dishes are highly creative, which make dedicating this type of time and stomach space an easy sell. Highlights: spongy sea urchin surrounded by a fragrant broth of cumber and grapefruit; a hen egg surrounded by crispy chicken skin and garlic threads (a bonanza of chicken flavors); tender lamb collar with a flourish of broccoli and dabs of yogurt dipping sauce; a “churro” with sides of parsnips and hazelnut sauce for dessert.
One minor complaint — the avant-garde plates used to serve the food made the act of eating the food a bit awkward. It was nearly impossible to “mop” up any of the delicious sauces given the plate design. And enjoying every drop of a sauce is undoubtedly one of the best parts of an expensive dining experience.
And There’s Price
Ah, did I mention expensive? You pay for this level of artistry and attention to detail. Sixteen courses will put you under $116, plus alcohol, tax, and tip. Conservatively, plan on spending about $200 per person at a minimum to experience the best of Rogue 24.
Is it worth it or will diners ultimately turn away from this type of “tyranny”? I think there will always be a place for Rogue 24 as a special occasion destination (I was celebrating a belated Valentine’s Day when I visited) for omnivores who love to eat as sport. Sometimes being held “hostage” to the whims of a master chef can, in reality, be freeing thing.
The Details: Rogue 24
- Where am I going? Rogue 24, 924 N Street NW (rear, Blagden Alley).
- When am I going? Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10 pm (closed Sunday and Monday).
- Paycheck pain? Sixteen courses for $116; Twenty-four courses for $135; four courses for $75 (available only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday).
- Say what? Despite the garage space, the tables have an intimate feel and you can hear your dining partner clearly.
- What am I eating and drinking? Whatever R.J. Cooper wants you to eat and drink.