I am generally not in the business of restaurant reviews. Actually, I think this might be the first one, ever. So I'm gonna start with a little disclaimer, if you don't mind. Bryan Voltaggio. Up until his appearance on Top Chef, I'd never heard of him. I've actually never seen a single episode of the show, never eaten at his restaurant, Volt, and I've never met him in real life.
But Frederick, MD isn't that big of a town, so when a local guy hits the big time and ends up on television and starts opening up restaurants left and right, people tend to talk. Lines go out the door. Waiting lists and reservations are the norm. I've still never eaten at Volt (mostly because I'm afraid I'd spend $200 on dinner for two and leave hungry due to dollhouse-sized portions), but I frequent his soup n' sandwich place, Lunchbox. (By the way, Bryan, if you're reading this, please get in touch. The brownies and cookies at Lunchbox are almost always dry and crumbly and lacking in flavor. Do you need a baker? Help me help you.)
But then came Family Meal, the latest venture in a trio of restaurants wearing the Voltaggio brand. I didn't even know it was coming until opening day (I really need to get out more), but a group of us decided to go a couple of weeks after the doors opened. I didn't know much about it except that it was built in a weird part of town inside an old car dealership and they were supposed to have incredible milkshakes. I imagined there would be a heckuva wait, too, but I was surprised that my group of 5 snagged a table with several empty tables to spare.
Now, I'd work at Family Meal for the uniforms alone. The waitresses all wear mismatched aprons (Anthropologie?) with inky-blue jeans and the guys look like they just stepped out of the 50s with their tucked-in tees. I didn't pay much attention to the music and decor at first, but then I realized it was an odd mix of Johnny Cash and retro wooden stools and I couldn't figure out what sort of vibe the restaurant was going for. My sassy friend, Nicole, said it was supposed to be "like a diner," but I just wasn't getting that. It felt a little confused.
Side note: I loved the chubby ice cubes. It was like having little glaciers bobbing about inside my iced tea. It's the same iced tea they serve at Lunchbox, only Family Meal actually gives you more than shot glass sized portion.
Now I'm not sure if all the servers have to give the same introduction, but ours had a very rehearsed speech about Family Meal being "the latest restaurant from nationally renown Bryan Voltaggio," etc. In my opinion, this set the bar pretty high. If you're going to be throwing names out there, you're putting someone's reputation on the line, and it better be pretty good.
I can't vouch for every item on the menu, but between the five of us, we had a pretty good sampling of everything. Here's the scoop:
Duck Fat Fries: I'd never had them before, but I've heard they're insane. They were pretty good - very hot, super crispy, and served with a spicy ketchup - but if no one told me they'd been fried in duck fat, I'm not sure I would've thought they were anything more than a really, really good batch of fries.
Pot Pie Fritters: Quite delicious, if even a bit salty. All the bits and pieces of a homemade chicken pot pie tucked into a tiny ball of crispy flavor. I could eat more than a handful of these.
Macaroni & Cheese: Yaaaaawn. This was pretty boring. Nothing special at all - it was fairly bland, a little oily, and didn't taste any different than something you'd get at a church potluck. I thought the menu said it had pancetta or something in there, but it was basically noodles and cheese. Skip this one.
Mushroom & Broccoli Rabe Omelet: Nicole and I both had this - it was okay. It was a little on the small side and came out all by its lonesome on a big plate without so much as a sprig of parsley to keep it company. The roasted mushrooms were fantastic, but the rabe was especially bitter and the cheese wasn't warm enough to be melty, a dividing factor between a great omelet and one you pick at with your fork. I told Nicole I was surprised to find nothing came with it for $13.99 - Toast? Hash? Fruit? Just as I was ready to take the last bite of egg, the server showed up with two little bowls of crispy potatoes, apologizing for the delay. Well really, it was a total surprise for me because the menu didn't mention it came with anything at all. The good news is, the potatoes were absolutely divine. Crunchy, piping hot, generously seasoned with lots of garlic and rosemary. We licked the crispy bits from the bottom of the bowl.
Tuna Salad: I am sure the menu had a sexier name for it than "Tuna Salad," but I can't remember exactly what it was. I didn't taste it, but Lauren said it was delicious enough. I think she might've been hungry again an hour later.
Egg Salad Sandwich: Nothing special here. The eggs were minced very, very fine (I like a bit more texture to the salad) and it was served on plain white toast, no sides. I know it's egg salad and there's only so much you can do, but if you're going to serve it under Voltaggio's name, it had better be the best egg salad you've ever had. This one was just okay.
Now, about those milkshakes. More than anything, I'd heard how delicious they were, that the ice cream was house-made, that a few of the choices rested firmly in the Adult category thanks to a spike of booze. So were smacked our lips, ready to place our order, only to have the waitress tell us the only flavor they have is...vanilla. I asked her if it was bourbon vanilla, but nope, just plain ol' vanilla.
Here's where I am somewhat baffled. They offer a banana split with bourbon vanilla, chocolate, and cherry ice creams. They offer a lemon meringue pie with a scoop of blueberry ice cream. There's a cinnamon cake with bay leaf ice cream. Yet they can only make you a vanilla milkshake. Someone please tell me how this makes sense. So, we were a little disappointed to say the least.
Smith Island Cake: This one was my favorite. It was spiked with espresso, crunchy bits of toffee, and layers and layers of vanilla cake. I could've easily eaten the entire slice all by my fat self.
Lemon Meringue: Just okay for me, but the girls really liked it. The "meringue" was more of a charred marshmallow smear on the bottom of the plate, not piled in great big swirls smack on top the pie wedge as I expected. The custard was alright, but the crust didn't have any flavor. Where's the butter, people!?
Vanilla Milkshake: The best part was the charred marshmallow cream crowning the top. The rest? Just a regular vanilla shake, no frills.
Now I want to be gracious because despite the Voltaggio
name, all restaurants need a little time to work out the kinks. The
servers need to be more familiar with the menu, the cooks need to be
able to prepare the dishes with their eyes closed for quality and
consistency, and a few of the items could stand for improvement. I'm interested to go back in a couple of months once things have settled down and all the gears are running smoothly.
All in all, a good experience. I want one of those aprons. And I want to bake cookies for Lunchbox. Just sayin'.