I mentioned to Janet a few weeks ago that I would like to go out for dinner sometime before things got too crazy at Christmas. As we hit the online menus for our favorite places Janet commented, “You’re too good to me.” I don’t think that could ever be true considering what she puts up with from me, but she went on to say that I’m too good to her in the kitchen. We weren’t finding anything interesting enough to justify the outrageous cost compared with what I can cook in my own kitchen. I mean, when did pork chops and chicken breasts break the $35 barrier?
Still, Janet decided to give me a break from the kitchen for my birthday so I decided on Thatcher and Rye, Chef Brian Voltaggio’s rebranding of his flagship restaurant Volt. He had to close Volt at the beginning of the COVID pandemic when the restaurant business tanked along with so many other social endeavors. If I’m being honest, the timing was fortuitous. My last few experiences at Volt left me thinking its best days were in the past.
The rebranding went beyond a change in name, livery and décor. Where Volt offered a very hands-on in the kitchen approach with their menu offerings, Thatcher and Rye presents a more COVID-friendly minimalist take on dining out. From the QR code accessible menu to the fast pace of service, dinner at Thatcher and Rye is all about risk management in a pandemic environment where touch and time spent in an enclosed setting are minimized. Thankfully the changes did not come at the expense of flavor.
Even before COVID, the trend for dining out was toward simplifying menus, moving from a six course meal to just two, and with minimal downtime spent at the table between courses. Thatcher and Rye does a great job of all that. Too good in some respects. They no longer offer an amuse bouche to kick things off, and there was no palate cleansing sorbet before the main course. I didn’t miss the brain freeze I usually get from eating the sorbet too fast, but I did miss the amuse bouche. Chef Voltaggio is the best in the business at packing an array of flavor and texture into one small spoon that explodes in your mouth, much to the delight of my tastebuds.
Our server was knowledgeable. He answered my questions about ingredients and composition without hesitation, and the pace of service was attentive and brisk. Whereas dinner at Volt used to be a leisurely three-hour affair for me, we were in and out of Thacher and Rye in just 90 minutes. The menu features two sections, one of which is desserts, the other is everything else. Instead of a forced separation into multiple courses, this menu left it up to the diner to build their own one, two, or yes even six course dinner if you must….the components are all there. As someone who frequently orders a starter for my main, it was refreshing.
Another touch that I appreciated was smaller portion sizes, not quite tapas but not far from it. That isn’t new for Chef Voltaggio…he has always focused on quality, creativity, and above all else, flavor. I enjoy unraveling layered flavors, and I don’t measure whether I’m getting my money’s worth by counting the number of bites…I wallow in each one.
Right…so onto the food. Rather than the usual basket of bread or rolls, half of which don’t get eaten and end up in the trash bin, our server started us off with two bite sized corn bread poppers. I popped that sucker into my mouth without bothering with the spread that came on the side, enojying it for what it was…a well baked morsel of airy sweet-corn heaven. It was a good beginning.
We decided to share an order of the Parker House Rolls for our only starter, and it was the lone disappointment of the evening. Don’t get me wrong, they were perfectly baked and the dash of coarse salt on top was inspired. But they weren’t hot. At best they came to us slightly above room temperature, as did all of our dishes. I suppose that’s the cost of having a briskly paced dinner service, but I’d rather spend more time at the table and have my food served made to order hot.
The rolls were accompanied by a plate of rich and creamy butter, as well as a smoked salmon and cream cheese schmear with a spoonful of roe nestled on top. The schmear was surrounded by drizzles of a chive oil with a vibrant green color that complimented the bright orange of the salmon roe, offering as much a treat to the eye as it was the palate. For me, as good as the salmon spread was, it didn’t go with Parker House Rolls. That’s just my bias…I like my fresh baked rolls, hot straight from the oven please, unadulterated with anything but butter. I sampled the schmear and I can tell you, on a bagel it would have been delish. The pop of brine as I bit down on the roe was a playful touch that I enjoyed, and the chive oil drizzle added a biting bit of herbaceousness. But Parker House rolls aren’t bagels, and they don’t need anything more than butter. Oh I ate my share of the schmear…I’m not crazy. It was yummy! I just didn’t put it on the roll.
I chose the ravioli for my entrée, mainly because Brian’s ravioli are what made me fall in love with his style of culinary creativity during our first experience at Volt back in 2014. I still marvel at how thin he managed to roll his pasta. To be precise, because Chef Voltaggio IS precise, that dish I enoyed so much at Volt was mezzaluna, not ravioli. I didn’t fully appreciate the difference until mid-way through this dinner.
My plate came with half a dozen pumpkin colored, traditionally shaped ravioli swimming in an eye-catching bath of honeynut squash sauce that was as much a puree as it was a sauce. I know Brian uses interesting additions to color and flavor his pasta, sometimes ash and sometimes beetroot powder, appropriate to the seasonal nature of his menu on any particular day. In this case I am guessing he used pumpkin or some other form of fall squash. It added yet another layer of flavor to an already richly complex dish. The sauce was just a shade richer in color with a garnish of painstakingly placed microgreens.
The ravioli looked delicious, but my first bite was a bit of a disappointment. I tried a bite of the pasta without any sauce, expecting the same delicate wrapper filled with just a dollop of cheese as I got with Volt’s mezzaluna. I didn’t get that. What I got was pasta with the same thickness and texture as the ravioli I make in my own kitchen, and it was stuffed so full of goats cheese the sour tang was an assault on my taste buds. I was confused. This was not the dish I expected.
Silly me. What I forgot was that pasta dishes are all about the sauce, and with my first bite I left off the sauce. Italian cuisine is known for its many forms of pasta, but they aren’t interchangeable. Each is engineered with exacting characteristics intended to serve as a vessel to deliver the particular sauce it is served in. So though my first bite gave me a thicker pasta and more cheese than I anticipated, the viscosity of the honeynut squash sauce demanded both. Once I realized that and allowed the pasta to do its job of carrying the sauce into my mouth, I got over my initial disappointment and appreciated the dish for what it was meant to be…a cornucopia of fall flavors.
The ravioli and sauce were garnished with a pumpkin seed crunch…roasted pumpkin seeds caramelized in a drizzle that reminded me of cranberry. Maybe it was cranberry, maybe it wasn’t…but the sweetness was a nice counterpoint to the earthiness of the squash. The crunch gave a textural contrast to the softness of the pasta and the silky mouthfeel of the honeynut squash. The dish was a parade of flavors and textures and it represented everything I love about Chef Voltaggio’s creative cookery.
Janet ordered the chicken. When I saw the price, at $36, I thought she better be getting the whole damned chicken with a few golden eggs on the side. She didn’t. Her dish consisted of one half of one breast, skin on. She was good enough to share a few bites, and can I just say it was a huntsman’s palate of fall flavors. Somehow the meat was moist and flavorful yet with a lightly golden, perfectly crisped and well-seasoned skin. I don’t know how Brian does that. On the surface it looks like such a simple dish, yet it delivered such complex layers of flavor and texture. It was perfect…creatively imagined, flawlessly executed, and worth every penny.
The chicken was accompanied by a brodo with gnudi. Those are two menu descriptors it helps to understand. I didn’t, but I looked them up at the table. Brodo is Italian for stock, and gnudi are like gnocchi except they are made with ricotta and semolina instead of potato. The brodo in Janet’s dish was far more flavorful than any stock I’ve tasted, and the gnudi gave it a toothsome quality without the heavy density of gnocchi.
The chicken was garnished with chanterelle mushrooms and pickled red onion. I love chanterelles, but I expected the red onion to be harsh and out of balance with the rest of the dish. It wasn’t. The lite pickling tamed them nicely letting through just a hint of acidity. It would be easy to go over the top with the different components of this dish, but it all came together with a carefully reserved touch.
Dessert was good…not amazing, probably because I’ve had it before. I went with the cheesecake made with goats cheese, topped with a scoop of grape sorbet and garnished with curry almond granola. The curried granola was a new experience for me, but very much in keeping with the seasonal fall palate that ran throughout the menu. Both the crunchy texture and the exotic nature of the curry transformed an already good cheesecake into a nice end to a great meal.
I miss Volt, particularly the way Brian married his mastery of molecular gastronomy with his uniquely modern take on classic French and Italian techniques. Thatcher and Rye is a nod to operating a restaurant in a tough marketplace where the often unrealistic demands of food network trained diners compete with the reality of out of control food prices. I’m happy to say it does all that while retaining the creativity and complexity of flavors that make dining out a treat. It’s probably the only place I am willing to pay over $35 for a pork chop or half a chicken breast.