Voltaggio Brothers at the James Beard House

by Jason Roth on March 10, 2010

James Beard dinners are awesome. At least, due to the fact that some chef got on an airplane with all his local ingredients and flew with them to New York City to cook you a meal. The best part is: he considers it his honor. All you did was pay for your food. Oh, and did I mention that there were 130 people on the waiting list to this particular dinner? You must be really special.

Voltaggios #1 and #2. Or if you agree with the TV results: #2 and #1.

In this case, I ran to the James Beard House like a little school girl. (Not that there’s anything wrong with little school girls or men who run like them.) By the end of the night, I would either have enjoyed a great dinner and remained a huge Top Chef fan or I would have said: “Well, these feuding bastards are entertaining on TV, but their food tastes like absolute dogshit.” The question is: which would it be?

But let’s cut to the chase. Whose food was better: Michael’s or Bryan’s?

I’ll give you a breakdown from my perspective, but let me first be open about my prejudices as a devout follower of the TV series. Throughout the season, from pretty early on, I was rooting for Bryan. He seemed focused, intelligent, and consistent. But I liked Michael, too, and was actually rooting for him also until the final show.  (I can say “Bryan” now that I can tell you who the hell is who. Now that Michael won, I made more of an effort to get their names straight.)

So, let’s get to the dishes. Here’s the menu. I’m going to rank everything on it, identify who created what, and give my reasons for ranking it as such. And I think it’s logical to separate the meal into: hors d’oeuvres, bread, entrées, and dessert. Whether it’s as easy as giving each brother a score for each of those four, that remains to be seen. (And why I’m giving bread it’s own goddamn category will be explained thoroughly.)

Herewith, every food item, ranked within its category:

Hors d’Oeuvres

  1. Porcini Puffs with Smoked Salmon Caviar (Michael)
  2. Kushi Oysters with California Estate Osetra and Horseradish (Bryan)
  3. Uni Gougères (Michael)
  4. Sweetbread Nuggets with Lemon Jam and Olive Capers (Michael)
  5. Sweet-and-Sour Macaroons with Avocado (Bryan)
  6. Pork and Beans with Dehydrated Applewood-Smoked Bacon and Kumquat Preserves (Bryan)

To my tongue, the porcini “puffs” were so far above anything else served in the hors d’oeuvres course. I had to ask not one, but two, cooks if what I was eating was made with bacon, and I still don’t believe them. They say not, but the flavor of bacon was there. Therefore, let me praise the way in which these things were fried. (Yes, I stood near the kitchen and grabbed at least three of these things.) To me, “good fried” means just the right amount of batter without the batter being the center of attention, and it can’t be too greasy. So let’s put it this way: if Proctor & Gamble invented the right preservative, I’d invest in a vacuum-packed can of these things.

Bryan’s oysters were near-perfect in all respects, but he still loses out to Michael because, frankly, any oyster loses out to Michael. Bryan cut and/or arranged the oyster in such a way that you really felt that he was giving you the best part of the oyster. Since I’m assuming that didn’t happen, what he did do was simply pick the best oysters, serve them at the right temperature (room), and wisely choose both caviar and horseradish as the accompaniments. Just amazing. Michael’s gougères, though, came in a very close third-place. Without exaggeration, Tuesday’s hors d’oeuvres course might have been the best one I’ve experienced at the JBH. All in all, though, I have to give it to Michael.

The Bread

This is a no-brainer. All you needed to do was to witness my entire table nearly kissing the feet of whatever waiter happened to be in the vicinity to know the bread winner was loud and clear: Michael. His truffled brioche, paired with goat’s milk butter (they each brought their own butter, God bless them) was ridiculous. If my meal had been: brioche, brioche, brioche, and brioche, followed by a brioche course and more brioche, I would have said: “Great, but bring me more brioche.” I might have asked for a beer or six, but I would have been fine with it. The only, and I mean this literally, the only bad thing you could say about Michael’s brioche is that, had it been served along side food that was mediocre (which it wasn’t), it would have outshined the food. Not because it had too much truffle flavor, but because it was too goddamn good. Nice job. End of story.

Truffled brioche. Layer, after layer, after layer. (After layer. After layer.)

Again, ranked by “goodness” (as per me):

Entrées

  1. Sturgeon with Salsify, Quinoa, and Morels (Bryan)
    Sanford Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2007
  2. Pigeon Pastrami with Gruyère, Rye, and Mustard (Michael)
    Duchesse de Bourgogne Flemish Red Ale
  3. Wagyu Beef Cheek with Roasted Peppers, Chickpeas, and Parsley (Bryan)
    Lamadrid Reserva Malbec 2006
  4. Shima Aji with Sea Sponge, Japanese Peach, and Finger Lime (Michael)
    Kamoizumi Komekome-Shu Sake

A variation on bacon-wrapped scallops? No. But it tasted good.

Bryan’s sturgeon was the porcini puffs of the entrée course. Not what he was going for, perhaps, but true nevertheless. It was the clear-cut winner. And his wagyu beef cheek, which many of my table felt was the best course of the night, was a very strong third.

Let me take the opportunity to explain why the sturgeon was not just a well-cooked fish. What the fish was, was a well-cooked fish cooked in a small, foreign kitchen, served to a huge number of guests at about the same time, without making his or herself look like some kind of Gordon’s Fisherman idiot. In other words: you try to serve fish to a dozen and a half tables of people without it looking like a cube of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. Ok, you say, he’s a professional chef. My point is, Bryan didn’t serve passable fish, he served amazing fish. It wasn’t just me. Everyone near me at my table said, in words or facial expression, wow, this is good fish. (And thank you, Bryan, for serving those morels on top.) Meanwhile, I was just happy to be able to pronounce the small, tender, grainy stuff underneath the fish. (Quinoa: “keenwah”)

Fatty fish. Ironic, yes. Tasty? Hell, yes.

Pigeon pastrami. Jesus. This is something, from my perspective, that one assumes is going to be not exciting or eccentric, but boring. I pictured, well, a piece of pastrami on a plate. Bad naming, Michael. He should have called it “Pigeon Hot Dog”.

This was good pigeon. I don’t know how many taxi bumpers it hit before making contact with my plate, but if a pigeon has to die for my sake, I say it should look like this.

Not mentioned on the menu is the, get this, sauerkraut Jello (my words), left in perfect squares in two places on the plate. And the perfect amount of black pepper inside to give it a bite without making you cough. (I say that as a proud Brick Lane Curry House survivor.) Just a delicious sausage, and pairing it with a semi-sweet Flemish Ale was not the sommelier’s wort moment. I mean worst moment.

The grill of our taxi was good for something.

The wagyu beef, as alluded to above, was considered by many to be the best course of the evening. It was braised, which my wife actually reduced points for due to its commonality as a cooking technique. My own view is that a cow doesn’t necessarily need to be hand-massaged by pixies living on the third ring of Uranus in order for me to deem it a decent piece of steak. (Bryan, I’m not a chick, but this is something to consider the next time you produce food with a sibling who supplies his own frozen nitrogen canister.) But Bryan kicked ass in terms of two of the items served in the entrée course. My wife might disagree, due to the incredible creativity of Michael’s aji (horse mackerel). And though I agree with her that it was creative, I ultimately thought it was a bunch of stuff on a plate, not really a cohesive dish.

Wagyu? Wagyu, too.

The Wine

Let’s interrupt this review to give props to both chefs’ sommeliers. What pairings! Two choices stand out as exceptional. The first is the sake served with the aji. Upon first sip, I was worried about the aftertaste. It tasted “bad”, as in bad milk. Not strong, but the off-putting flavor was detected by myself and others at my table. However, the goal was to pair the booze, and that he did. The aftertaste was eliminated with a bite of the fish, and the food and the drink made each other greater, which (as a professional drinker) has got to be the goal of a good pairing. The sake became better than anyone thought it was. The other stand-out was (I have to restrain myself from saying the Flemmish Ale) clearly the Pinot. You might say that the genius in this case was not so much the pairing, but simply the choice to serve this Pinot with anything. Before the first bite, this wine was mellow without being wimpy, and completely drinkable. But then, with the sturgeon and then after it, it was just delicious. (Thank you, Xavier, for opening up those extra bottles for our table.)

And, finally, the last course:

All mine.

Dessert

  1. Chocolate with Hazelnuts, Espresso, and Toasted Marshmallow (Bryan)
    Castellare S. Niccolò Vin Santo del Chianti Classico 2000
  2. Baba au Rhum with Charred Pineapple Jelly and Pineapple Sorbet (Michael)
    Rosenhof Trockenbeerenauslese Chardonnay 2004

I almost want to say I’m splitting hairs, but actually, I’m not. I think in his dessert, Michael committed the same error as in his first course, the aji. In layman’s terms (my terms), he was a bit all over the place. The ingredients he chose were great, and it’s true that nothing didn’t jive with anything else. Still, watching him outside the back door use the liquid nitrogen was way cooler than his dessert tasted.

Michael's dessert.

I’m differentiating two extremely well-made desserts here, but Bryan’s not-too-sweet white chocolate was a unified whole.

Bryan's. And I'm not even a chocolate fan.

The fact that the non-frozen dessert maker won in this instance must prove something. What it proves, I have no idea, but it must be something.

These two brothers, and I say that as a James Beard Foundation member and/or just some guy who wants some decent grub, were everything you’d want to see in chefs. What the hell do I mean by that? Well, the end-goal of quality food is a given. But more than that, and it was evident to anyone’s eyes from beginning to end. They were simultaneously intense, focused, and, shit, willing to take a photo. From a non-expert’s glance, and ignoring all evidence from Top Chef and focusing only on this one night, I say these two men were born to be chefs. They conveyed in every movement and emotion that unique combination of artist and craftsman that underlies every expression of, in my humble opinion, what it means to be a great chef. Constantly, the desire to do things right. The desire to impress, but not in some superficial “they might like me” way, but: this should be done in this way because that’s the way it should be done. Oh, and by the way: it’ll taste good and look good that way.

I was just so impressed by the two of them. Classy, skilled, and completely worthy of being the two top chefs.

I’d like to leave it at that, but I need to give a score.

The winner?

Jesus, this is difficult. Here’s how I’m going to score it: I’m giving hors d’oeuvres to Michael. I’m giving the bread to Michael. I’m giving dessert to Bryan. Entrées, I’m giving two of the top three, unequivocally, to Bryan, and I’m neither adding nor subtracting for the fourth course, by Michael. It was very good, but in context, it doesn’t factor in. That means Bryan wins entrées.

Shit, this is difficult. I take pride in dishing out my opinion, whether it comes to food or politics. But I really can’t pick one or the other. They were just too good, and too close.

Go ahead, and rip me apart. But in good conscience, I’m giving these guys a tie.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

KT March 10, 2010 at 11:11 am

That was one of the best meals I’ve had at the James Beard House. Everything was delicious. I guess we can’t help but choose a “winner” between the two. For me, there was a clear winner… Michael. But everyone else at our table went crazy for Bryan’s wagyu and his chocolate dessert.

Here are my rankings:
Hors d’Oeuvres (Michael’s ranked top on my list.)
1. Porcini Puffs with Smoked Salmon Caviar (Michael)
2. Uni Gougères (Michael)
3. Sweetbread Nuggets with Lemon Jam and Olive Capers (Michael)
4. Sweet-and-Sour Macaroons with Avocado (Bryan)
5. Kushi Oysters with California Estate Osetra and Horseradish (Bryan)
6. Pork and Beans with Dehydrated Applewood-Smoked Bacon and Kumquat Preserves (Bryan)

Entrées
1. Shima Aji with Sea Sponge, Japanese Peach, and Finger Lime (Michael)
2. Pigeon Pastrami with Gruyère, Rye, and Mustard (Michael)
3. Sturgeon with Salsify, Quinoa, and Morels (Bryan)
4. Wagyu Beef Cheek with Roasted Peppers, Chickpeas, and Parsley (Bryan) (Everyone at the table would probably think I’m crazy for listing this last.)

The dessert for me was a tie. Oh and the bread… that truffle brioche was amazing.

I wish these guys had a place in NYC. I would go in a heartbeat.

Jason Roth March 10, 2010 at 7:01 pm

I didn’t want to give people the impression that I had something against Michael, so I added the following sentence to the paragraph that begins “I’ll give you a breakdown…”

But I liked Michael, too, and was actually rooting for him also until the final show.

Paparazzi Peggy March 10, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Amazing experience with the Voltaggio brothers! An all around outstanding meal though Bryan blew me away. His dishes were a little more conservative but the flavors were amazing! The Wagyu Beef was like butter – you could have sipped it through a straw!

Michael March 11, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Great write up, thanks for coming, it was a pleasure and honor to cook for all of you. Bryan and I appreciate the competetive interests however this night was to celebrate cooking with eachother and not against eachother. It has been a long time dream of ours to cook together in The James Beard house and we appreciate you all that made it out to share this experience with us. Thank you for the continued support and please come see us in our restaurants! I agree with your comments, Bryan is an amazing cook and he had a great night!
Best,
Michael

Jason Roth March 12, 2010 at 8:08 am

Thanks for posting, Michael. And again, you guys really put your hearts and souls into it. It was a night we won’t forget.

KT March 19, 2010 at 11:36 am

This post linked from the Voltaggio brothers’ site! http://www.voltaggiobrothers.com/post/voltaggio-vs-voltaggio

Jason Roth March 24, 2010 at 5:28 pm

More photos posted on the James Beard Foundation site.

Katrina August 3, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I actually started to tear up reading this. The Voltaggios sound phenomenal and so does their food. I hope I will once day get to taste some of their creations for myself. Meanwhile I will keep devouring this blog.

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