I’ve been to Boundary Road three times recently – nothing is easier for me than turning right out of Union Station, and heading east to the H Street Corridor when I step off the Amtrak from New York City – and on two of these occasions, I wound up at Boundary Road, with its relatively new and talented chef, Luke Feltz.
On both of the first two visits, I went straight for the wares of Charm City Meadworks, delicious Meads brewed in Baltimore. On the first trip, I had a can of “Retire by the Fire” ($8), made with vanilla, cocoa nibs, and cloves; then, on the second visit, a can of “Wildflower” ($8), which is almost quite literally the Champagne of beers (technically “honey wines”), before ending my meal with a glass of “Rosemary,” ($6), poured from a larger bottle.
General Manager Mary Kate Wrzesniewsky is good friends with one of Charm City’s founders, and as a result, has an “inside pipeline” to their full armada of outstanding Meads – this meadworks (it would be wrong to call it a brewery) should be noted by and familiar to every person in the Baltimore-Washington area who considers themselves devoted to the culiinary arts.
Highlights from my first two meals here were the Beef Tartare ($13), Quark Pierogi ($10), and Veal Sweetbreads ($14), each of the three exactly what I had hoped for; none of the three overly critiqued, because I was zombified from traveling and wasn’t doing “official” reviews – just four hours before my second visit, I had just finished a multi-course lunch at Betony, and was completely frazzled by leaving my cell phone in a New York taxi (which, incidentally, a good Samaritan returned to me!), and no one could fairly evaluate a restaurant after an afternoon of such tumult; on both visits, I merely wanted to relax and unwind after multi-hour train rides, and that’s exactly what I did, with my mind largely turned off.
On my third visit, however, I decided to really pay attention and roll up my restaurant reviewer’s sleeves, testing the kitchen every which way but loose with a full-blown, five-course meal, and it was on this third visit when I fully realized the precocious talents of Luke Feltz – a chef who recently replaced his good friend (and talented peer), Brad Walker, and a chef who must be considered one of the brightest young talents in DC’s rapidly changing pool of kitchen artistry. After I wrote my review, I read and inserted the comments Chef Feltz wrote in response to my query about the meal, and I’m interspersing them verbatim after my own, so you can get the untainted thoughts of both diner and chef – with neither being aware of what the other had written:
Cured Cobia ($9) with pistachio-caper relish, chartreuse, green strawberries, and bottarga – The use of sliced, green strawberries in this dish was emblematic of the nuances that separate Boundary Road from most other “ingredient-heavy” restaurants – Chef Feltz doesn’t shy away from using multiple ingredients in a dish, but the process appears to be carefully and consistently thought out. These little, green strawberries, for example, lent the perfect acidic counterpoint to the cobia – not only were the greenish strawberries more acidic and less sweet than you’d find later in the season, but they were also firmer, the firmness – instead of being contrasting and mushy – easily standing up next to this rather muscular predator which is lower in oil than most fish. Note also the use of pistachio in the relish, which contributes to the overall perception of taut firmness in this austere first course, with the capers and bottarga subtly dialing up the salinity into balance without any need for salt.
Feltz: The cobia was cured with Green Chartreuse and a little fennel and chili. I think Green Chartreuse pairs really well with a touch of subtle heat and the fennel complements both flavors nicely with the fish. Honestly, putting chartreuse with fish was a complete shot in the dark. My roommate and I did a pop up here at BR and we had some extra cobia that I wanted to stretch out a bit and chartreuse just popped into my head. I’ve recently been getting into using underripe fruits/veggies as an acid component instead of something vinegar or citrus-based, hence the raw green strawberries. I was playing around with cured green tomatoes with pistachios and capers and that led to the pistachio-caper relish. Bottarga ups the umami and mint freshens it up a bit.
Spicy Chicken and Ramp Sausage ($12) with pea shoots, celery leaves, and roasted lamb-fat ranch – The most fascinating thing about this dish was the “inside meets outside” equality of what was on the inside the sausage casing, and what was on the outside, and this is another example of small nuances creating balance in a dish. The chicken inside the sausage was met with equal force by the lamb fat in the ranch dressing, and the scent and finish of the ramps found their jumeaux in the pea shoots and celery leaves – recall from my Tail Up Goat review just how forceful pea shoots can be, and also notice how surprisingly similar these two dishes are, despite their fundamental, visual differences in both form and conception. Everything on the plate fell within a narrow set of parameters – meat with herbs – and even the ranch dressing didn’t deviate far from this blueprint. In an abstract sense, and perhaps even in a basic sense, this dish was essentially a study in spiced meat, constructed to look like a primitive.
Feltz: Chicken and Ramp Sausage – we serve a half chicken cooked under a brick for a entree and it’s quite a lot of food, so I recently started removing the tenders and saving them to make sausage. Charred ramp leaves get pureed into white wine as the liquid binder so the sausage gets some of that grilled flavor without actually being grilled. Got a lamb in last month, roasted all the fat and saved it for a rainy day. Midwest roots dictate that I have do a twist on ranch dressing once a year.
Northern Neck Asparagus ($13) – with burnt bread romesco, almond milk, ramp oil, and duck egg yolk – Perhaps the most intricate dish of the evening, with the duck egg yolk masquerading as the Knight on a White Horse – this composition was unquestionably difficult to execute in terms of taming disparate flavor profiles, as there were several obvious fault-points where clumsiness had the potential to rear its ugly head, rendering all other junctions meaningless if not something worse than that. This was the dish that removed any tension or doubt I had about upcoming courses, because I knew someone in the kitchen was tasting things, and ensuring that everything coming my way was in balance – if you can pull off something this complex (and I ask you to again read the ingredients) without any rough edges spiking out, then you’re in possession of – not just technique, but also a palate. This was the one dish about which I felt obligated to give some input before I left – I thought there was perhaps more sauce than was needed – and wanted to convey that while things were still fresh on the chef’s mind. It was a “comment; not a complaint,” as the diner always has the option to leave some sauce behind, especially with asparagus as the primary ingredient, and the sauce on the bottom.
Feltz: Asparagus – this dish was inspired by Bar Tartine. I saw their combo of burnt bread sauce and almond milk puree (they do it with carrots) and I thought it sounded awesome. The burnt bread sauce is basically a romesco, except everything is burned or charred-bread, bell peppers, dried chiles, garlic, and sweet onions. Then, like a classic romesco, it gets almonds, sherry vinegar, lemon juice, and I use pumpkin seed oil instead of olive oil. The almond milk sauce is thickened with a potato, honey, lemon, and some blanched ramp bulbs. I added the caramelized spring onions to the dish to recognize the classic “calcots and romesco” inspiration. I can see how there would be too much sauce, but I like to play with my food sometimes, and putting it on the bottom lets the eater play around with the quantities of both sauces to find a combination that suits him or her. On their own, both sauces are good, but together, they’re delicious. Finally I chose asparagus because I think chefs often go too light with flavors for asparagus-citrus, fish, herbs, egg, ham and cheese, etc. but it can really stand up to the intensity of that burnt bread sauce.
Confit Trumpet Mushrooms ($22) with morels, peas, shoots, ginger perry butter, and smoked-goat labneh – After two selections from the “Appetizers” section of the menu, and one from the “Grains” section (the asparagus), I was getting quite full; yet, I wanted to try one additional dish for a thorough sampling of Boundary Road, and got a vegetarian item from the “Entrées” section. The “ginger perry butter” intrigued me, but the “smoked-goat labneh” sealed the deal, and the mushroom confit it was. Although this was a vegetarian dish, it was too ample and hearty for me to finish in the restaurant – more importantly, it’s not some “pacify the vegetarian” dish; this was well-conceived, and showed great respect and concern for vegetarian diners – note that the asparagus dish was also vegetarian, and that there are several other vegetarian items on the menu – Boundary Road should be short-listed for any vegetarian diner so long as they don’t mind dairy. Mushrooms can, of course, be a physically heavy dish, and so this was, but the weight is counterbalanced by a strange, almost alien, set of flavors that I couldn’t pin down. The labneh, when it began to melt over the caps, was especially satisfying, going from near-solid to quasi-sauce in a matter of minutes, and the ginger perry butter was something I’d never before experienced. Even within a single bite, the flavors were going in-and-out like an accordion, disappearing mid-palate, only to show up again during the finish – if I were guessing the ingredients in this dish double-blind, I’d fail miserably, even though any oddities came through as an undercurrent rather than a primary force: Even though there was a vortex of things whirling around, it was all contained within a sea of familiarity, so everything exotic played a secondary or tertiary role in the dish. These confit trumpet mushrooms could be scarfed uncritically, or scrutinized endlessly – this dish allows the diner to make that choice.
Feltz: Mushrooms – one of the first real things I cooked as a youngster was mushroom risotto, so I’ve been wanting to do mushroom entree for awhile. Again going back to playing with your food, the smoked goat labneh is on the side, not in a fancy drag, brush, or whatever, so the eater can put as much or little is desired on the shrooms. Fenugreek has both sweet and bitter qualities and those are seen in two forms-a powder in the labneh and fresh leaves with the mushrooms. The secret here, though, is fermented mushroom stems. I save all my mushroom scraps and ferment them instead of making stock. And they all have different flavors. Shiitakes become straight umami, like Worcestershire sauce on crack. Beech mushrooms, however, develop this seaside salinity, like they have been flavored with the ocean breeze. Turn that into a puree, throw a spoonful in with the veggies and you get a flavor that no one can quite put a finger on.
Scoop of Ice Cream ($4) – I was done. And I mean, I was *done*. If I were a poet, I’d have been John Donne. I’d have been John Donne, undone. A full dessert was out of the question, so as something of a refreshing palate cleanser, I got a wafer-thin, scoop of strawberry ice cream, desperately trying to justify a tie-in with the green strawberries I had, seemingly a month before. When a restaurant makes their own ice cream, and does it well, it can often be better than a grandiose composed dessert, and this was nothing more than a crescent of simple, very well-made strawberry ice cream which actually made me *less* full when I was finished – the little jolt of sugar, combined with the sweet coolness of the ice cream propped me up just long enough to walk to my car, sated, sated and happy, knowing that I was comfortably going to help another young, underrated chef get his or her start in the mean streets of the DC restaurant world. Remember the name Luke Feltz – he’s young, talented, and my read, not having had much discussion, is that he is very intelligent and capable – with the ability to combine flavors in a thoughtful manner that has both coherence and a discernible logic behind the combinations.
Feltz: Finally, the strawberry ice cream is very straightforward. No egg, no heat, just strawberries, dairy, sugar, and a gentian liqueur.
Boundary Road is safely and confidently maintained in Italic in the Dining Guide, and has established itself as one of the very best restaurants on H Street.