Frederick, MD 21701
When is a diner not a diner? The correct answer is usually, "when the chicken isn't the duck." This time, however, it's when a former Top Chef contestant converts what looks like a former showroom of some sort into a "classic, American diner". Bryan Voltaggio of Top Chef and Volt fame has expanded his empire in Frederick, MD by opening up Family Meal in a surprisingly industrial part of town. The whole place looks like a gussied up diner but with the obvious Volt connections from the PBR on the menu to the service staff's uniforms (jeans and Chucks). So, on my way home from Ellicott City, I took a slight...um....wide detour through Frederick and got some lunch at this newly opened 'elevated' diner.
You can't miss the place as you pull up as it sits on a pretty expansive black top and the neighborhood is filled with industrial type buildings. The place itself is pretty expansive with booths that line the windows and seats at the bar just like a typical diner but the similarities end there. The tables are made of nice polished wood and the centerpiece kitchen is covered with white tile from the floor to the ceiling. Diners (see what I did there?) can see all the frenetic activity in a professional kitchen from any vantage point in the place. The service staff is attentive, friendly and there's seems to be a whole lot of them.
I was a touch early for the beginning of lunch service so decided to get a cocktail while waiting. Under the Classics section of the drinks menu, I ordered a Bee's Knees. I had no idea that it was a classic cocktail but I do know it had gin, honey syrup and lemon. I expected it to be sweeter but the honey syrup was nicely muted and the lemon (though just a touch) cut through it nicely. It was a good drink to nurse over while waiting for lunch to arrive.
The gazpacho came with a nice vibrant color with some chunks of shrimp and a dollop of creamy avocado puree in the middle and all of it was topped off with a drizzle of oil. The avocado wasn't as creamy as I first suspected as when I tried to mix it through the soup, it didn't quite blend all the way in and dispersed throughout the soup in uncomfortable chunks which had a slightly different texture than the soup and while I liked flavor, I didn't want to be reminded of its presence. The buttery sweetness of the shrimp more than made up for it. There was a generous amount of shrimp with a smooth, delicate chewiness that blended well with the hints of acidity and sweetness in the heirlooms.
For dessert, I was expecting a big, hulking banana split with the banana split length wise and then heaping amounts of whipped cream, chocolate syrup and ice cream on top. What I got was a scoop of cherry, chocolate and bourbon vanilla ice cream each with some nuts, little squirts of caramel and chocolate sauce, a cherry on top, and bananas served in slices. I liked that the banana came in convenient portions in order to be able to fit a bit of everything onto your spoon at once instead of having to slice too thick slices of banana yourself. I didn't feel the infused vanilla ice cream was overwhelmed by the bourbon and mixture of all three flavors of ice cream worked well together (like they wouldn't since it's been done for decades...you don't know!). Overall, it was an elegant take on an American classic and I all I could think was that it was pretty ballsy to re-invent the banana split.
I remember Volt being one of the better dining experiences of my life (and think what you may about Top Chefs, but this one stopped in the middle of a busy dinner service to say hi to my nieces and take some pictures which completely made their day so this one will always be okay in my book) and when Bryan Voltaggio opened his take on the classic American diner, I made a note to go and try it. I got a chance this past weekend to visit Family Meal and the menu certainly lists really familiar comfort foods. But, when you explore further, you'll find a list of exciting food choices that certainly weren't found in your father's diner and when you taste the food, you'll know that the fare at Family Meal isn't your typical diner food.