On the Rogue with Chef RJ Cooper III
Jack Kerouac once wrote, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.” Yet, what Jack failed to scribble onto his snarky scroll of self-searching was “mad to cook” and this, my dear friends, is the best kind of mad there is. Partaking on his own self-fulfilling journey is Chef RJ Cooper III with his new restaurant, Rogue 24. Folded within the narrow streets of Blagden Alley lies a unique kitchen where all angst of culinary dissatisfaction in our nation’s capital comes to die. The kitchen at Rogue 24 is not hidden behind swinging doors, nor is it your typical “open kitchen” you may think you’ve seen. RJ Cooper’s stage is smack in the middle of the dining room and filled with eager minions ready to show Chef how brilliant they actually are. In turn, this makes an evening at Rogue 24 as close to perfect as Cooper’s team of “gastr-overachievers” can possibly make it. During dinner, and surely encouraged by increasing sips of paired alcoholic splendor, it is hard not to become enamored by a man exposed and unafraid to perform on command. It is his taste, his vision and the dripping fruit of his own culinary past — your role as the diner is simply to meditate, appreciate and associate each bite with the nostalgic smells and flavors of your past.
The concept of eating “nostalgically” is like going to an art gallery – you interpret what is before you as per your own life experiences. Whether it’s your grandmother’s best cooked dish or one you tasted whilst travelling through Europe, both of Cooper’s tasting menus will at some point wisk your tongue down memory lane. Somewhere in the midst of courses one through 24, you will indeed recognize a smell or a flavor from one day when and “oohs and ahhs” of wistfulness will escape you between bites. You will so very delicately discover at Rogue 24, that eating is no longer the act of fork to mouth, but more purposefully — fork to soul. Bearing all this in mind, I approached every dish that evening with contempt, as I fought to unlock the nostalgic crux of each swollen balsamic fish egg. And by the end of 24 plates and a myriad of generous wine pours and cocktails, I felt just as any soul-drifter would: content, haggard, and yes, very drunk. In the dimly lit dining room where mid-century meets industrial design and foam tastes like cucumber, I could not help but think back to the characters of Kerouac’s American classic, “On the Road,” whose dreams of freedom from conformity sent them haywire through landscapes, relationships and ultimately self-actualization. As Dean and Sal attempt to escape the monotony of everyday life, I , too, find myself beaten and unsatisfied with an endless continuum of lackluster ambiance and predictable meals. The restlessness becomes too much to bear, and my credit card and I drive up and away into the sunset. Though Route 66 has become just another interstate highway on an even phonier map than before, Chef RJ Cooper III decided to stick it to everyone and turn dinner into a journey. I arrived to the restaurant right before the first reservation, accidently interrupting the family-style staff dinner in the salon. Without hesitation or annoyance, the chef sat me down next to him and continued his democratic address of necessary business that evening.
Seated among the young cast of 30 odd employees, the atmosphere felt more like a gathering of actors before curtain call than a throng of cooks, hosts and waiters. It was quite evident that for those present, it was not just another day at work. For the folks of Rogue 24 dinnertime is show time and, with every designer plate served since July 27, just another opportunity to improve and perfect their trade. After a huddle and break, the staff scattered back to Kitchen Island and furiously continued prepping for the evening’s performance.
Left in the salon with a glass of rosé bubbly, I prepared to partake on my own journey — 24 mini extravaganzas with eight pairings that would, according to Harold our noble host, indubitably amaze and surprise. While I have dined at restaurants with similar haute cuisine progressions, it is always exciting to uncover the mysteries of each chef’s own life pit-stops weaved throughout the layers of crème fraiche and rooibos gel. And as the curtains separating the salon from the dining room began to flutter with movement of cooks in the kitchen, my dinner guest and I were asked to follow Harold into the dining room. From the start of “The Journey” on, we were delicately placed in RJ Cooper’s passenger seat as he veered effortlessly between roles of top chef, host and waiter, all while blessing each plate before sending it off to a table. Without further ado, and to continue my thesis supporting the connection between Kerouac’s novel and the experience of Rogue 24, I present to you with the utmost exclusivity, the better and more innovative dishes of the evening. In addition, and as any English major/food enthusiast would, I have separated the selected plates into themes associated with “On the Road.” Therefore each theme is representative of the memories I personally shared upon tasting each dish as well as my personal critiques. Enjoy and Bon Voyage!
“T includes 24 courses; $175/with pairings; $120/without. (Note: Dishes come out at a quick pace. No time for breaks. You are in a two-hour tunnel of endless sensations and spirits.)
While I recommend saving your pennies for just another week to experience “The Journey,” you may also choose the lighter fare of “The Progression,” which includes 16 courses; $145/with pairings: $100/without.
Fowl Play: To explain this dish in a clear nutshell, it is a maple wood campfire captured in a cup. Make sure to lift off the top of this jarred jewel slowly as the trapped “smoke” escapes quickly. The smell of summer camp triggers the liberating memory of out-running the fat kid in Capture the Flag and you are free, free, free. Honestly, I never loved camping, but this thoughtful dish makes the outdoors taste good. Within this jar you will find crispy duck jerky, a partridge egg yolk cooked gooey, some “hay” (fried corn silks) and an edible flower. It is to be eaten in one smoky, sticky spoonful.
Not Your Cheese Course: The interpretation of this Babybel cheese reminded me of the old days when I snuck these rubies from the refrigerator to secretly consume in my room. Oh, the joy of unwrapping their waxy shell! (Naturally, the mystery of the disappearing cheese was later uncovered by my stepmother due to the mound of red waxy balls piling in my sock drawer.) Yet this bundle of headcheese is not meant to be unwrapped. Folded within its edible exterior is braised pork churned and dipped into a paprika gelatin-like substance made from seaweed. It is served slated with pickled mustard seed, mustard green, violet mustard grape musk and complimented with pretzel paper.
Shrimp and Grits: With ringing freedom bells from Vidalia and freedom from the o’ so common comforting bed of grits with sleeping crustaceans, Cooper presents his unadulterated version of a Southern classic. If you do not know what to expect, listen carefully to your server for this dish. The grit covered corn milk lava ball represents the traditional goop, and the shrimp is reinvented in chorizo form. You need not a spoon but only a couple bites to consume this relic of Cooper’s past.
Foie gras: Sunday morning breakfast goes nuovelle cuisine? I thought this dish to be the most unusual pairing of flavors and temperatures, but also one of the most inventive. What you see is a hearty bowl of nitrogen frozen foie gras shaved like icy cornflakes and layered above lavender merengue and rooibos gel. Though I felt the presentation of this dish, including the oversized spoon, was muddled and just plain confusing, the rich and buttery foie gras literally melts in your mouth and is nicely complimented by the texture and sweetness of the merengue. With the appropriate spoon and served in a dish where the ingredients can be better observed, I would say this one is definitely a keeper.
Lamb Neck: Cooper has perfected the relationship of sweet and savory in this Eastern-inspired dish. The lamb is braised for 24 hours then portioned to sit upon Tzatziki — add blot of black garlic, splotch of eggplant puree, and a sweet smear of lemon meringue puree. Not to dismiss the candied sesame seeds and greasy onion chip, but the caramelized lemon and eggplant sang brilliantly in tune. A dip in the tangy garlic whistling from the Tzatziki brings it all together in one tongue-tingling sensation.
Visions of America
Virginia Corn or “Cornucopia”: What’s more American than corn? Though I did not really understand this dish other than it being reminiscent of my grandfather’s vitamin-filled oatmeal, I did however find it mockingly appealing. As you can see there is corn espuma on top of a corn chip powder with a baby heirloom corn, brown butter emulsion, freeze-dried corn, popcorn with escrolet pepper, a pickled mushroom and a sprinkle of black salt. It is almost like Cooper wanted to take what the rest of the world mocks us for and turn it into a gourmet slap in the face. Ironically enough, I found the mushroom to be the tastiest part of the dish. A celebration of a country or a F-you to the haters? There could be a political message here.
Tennessee: Not just your classic combo of chocolate and vanilla, this dessert will make your cookie crumble. Adorably plated on a mound of “soil” (ground homemade oreo), this dirty dish is composed of chocolate cremeux (similar to a pudding), olive Sinclair chocolate from Nashville, and hatted with maple wood gelato delicately shaped into a quenelle (three-sided football shape/dumpling). The earthiness of the maple wood and the texture of the oreo soil initially gave the impression of noshing a spoonful of forest floor. Yet, as the gelato melts in your mouth and dampens the cookie crumbles, the flavors marry perfectly. You begin to wonder where you can buy this dessert by the pint.
Toigo’s Peach Inspiration: Another Southern-inspired dish gone mental was the all-American peaches n’ cream. The summer’s juiciest peaches from Toigo Orchards in Pennsylvania were sliced and soaked in bourbon syrup and potted with sweet tea gelée and vanilla. While the overall flavor of this dessert was rousing, I felt the presentation made it look like a stringy, vomity soup. As much as the 10-year-old in me jumped for joy at the sound of marshmallow noodles, I am not convinced they did the texture of this dish any favors. Instead of slimy marshmallow bucatini, maybe Cooper should shoot for fire crispy gnocchetti next time? Also, I feel a burnt flavor and a crispiness to the noodles could really tie the dish together as well as help with the texture setback. Note: The chosen pairing of a Val-Dieu, a rich Belgian beer, is a must for this dish.
Sea Floor: Pretty to look at, pretty annoying to eat. Cooper makes you work for this one and if you do not like the taste of the ocean floor, this may not be your favorite course. I, on the other hand, could not wait to try my luck at catching the sea booger with my giant tweezers. Step aside fork! Sea Floor is made up of a Catalina Island sea urchin, pickled seaweed and sea-air foam. Due to the depth of the bowl, the aromas are caught and held within. Go ahead, stick your face in the bowl. It is like taking a whiff of sea air. Note: Neither the bowl nor the utensil are intended for the diner’s comfort. In fact, some dishes at Rogue 24, such as Sea Floor, are the antithesis of comfortable eating. Struggling to clasp the oozing sea urchin with foot-long tweezers, can only be comparable to watching a toddler play Operation. Thankfully, the only thing missing from this dish was that fastidious buzzer.
Hog Jowl: To the tune of the Newman’s “dance of the plastic bag,” I took a bite of what would end up being one of my favorite dishes of the evening. Who knew the complexity onion ice cream could bring to a pain perdu? Served on a small square sand dollar was caramelized onion ice cream topped with a bit of smoky jowl (pig cheek) and escorted by a fatty corn puff stuck to the plate with caramel. This dish was memorable for the play with salty and sweet as well as temperature. Upon digging in, our waiter made sure to tell us to “enjowl.” So, there was cheese with this dish.
Garden Soda: If this bottle contained a message, it would be “Ariell, this drink was made for thee.” I am a sucker for cutesy presentation, and this savory soda of vegetable consommé with summer squash and garden flowers was a sparkling, sugary, splendor. The slight saltiness of the veggie stock made me and addict for small sips and the fragrance escaping the bottle as you brought it to your lips was of sweet smelling of cucumbers. I had to have two.
*An evening at Rogue 24 is not only about trying your hand at tricky utensils and your tongue at new tastes and temperature marriages, it is also about sips of cocktails and wine between bites and laughs. It is a place to witness those dedicated to culinary creativity put before you food designed with passion and intensity.