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Monday, March 12, 2012

First Look: Lunchbox

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Frederick, Maryland

The Setup

Part Two of our Frederick trip was a stop-in at Bryan Voltaggio's new restaurant Lunchbox, where the owner himself gave a group of bloggers (including Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas and Official Friend of DCWD Sam) a taste of what the three-month-old eatery has to offer.

The Vibe

One of the more charming parts of Frederick's downtown revitalization efforts is the Carroll Creek Promenade, a beautiful brick walkway on either side of the eponymous waterway. The actual park space is quite handsome, with plenty of benches and shaded areas to take in the gorgeous landscape on a sunny day. But the addition of a few shops as well as the Frederick Public Library alongside this area make it an ideal place for the community to mix. One of these shops is Lunchbox.

The inspiration for Lunchbox is more happenstance than design. Shortly before the Top Chef season that would catapult him into a more national conversation, the elder Chef Voltaggio was scouting locations for Volt, before deciding on its current space on North Market Street; Lunchbox's current spot along with its neighbor (now the Wine Kitchen) was one of the options. When the space reopened up years later, he eagerly bought it for a second space (outside of his forthcoming third and fourth restaurants (Range in Friendship Heights, and The Family Meal in Frederick, respectively).

The issue was that the previous inhabitant was a coffee shop, so the space was utterly devoid of a kitchen. But no matter: bringing in his own experience as a father and wth the library nearby making it an ideal family spot, Chef Voltaggio installed a soup and sandwich concept powered by two gargantuan panini presses that crank out sandwiches in under a minute. The rest of the space's decor is fairly spartan but clean: white walls broken up only by small wooden box shelves with silver lunchboxes; plain white twos and fours and two upscale picnic tables in the middle; a display case with all the day's sandwiches and a glassed-in prep station. The space evokes simplicity but still with an air of lunchshop-friendliness, the restaurant's family-friendly bent best epitomized by the changing table with free diapers in the bathroom.

The Food

The restaurant's lunch-focused menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches focuses on things you know and love, but just done way better. Take the grilled cheese for instance, the sandwich that Chef Voltaggio sent out first as a warmup. Gone is the Kraft of yesteryear, replaced by an aged Vermont cheddar that was wonderfully oozy and melty, with a light herb taste from the bread.

Next up was the Pilgrim, a sandwich that Texas described as "Thanksgiving" in a bite: turkey, sage, orange-cranberry compote, cream cheese. This came out at the same time as the lamb sandwich, topped with eggplant relish, honey aioli, and walnut praline on a hoagie roll. Both of these sandwiches had a similar set-up: an almost overwhelming amount of juicy meat, with the lamb specifically carrying a degree of flavor that nearly overcame everything else it came with. Both were great bites for the winter-cum-spring weather that has characterized the last few weeks.

The winner sandwich for many of us came down between two: first, the savory mom's meatloaf, with tamarind ketchup, gruyere, and onion marmalade on ciabatta bread. I'm not one for meatloaf (my mother never made any when we were kids), but this was delicious, more like high-end meatballs than anything that could be described in loaf form. It simultaneously tasted of freshness, and of home.

The other winner was the dessert sandwich, nicknamed the TCB (takin' care of business): banana and nutella, pressed to perfection on potato bread. Inspired by his son's affection for the sandwich, Chef Voltaggio added this sandwich to the menu, and it was the runaway best for me, Texas, and Sam. It's gooey and sweet and beautiful, and a perfect way to end any day.

But if the sandwiches were good, the soups were amazing. The roasted butternut squash was fine, but it was the shitake soup that will haunt my dreams. Flavored with roasted peanut and opal basil, it was at once creamy but full of depth, with a richness coming from the mushrooms that packed a punch, but wasn't overpowering. I'm not a huge mushroom fan, nor am I a fan of soups sans meat, but this was just fantastic.

The Verdict

If this shop was in DC, we'd be there at least twice a week. As it stands, a beautiful spot to grab a bite to eat.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)
: Walk along the Promenade; on a beautiful day, the brick and the water and the sun are really calming.

Lunchbox on Urbanspoon

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