I’ve enjoyed Wes Gartner’s food ever since he cooked in the cramped kitchen at the original Joe D’s in Brookside.
Then came the period when the musician-turned-chef, along with his partner Jill Myers of Moxie Catering, stretched his culinary muscles in a series of inventive, off-the-radar dinners served to a couple of dozen guests in the basement kitchen of a West Side building.
Gartner experimented with nitrogen as a freezing agent for food and cocktails, a DJ spun vintage and dreamy tunes, and I’ll never forget one dessert in which he flamed a dish of ice cream, then, with a long knife, punctured a black balloon above our tables, letting loose a rain of cinnamon that sparkled orange as it reached the plates.
At Voltaire, their new venture in what had been the R Bar in the West Bottoms, Gartner and Myers aren’t pursuing that kind of culinary performance art. They didn’t expend a lot of effort transforming the brick-walled, shotgun space, and though a loungy couch now sits atop what had been the stage up front, the long (and well-stocked) bar and booths remain familiar.
Gartner and Myers have, however, brought a new culinary spirit to the place, and a very welcome one at that. I might be in the minority, but I was never much impressed by the R Bar’s food; that kitchen tried too hard to excite with clever and contrived dishes, which, by the time they reached the table, caused more head-scratching than satisfaction.
Gartner seems to have more focus and more control over the process. His palette ranges over various continents, though a pan-Asian streak seems prominent. His menu changes frequently, but recent offerings have included Vietnamese-influenced chicken wings; a roasted cauliflower with accents of lemongrass, coconut and a Thai chili paste; and a grilled salmon fillet fixed with daikon, baby bok choy, a sake-yuzu beurre blanc and Japanese peppers.
The menu’s variations from week to week are telling as you sense the chef’s impulse both to push the envelope and to hold on to a good thing when it’s happening. At one dinner my companions and I liked an appetizer that featured a charred Anaheim chili and a bit of white anchovy over a shallow pool of gazpacho — more a smear than a soup.
Even better: A few weeks later, the chili and gazpacho came surrounded by cornmeal-coated fried calamari.
Voltaire’s one-page menu tends to invite a lot of sharing at the table. The top half features small plates, and the bottom features somewhat larger main dishes, all rather reasonably priced (a recent menu included dishes from $6 to $17). Over two recent weekend dinners, my fellow diners and I blazed through almost everything.
Fried yucca, served with a serrano-kiwi ketchup, came out with a slightly crispy crust and surprisingly tender flesh — a rare and good thing in my yucca experience. A plate of three tacos al pastor — pulled pork shoulder marinated in pineapple and chili — was another Latin-accented winner. And the table applauded a dish of heirloom tomatoes served with an oozing burrata cheese and a wedge of grilled watermelon.
Vegetables are well treated in Gartner and sous chef Ryan Holopter’s kitchen. At the first dinner, my friends and I devoured that plate of roasted cauliflower, which had been dusted with turmeric and tossed with pigeon peas, tempura snake beans and a hot Thai chili sauce called nam prik num. Yes, there was a lot going on here, but it was a thrilling enough discovery, I wanted to try it again a few weeks later in order to gauge the response from a table full of unjaded interns. Bingo: cauliflower rules.
Main dishes also got elaborate and/or novel treatments, and we generally enjoyed most of them. Except for a slightly chewy tri-tip steak (served with fingerling potatoes, roasted poblano, chimichurri and more) and a slightly underdone duck breast (wilted kale, golden raisins, Szechuan pepper), everything that came our way was nicely cooked and well received.
Caramelized diver scallops were perfectly tender. A dish of mussels came bathed in an aromatic, creamy blend of fennel, leeks and Pernod. A velvety risotto showed off bits of morel mushrooms, asparagus and pea sprouts. The aforementioned grilled Faroe Island salmon, two narrow skewered strips glazed with a ginger-miso sauce, was perfectly light for a summer eve.
Fish and chips were described as a beer-battered skate wing, though the fish fillet was thicker, flakier and tastier than any skate I’ve ever had.
At the top of my list were the lamb chops. Two large and tender chops on the bone sat atop a sassy saffron-potato pancake. On the side, enhancing the kitchen’s global theme, dipping sauces included a tikka masala and a mint raita, staples of East Indian cuisine.
Voltaire, of course, was a French writer of the Enlightenment, but Gartner has confessed to a long interest in the art world’s anything-goes Dada movement, which had a short-lived base in the fabled Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916.
But the intellectual origins of Voltaire here may be irrelevant. I like the menu’s global-village motto: “We’re all in this together.”
You can’t miss the point when your table is sharing a plate of baker Andy Cool’s hot and spicy cookies for dessert, a perky, high-voltage variety that’s perfect for sharing and also perhaps for discussing weighty philosophical matters such as the yin-and-yang existence of peppers and sugar.Voltaire
1617 Genesee St.
and onFacebook Star ratings Food
: ★★★½ Adventurous excursions with cross-cultural ingredients and near flawless execution.Service
: ★★½ Friendly, though still learning the ropes.Atmosphere
: ★★½ Urbane, simple and generally comfortable.Hours
: 4-11 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; happy hour 4-6, dinner service after 6.Entree average
: $$Vegetarian options
: Roasted cauliflower, bibb lettuce salad, heirloom tomato, fried yucca, risotto.Handicapped accessible
: Street parking and lots to the north and west.Kids
: No separate menu.Noise level
: Hard surfaces make for some challeng- ing soundscapes up front.Reservations
: Encouraged, by phone.Star code
: ★ Fair, ★★ Good, ★★★ Excellent, ★★★★ ExtraordinaryPrice code
: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.Code of ethics
: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.Recommended Chicken wings
, $8← Anaheim chili calamari,
, $12Diver scallop
, $17Lamb chops,
$16Faroe Island salmon
, $14What to drink
Barman Ryan Miller oversees a list of handcrafted classic and neo-modern cocktails ($8 each). A Kansas City Sour, for instance, mixes Old Fitzgerald bourbon with smoked lemon juice, demerara (a light brown sugar syrup) and a hint of claret. A couple of our interns admired the dark heft of the New 20, made with Four Roses bourbon, Averna amaro (an herbal Italian liqueur) and Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao. One caveat: On a busy Friday night with five people at our table, it took 17 minutes to get our handmade drinks.
The bar also has a formidable list of whiskeys ($4 to $20 a glass) and beers ($4 to $12 a glass). A wine list is relatively short and nicely chosen; there’s a streak of value wines from Spain and Romania. For summer, a Basque white, the Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli ($49 a bottle), proved bright and crisp; a red Rhone, Domaine de Cristia ($44 a bottle) was a versatile and earthy pour, and likewise, a Spanish Rhone-like blend, Blau 2011 ($8 a glass), is a reliable choice.