High Voltage: Meet the Top Chefs Taking Over Washington, DC

The dining scene in Washington, DC, is in the midst of a culinary renaissance, with an increasing number of talented chefs opening restaurants that give guests a place to be seen, backed by food that’s worth talking about.

The city’s newfound embrace for what’s happening in the kitchen enticed chefs Bryan and Michael Voltaggio to collaborate with Conrad Hotels & Resorts on their newest endeavor, Estuary.

The restaurant, inside the iconic new Conrad Washington, DC, is essentially the brothers’ love letter to the Chesapeake Bay, where they grew up.

At Estuary, they serve up fresh Mid-Atlantic fare with a twist only the Voltaggios can bring with their signature style that refines cooking in a whole new way.

Their playful approach fits in perfectly with Conrad’s embrace of modern artistry in stylish surroundings.

The view from Estuary Bar

The menu, which the brothers spent more than 200 hours perfecting for launch, features signature dishes like lamb pastrami, a kale rigatoni and cedar planked salmon with sunflower seed risotto. Other dishes pair octopus with kelp pasta, while cornbread includes Surryano ham, Virginia’s answer to prosciutto. Bread sticks come with a pimento cheese sauce, a local favorite.

“This is a celebration of us coming together on a plate on a very different level,” Bryan says.

Estuary, located on the third floor of the newly opened Conrad Washington, DC, just steps away from the mix of high-end boutiques of CityCenterDC, is a homecoming of sorts for the Voltaggios.

Foodies will instantly recognize the brothers for their appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef Masters as competitors (Michael won season six), as well as guest stints on Food Network shows hosted by Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay.

Michael, who sports sleeves of tattoos on his arms, most recently left his mark on Los Angeles, with the innovative Ink group of restaurants. Bryan has stayed in the D.C. area, with the exceptional Volt, Range, Aggio and Family Meal.

After spending the past 25 years honing their skills and opening well-received mini empires of restaurants on both coasts, returning to the capital “is important to us because we have a lot of ties to this area,” Bryan says. “It’s our backyard.”

A Family Connection

Estuary is the third eatery the two have opened after introducing a steakhouse at the MGM National Harbor casino in Maryland, and made-to-order grilled fish sandwich shop Strfsh on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade in California.

“We just found that it was easier to accomplish twice as much work if we got together and started sharing infrastructure, ideas and resources,” Michael says.

Partnering with Conrad Washington, DC, also lets the Voltaggios get creative again and focus on their love for food and service.

One of Estuary’s most Instagrammed dishes is the restaurant’s Maryland Crab Roll, which takes the messiness out of eating Maryland crab and showcases the meat on a buttery brioche bun accompanied with crab-shaped plantain chips dusted in Old Bay seasoning.

“This is a celebration of us coming together on a plate on a very different level.” – Bryan Voltaggio

The Maryland Crab Roll at Estuary

“It’s a lot of fun because it’s not only a play on celebrating Maryland crab but also on a classic lobster roll that you’d see in New England,” Bryan says. “The playfulness that Michael and I have in our food is in the presentation and familiar flavor profiles.”

“A lot of the fun stuff that we did at Ink and what Bryan does at Volt are definitely sprinkled throughout the menu,” Michael says.

One such dish is a mozzarella pretending to be a tomato—a smoked mozzarella cheese that’s enrobed in tomato jelly that looks like a tomato skin but is actually pomodoro sauce.

“When you look at it, it just looks like a bowl of tomatoes, and we serve it with a grilled piece of bread,” Michael says.

Launching a New Culinary Platform

Estuary is meant to give the brothers a new platform to showcase their talents. The restaurant’s overall design supports that idea with an open kitchen built around a custom-designed Ferrari-red Molteni range, which Bryan heralds as “the pinnacle of stoves.”

The elegantly modern dining room is an airy, naturally lit retreat of floor-to-ceiling windows punctuated by blond woods and relaxing beige tones.

Estuary Bar at Conrad Washington, DC

“There’s no front or back of the house,” Michael says. “The entire experience sort of functions together, and the guest experience, visually, is as good as the actual restaurant experience. There isn’t a bad view in the restaurant.”

Art also plays a significant role, with one private dining room featuring a massive wall-length mosaic of broken white and blue china that “your eyes get lost in for like 30 minutes,” Michael says. “It’s just so interesting.”

An outdoor patio with around 34 seats provides an intimate respite of greenery, and with its third-story perch, an alternative to D.C.’s often noisy or crowded street-level dining options.

“You have this oasis in the heart of the city,” Bryan says.

Celebrating the Chesapeake Bay

The Voltaggios also saw a need to prop up Mid-Atlantic cuisine. The Chesapeake Bay stretches 200 miles from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“A lot of people celebrate other parts of the country, but we truly feel there’s a really amazing, growing region here, which just gives us countless opportunities for products,” Bryan says. “Using ingredients from the area is what Michael and I are good at.”

The Voltaggios join a respected group of chefs who already call D.C. home and are reshaping the capital’s food scene, including Jose Andres, Aaron Silverman, Tim Ma, Kwame Onwuachi, Spike Mendelsohn, Edward Lee and Erik Bruner-Yang. They’re getting away from the dimly lit steakhouses of the early 2000s and introducing more ethnic and inventive cuisine.

Michael Voltaggio has seen this kind of change before, namely in Los Angeles. “D.C. right now is exactly what L.A. started doing eight to ten years ago, but it’s happening faster,” he says.

And that’s a great thing for chefs in D.C. Locals there and in Maryland and Virginia tend to not move much and become more loyal to their favorite restaurants, versus the more transient culture of L.A., always looking for the next hot spot or never sticking around for long to call the city home.

“A lot of people celebrate other parts of the country, but we truly feel there’s a really amazing, growing region here, which just gives us countless opportunities for products. Using ingredients from the area is what Michael and I are good at.” – Bryan Voltaggio

Estuary incorporates flavors of the Chesapeake, like Whitefish Milanese

“As a chef, you have the opportunity to capture an audience that’s going to eat with you a lot more,” Michael adds.

Partnering with a hotel is still fairly new for the Voltaggios, but it’s a relationship they welcome with open arms.

“When you have a restaurant, your partner often doesn’t share the day-to-day headache that you have to go through to produce not only a great experience but hopefully a profit,” Michael says. “In this particular case, they’re in it with us and we’re in it with them. Our responsibilities are to focus on the creative process and creating the experience. We have to deal with the execution and that’s it.”

The Voltaggios want Estuary to be seen as a hangout for locals, which the dining room, lounge and bar are already attracting.

“It’s become a gathering place for people who are working and living around the area, which is a testament to Conrad and the entire team,” Bryan says. “That was our mission. We want Estuary to be part of the fabric of the city. We’re very much a part of the hotel and the whole resort experience, but we want this to be a destination for D.C., Maryland and Virginia residents as well. We want this to be part of the community, and I think we’re starting to accomplish that now.”

Read Also: Explore Washington, DC’s newest rooftop bar, Summit

To savor the fresh flavors at Estuary, book your stay at conradwashingtondc.com.

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