By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Then: Less formality, more finesse (2009)
Again: The beat goes on
For a restaurant to stay relevant, a fresh coat of paint helps. So does a change of kitchen talent. New Heights is 26 years old, but even a regular patron doesn't sense the passage of time, given the autumnal brush strokes on its walls and the arrival of Ron Tanaka, the opening chef at Cork Wine Bar, in October.
Owners Umbi and Kavita Singh have a history of hiring skilled hands, and Tanaka, who has also stirred at CityZen and Palena, follows the pattern. His current menu is a breeze to read, but the short list includes something for food lovers and tourists who ascend to the second-story dining room overlooking a spread of treetops.
I count a sea of seviches out there. Tanaka tucks sweet raw scallops, cool cucumber and pomegranate seeds in a squat Mason jar, adds a beet-red plantain chip, and garnishes the plate with paprika-tossed popcorn. The combination of the dewy scallops, fresh lime juice and fine crunch makes for a joyous sensation. Cumin-bolstered lentil soup is perked up with crumbled bacon and minced vegetables on its golden yellow surface. Even a salad of braised endive and radicchio tastes novel. Credit goes to its sumac vinaigrette and sugared walnuts.
It's not all finery. There's steak in the lineup, because when you have two major hotels within walking distance, you need something familiar for visitors. The only flaw on a plate of flank steak, rosy and racy with rosemary and garlic, is a beige puddle of parsnip puree reminiscent of winter rather than spring. Those who like to fish should order sauteed rockfish, bedded on nutty wild rice and dappled with an herb puree as well as a delicate corn sauce.
Expect a twist everywhere. Basil lends intrigue to a slice of carrot torte, and churros come scented with saffron. Signaling the end of dinner may be lollipops made with gin, a reminder that the bar downstairs, stashed with 50 kinds of the spirit, is a swell place to wet your whistle.
Custom tonics can cure a classic
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, June 8, 2012
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, gin is the quintessential drink.
The gin rickey is Washington’s official cocktail, honored at bars throughout the city during July’s “Rickey Month” celebrations. The humble gin and tonic, though, has long had a reputation for being stodgy: something our parents and grandparents drank at garden parties. That’s changing as a raft of independent gins have hit the market in recent years, all begging to be served with ice and a twist and something beyond the usual harsh tonic water that shoots from the soda gun at most bars.
The place to go to rediscover the G&T? New Heights Restaurant’s cozy, pleasant Gin Joint bar, which stocks 50 gins from around the world and a variety of tonics to pair them with, including a rotating selection of house-made tonics.
Chef John Waback created this novel bar dedicated to gin four years ago, and it has been steadily evolving in both selection and quality. Recent additions to the ever-expanding menu include St. George’s malty, juniper-heavy Dry Rye Gin; the dry, spicy Voyager from Washington’s Pacific Distillery; and a fragrant, botanical-forward gin called Greenhook Ginsmiths from Brooklyn. Purists can comfort themselves with Old Raj, Broker’s, Plymouth and Leopold’s Navy Strength.
The big improvement in the past years is in the selection of tonics cooked up by bar manager Nicole Hassoun and her team. Flavors include baking spices -- think cinnamon and nutmeg -- that blend with cardamom and malty gins, a to-die-for summer blend of orange-flower water and fresh lime, and a zippy tangerine mix that includes cayenne pepper.
Sometimes these are created to pair with the “Gin of the Month” -- the ginger tonic was designed to complement the gingery flavors of Breuckelen Gin -- and sometimes they’re seasonally inspired. Flavors come and go. Hibiscus and mango, for example, were featured this spring.
New Heights’ menu is set up very simply: one column lists all of the gins and their essential flavors, including juniper, lemon peel or pepper, and the other column lists both house-made and commercial tonics, such as Fever Tree Bitter Lemon or Seagrams. Then you play mad scientist or mixologist to decide what to pair. Indecisive types can choose one of the pre-matched tasting flights of three gin and tonics ($19). Most other drinks cost about $9 or $10 per glass, depending on the gin.
When concocting your own, it’s easy enough to think, “This gin has lemon and orange, so I’ll choose the citrus or orange-water tonic.” That usually works, although sometimes you wind up with too much of the same flavors. So try marrying opposites: Smooth Ambler, a peppery, citrus-heavy gin from West Virginia, becomes a bracing summertime treat when paired with the ginger tonic. Combining Greenhook gin with the house citrus tonic created amazing flavors: savory orange, peppery juniper and floral sweetness.
If that doesn’t sound like the last gin and tonic you poured, it’s time to go to New Heights.