Newton's Table: Inventive Menu
Chef's first solo flight is a fun one
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Striking out on his own for the first time, chef Dennis Friedman says he wants to focus on food that is "simple, done right," rather than "crazy, crazy stuff on plates." That doesn't mean the 32-year-old isn't having a little fun with diners at Newton's Table, which opened in Bethesda in April and puts a smile on the face of anyone ordering filet mignon.
Here, the ubiquitous entree arrives beneath a golden dome of gaufrette potatoes. You have to lift or crack open the edible ornament to get to the tender, rosy meat and its ring of wilted spinach and soft artichokes. It's better than most steak presentations.
Some razzle-dazzle also accompanies the steamed lobster, arranged on a plate of fried spinach so that it appears as if the creature is emerging from the surf onto seaweed. The entree looks better than it tastes. The lobster is overcooked in parts; the spinach needs more zip.
"It's not a boring menu," pronounces a friend on my maiden voyage to the modern American restaurant that replaced Rock Creek and its health-bent philosophy. He's got that right. The choices hop from salt-and-pepper shrimp to cocoa-rubbed bison to an ice cream float. Before Newton's Table, Friedman was chef and co-owner at Bezu in Potomac, where his signatures included tempura-wrapped rare tuna and upscale pad Thai, (slightly) tweaked versions of which have made the move to Bethesda with him.
Pass on the bland focaccia, served free, and splurge on the hot gougeres, $8 per silver cone. The herbed cheese puffs, as elegant as any I've sampled locally, are great escorts for the restorative cocktails. Among other drinks, one with gin, pink grapefruit juice, fresh basil and lime makes for a smooth transition from office to table.
A nice segue from those snacks is a soft-shell crab dressed in a wisp of batter and set on a fluffy cake of garlicky fried rice. The starter comes with a sweet soy sauce for dipping and an orchid that makes you feel as if you're on vacation. (Friedman counts Alan Wong, under whom he worked in Hawaii, as an inspiration.) Caesar salad is staged in a wide Parmesan basket but is otherwise routine. Another appetizer, duck confit, unites France with Mexico. Pinches of rich shredded meat are hosted on tiny corn cakes, three per order and racier for the smooth black bean puree that darkens the plate. The source of the heat is the red sauce, made with Sriracha, streaked across the beans.
Short ribs as an appetizer? That's how the beef is billed on the menu, but I much prefer the dish - brushed with house-made barbecue sauce and nicely caramelized - as a main course when I'm craving beef but don't want to pork out. The portion is the size of a deck of cards and comes with a puddle of sweet parsnip puree.
One of the most entertaining entrees at Newton's Table is Fuzu, a made-up name for a rice noodle dish that finds room for carrots, snow peas, scallops, black sesame seeds, fried shallots, chicken - you get the idea. The colorful mound, dressed with soy sauce and served with silver chopsticks, brings a lot of pleasure. Early on, Friedman was serving a novel burger that parked fried lobster and juicy steak tips in a barn of a brioche bun. Wavy french fries circled the surf-and-turfer. Just one problem: The sandwich was hard to tackle. A tidier version of the burger is available, but you have to request it.
A few dishes at Newton's Table resemble the efforts of a competent home cook. The veal chop has size and a pink center to recommend it, but the halved Brussels sprouts filling out the plate lack seasoning. Moist roast chicken gets a little lift from its garlicky spinach and spoon bread, but it's the least interesting of the second acts.
Paintings of apples, some with bites taken out of them, line one wall and hype the restaurant's theme. The opposite wall is bare, as if the decorating budget had stopped there. In between are chairs swathed in blueberry-colored fabric and light fixtures that resemble outsize illuminated bullets. Water flows down the apple-green rear wall, adding a note of serenity and, Friedman allows, helping to draw attention away from the kitchen, which has no door.
Desserts aren't "crazy," but they all have an edge. Chocolate Crunch recalls Michel Richard's peerless riff on the Kit Kat bar. Friedman's version is tough to cut, though; bring safety goggles. Cheesecake is distinguished from the lot out there by a lavender sauce that is pleasing because it steers clear of tasting like potpourri. (A little lavender goes a long way.) The trendiest ending is a big scoop of house-churned vanilla ice cream embedded with amber "pig" brittle that reveals prosciutto and toasted nuts. The combination of sweet, smoky and salty is very appealing.
It's also "simple, done right."