By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, August 2, 2009
**1/2 (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 66 decibels (Conversation is easy)
Umbi Singh's response to the recession? He's dressing down for dinner at his restaurant.
"I intentionally don't wear a jacket" anymore, says the typically dapper owner of New Heights. "The business has changed," he explains. Formality is out, small plates are in, and Singh wants not just to survive but to thrive at his 23-year-old establishment in Woodley Park. New Heights dropped off some customers' radar when he was busy running the late Butterfield 9 downtown, Singh says. Competition, in the form of dozens of new restaurants in recent seasons, didn't help.
Haven't been there in a while? It's time to go back. Never been there? Introduce yourself to New Heights. Long a stage for local cooking talent, the contemporary American restaurant now features Logan Cox in the kitchen. In the year since he replaced John Wabeck, who left New Heights and menu writing for Inox and wine duties in McLean, Cox has demonstrated a finesse that belies his 29 years.
One of his best contributions is a $6 starter that could double as a light main course. A thick bar of mackerel, crisp from the grill, takes on a sassy flavor with garnishes of lightly pickled onion and raisins. To the side of the fish stands a fine foil, fingerling potatoes draped with a light mustard and capers. It's the sort of straightforward-but-sublime arrangement a diner might expect at Palena in Cleveland Park, where Cox previously toiled as a line cook.
The young chef shows admirable restraint. His arrangements tend to be uncluttered, his flavors focused. In one of several elegant payoffs for the diner, supple octopus, steamed mussels and a chunk of braised pork belly are prettily arranged in a shallow broth. The richness of the broth is coaxed from the meat's braising liquid, the juice of the mussels and chicken stock. The mysterious smoky notes? They come from steeping embers of torched hickory chips in the liquid, confides the chef. The guy digs smoke, which also flavors the ricotta that is strewn over agnolotti stuffed with pureed white asparagus and chopped hazelnuts, a refined vegetarian main course.
Cox's menu, his third since he arrived, is infused with an appealing Mediterranean bent. A salad of vegetables is lashed with yogurt and splashed with lavender vinegar, while pancetta-bound rabbit loin arrives with a panisse, or pancake made with chickpea flour.
One of the few exceptions to Cox's less-is-more approach, and a reminder that he also put in time as a sous-chef at the late Colvin Run Tavern in Tysons Corner, surfaces in an entree of halibut. The plate is dressed to the hilt, decorated as it is with lemon confit, dots of black olive oil, red pepper strips here and braised artichokes there. For good measure, there is also a crisp sail of bread plus a sprinkling of peas. Despite all the enhancers, the accents work in concert to create a vivid and compelling presentation. That halibut is like a good book that you continue to pick up after finishing it; maybe that's why I've ordered it three times.
The main course that cries out for a flavor lift brings together muted lamb shoulder and blimplike merguez with none of the spiciness one associates with that racy Spanish sausage. Nothing about the dish works, least of all the supposedly fiery harissa "emulsion" dappled over the meat. The airy pink foam registers a blank on the palate.
Not so the chef's seasonal pickles or his salt and vinegar chips, two of a handful of side dishes to consider. The first, biting onions, carrots, cucumbers and peppers; the latter, a heap of thin golden coins, which taste great by themselves but become irresistible after a swipe through their anchovy mayonnaise.
Cox faces a few hurdles. One is the restaurant's location. Situated on the corner of Calvert and Connecticut next to the sprawling Open City eatery, the trim New Heights is easy to miss. Only its small bar is visible from the street; passersby could easily conclude that the lone visible table and flash of counter are the sum of the place, since the mango-colored dining room is beyond view, up a staircase on the building's second floor. Singh and his wife and partner, Kavita, recently installed glass doors to catch the eyes of customers, who can now also dine al fresco and graze from a new bar menu at the tables facing the sidewalk.
Two major hotels within strolling distance of New Heights are both a blessing and a curse for Cox. A nearby crowd of hungry customers is good. But as anyone who has designed a menu with hotel guests in mind knows, such a list must have wide appeal and be unintimidating. What's an ambitious chef to do? In Cox's case, he put a steak on the menu but changed the way it's usually presented. Here, rosy Stonehenge pillars of grilled beef, a perfect swipe of buttery potatoes and a tail of red wine sauce add up to high fashion.
The standard for interior design has been raised considerably since New Heights came on the scene in 1986. With the exception of fresh paint and carpet now and then, the restaurant looks much the same as it always has, right down to the smart triangular-shaped tables that continue to make an art statement. There's a reason for that: "I wanted the food and the people to be the color," says Singh. And they are. For some of us, though, the dining room's greatest assets, aside from the gracious hosts (Kavita Singh cuts a regal pose), have always been the seats near the broad windows overlooking a carpet of treetops. Soft jazz is played at a level that allows you to hear your table mate swoon over a decadent pot of chicken liver or a succulent plate of veal.
Admirably, Cox bakes most of his own bread and butchers the meats himself. That should be your cue to sample the moist corn bread and start dinner with fennel sausage, dressed up with a beige diamond of fried buckwheat polenta. But the chef's attention or resources seem to flag at dessert, the weak link in a generally strong show of cooking. My inclination is to order cheese to enjoy with the last sips of my wine. Besides, with the bill comes something small and sweet: sometimes chocolate truffles, other nights almond shortbread.
New Heights? I'd say so.
Open: dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: Woodley Park. Valet parking. Prices: appetizers $5 to $12, entrees $19 to $28.