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Higher Heights

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Now that Bethesda and downtown's Seventh Street have been packed full of fashionable new restaurants, Woodley Park and Cleveland Park are following suit. Woodley Park has the new Medaterra, from the originators of Arlington's Pasha Cafe. And nine blocks north, an upscale Asian seafood restaurant is expected to join the other Cleveland Park newcomers in November: Yanyu, a spinoff of Oodles Noodles downtown and in Bethesda, is being designed by the same firm that did Coco Loco, Provence, El Catalan and Raku.
– P.C.R.
The name is no longer wishful thinking. New Heights has taken on a new chef who is at last fulfilling its promise.

John Wabeck came from Restaurant Nora, where he was chef de cuisine, but his cooking here outshines what he was doing before. At age 30, he has already found the wisdom to pare down, simplify, let the ingredients speak for themselves.

He has an ideal environment in which to show his ability. New Heights is one of the city's most modestly beautiful restaurants, furnished with handmade triangular tables as well as the conventional rectangular ones. It takes advantage of its second-floor location with large windows that not only invite you to peer through leafy trees to Calvert Street, but are blooming with flowers in window boxes right outside.

It's a gem of a restaurant, stylish and accommodating. It's the place where Northwest neighbors come for their celebrations, Chelsea Clinton can dine with her boyfriend confident that her privacy will be respected, and members of the Democratic National Committee, decades older, feel comfortable mixing business with pleasure. It suits youthful vegetarian prom-goers and middle-aged steak guys from the nearby convention hotels. Owner Umbi Singh, who once ran an exquisite Indian restaurant in Georgetown, has a penchant for the impeccable.

If for nothing else, New Heights has always been known for intelligent and sensitive service, so much so that when last year I encountered a rude waiter I was sure he was temporary. And so he turned out to be. In general, the waiters seem knowledgeable about the food and determined to please without being intrusive. Here's a place where you could trust the staff to steer you to an interesting and moderately priced wine – which isn't hard with this wine list. Want to venture beyond cabernets and chardonnays? New Heights stocks an impressive collection of pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs, including a refreshing one from New Zealand.

But these are qualities that have maintained my affection for New Heights for years. What's new is that the food is fitting more neatly into the picture.

The menu still honors its tradition of highlighting a few dishes that can be ordered in appetizer or entree size, and black bean pate still hasn't left the appetizer list. Other perennials with even more reason to last are also retained: the weightless yet crunchy buttermilk-fried oysters with corn, chilies and lime; and the palak paneer, a deconstructed version of Indian spinach and cubes of fresh cheese that is elegantly presented in a pappadum shell and hauntingly delicious.

Even the recently added dishes read much like the previous New American menu. The raw fish, fried squid, fruited foie gras, grilled portobello, shaved fennel salad, Maytag blue cheese and flavored risotto all sound tempting, as they do at nearly every other contemporary American restaurant in town.

Yet this menu is no mindless copycat. What Wabeck does is combine five or six elements on one plate without letting them lose their integrity. They don't fight for dominance. You won't wind up wondering why he ever added that chili dressing or shredded daikon.

You'd be starting on the wrong foot, though, if you began with the chilled corn soup. Though it's conscientiously creamless and glamorized with chanterelles and a green swirl of basil oil, I found it the weakest of Wabeck's creations. It's too sweet and one-dimensional. The tuna sashimi and the warm toss of smoked trout, too, are pedestrian.

What launches a meal with flair is the seared scallops. The seafood itself tastes nutty from its quick browning, and eggplant is incorporated two ways – in soft, lush slices and a haunting drizzle of eggplant-curry emulsion – so that its flavor reverberates. Wabeck uses emulsions frequently and well; they're light and nearly all aroma, yet their fragrance doesn't mask the ingredients they're meant to garnish.

Crab cakes also gain fresh life in Wabeck's hands: They are almost pure lump crab with seasoning as backup rather than foreground. Their pickled baby vegetables are a refreshingly piquant contrast. And while the foie gras here is cut too thin to be fully appreciated, the sweet succulence of mango and the crunch of pumpkin seeds dress it ingeniously.

The old-faithful palak paneer and fried oysters have never been done better. Since, as in many restaurants, New Heights' appetizers tend to outshine its main dishes, you should consider ordering these in entree portions.

This kitchen understands frying. Thus, a fish of the day, cornmeal-crusted catfish, was greaseless and crackly, on a bed of wonderful spinach in a pool of two emulsions that looked like a sunset. Grilled salmon is less dramatic, pleasantly moistened with cardamom broth and bolstered by mashed chickpeas. Duck is tender, with a rim of sweet-tangy hoisin glaze; the filet mignon is just what it should be, and deliciously sharpened by pickled fennel and a scattering of blue cheese. Its tomato risotto is a little stodgy, though – unlike the quinoa-corn salad that accompanies the crisp-skinned rockfish. My favorite entree here is lamb chops, thin ones rubbed with tingly spices, grilled until the edges crunch, with spinach, sweet potato puree and one of the season's great tomato salads.

The most controversial entree is the vegetarian pot stickers, boiled and then pan-fried so that they are crusty and soft, plumped with chopped mushrooms and served with an orange-pepper essence that is more perfumed than sweetened. I first found it a little dull, but it grew on me, until I coveted every bit.

Desserts are crowd pleasers – a lavishly rich creme brulee with just the merest sugar crackle, a dense and moist chocolate extravagance, the classic heavy cheesecake made with mascarpone, and sorbets that taste fruitier than fruit itself.

Wabeck's cooking has an exciting pace. It's not always fully developed, but it is subtle and intricate, his ingredients playing as a team. His plates are not tortured or precious, but they look vivid and smell magnetic. This is elegant food that makes you pause, take a look, then dive in with gusto.

New Heights – 2317 Calvert St. NW. 202/234-4110. Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: appetizers $6.50 to $12.50, entrees $17 to $26. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $45 to $65 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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