CALL IT a faith-based initiative.
What with the big beef boom, the explosion of the low-carb "lifestyle" and the emergence of what can only be called Kabbalah chic (Madonna arcana, Jewish hipster T-shirts), it shouldn't be a surprise that Washington is making a second run (after Dupont Circle's short-lived L'Etoile) at a full-scale white-tablecloth kosher steakhouse. Or that it has joined Bethesda's frenetic restaurant multiculture with barely a ripple. Because dinner at the Red Heifer may well open a few eyes, and not only because of the portions; except for the yarmulkes a couple of the younger waiters wear -- and a name that is the ultimate punch line of high-profile nu-Jewish humor -- there is little about the menu or the decor that carries a big shtick. Even the "heifer wings" (a phrase that inevitably brings Jessica Simpson to mind) would pass for the usual Tabasco-orange franchise pub fare.
Actually, it's not just the names that seem a little sly: The southwest pastel-pastiche palette of the old Cottonwood Cafe is now a soothing henna -- okay, bovine red -- with strangely sharp barbs and blades of silver and gilt, and the stainless steel kitchen gleams so bright it's positively surgical, an impression exaggerated by the chef's tendency to emerge wearing a latex glove. (The restaurant's name refers to the calf without blemish that, according to the book of Numbers, God ordered Moses and Aaron to sacrifice to atone for the sins of the Hebrews. Many modern-day Jews and evangelical Christians believe another pure red heifer must be found before the building of the Third Temple, i.e., the establishment of God's kingdom and the coming of the Messiah.)
But however clever or coincidental these fillips may be, the Red Heifer is starting off as a useful crossover venue for mixed Jewish-gentile business meals, observant-casual dates, for multi-generational parties or for local hosts whose kitchens are not kosher but whose out-of-town guests are. (For obvious reasons, the restaurant is closed between Friday lunch and Sunday brunch.)
Not that the Red Heifer promotes itself as a health-food spot, but it does have fringe benefits for diners with dietary concerns beyond religious observance. All meats are glatt kosher, which means not only are they butchered according to ancient rules (methods that may further minimize the risk of contracting mad cow disease) but also that examination of the animals' lungs must show no trace of previous illness. The poultry is free-range and organically fed. The entire restaurant, including the lounge area, is smoke-free (smoking is allowed on the outdoor patio). The menu also makes a soothing gesture to the coli-phobic by pointing out that the USDA has never found any food-borne disease in kosher meats.
And since the prohibition against mixing meat and dairy dishes -- or the utensils and plates they've touched -- is neatly attended by the kitchen's replacing all dairy with soy and vegetable products, even the lactose-intolerant can dine with abandon.
There are a few things big beefeaters might miss. According to the strictures of kosher, meat from the hindquarters such as the tenderloin, sirloin or porterhouse may not be eaten, so the menu sticks to the ribs (chops and rib-eyes), shoulder, skirt steak, onglet (hanger steak) and ground chuck and round. The kitchen has obviously seen which side its bread is buttered on, loosely speaking, and concentrates on the hearty, hefty cuts -- the smallest here is a 10-ounce buffalo rib-eye, the largest a 26-ounce bone-on rib chop -- rather than the homier deli cuts.
Kosher meats must also be trimmed of veins and arteries, soaked, drained and then salted for at least an hour before being drained again. That means that some diners may find the meat a little chewy compared with non-kosher steaks, but it seems more like the difference between choice and prime beef, a frankly personal preference. And it does not prevent the steaks from being cooked to order, though "rare" may seem a little less juicy. Beef rib-eye, freshly cut by the kitchen, was as flavorful a piece of meat (and at 16 ounces, as intimidating) as any in town, and an equally sizable veal chop (nicely frenched, though wearing a little too much fat, and in a somewhat too sweet bourbon-tomato sauce) was pink and tender.
Popular choices such as tuna, rockfish, salmon and sole are available and fileted daily in-house. Sashimi-grade tuna, grilled rare as requested, was just painted with a ginger-soy glaze that for a change didn't overemphasize the soy. Wine-stewed chicken could have been cooked a little longer at a slightly lower temperature, but it was pretty good.
Side dishes are generous enough for several, but priced for singles: A large pile of sweet potato steak fries for $4 were particularly indulgent, and the $6 ratatouille more than covered the recommended daily servings of fruits and veggies. The breads, butter-free though they may be, are a pleasant change from the bland attempts at artisanal fare that are too prevalent around town: a flaky twist, a multigrain roll and a country white, all served with an herb-dense spread.
The wine list is necessarily short, heavy on the Baron Herzog (French and Californian) and with a couple of fair entries from Napa's Hagafen and South Australia's Teal Lake, but disappointingly without any of the more intriguing Israeli brands, much less the South American, mainstream French or Italians (the Laurent-Perrier champagne would be especially welcome). And one of the staff was overheard telling the waiters that all kosher wines had to be boiled, which is incorrect: Although those kosher wines that were to be handled by non-Jewish servers (mevushal) were previously boiled, now they are simply flash-pasteurized.