Restaurant review

New Heights restaurant review: A delicious reinvention

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“I can’t cook, but I can ride,” says Umbi Singh.

The proof is his long and impressive run in New Heights. From 1986 until the coronavirus pandemic forced him to reconsider his priorities, Singh was the talent manager of the modern American restaurant in Woodley Park whose headliners included notable chefs – Alison Swope, Matthew Lake, Logan Cox – over the decades. As some of Singh’s competitors shifted to offering take-out and delivery in the spring of 2020, Singh dimmed the lights in his second-floor dining room, thinking the type of food New Heights was known would not translate well to boxes and bags.

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The longer he was away, the more he enjoyed his new life, including the evenings with his children. In addition, everything related to restaurant work, including finding and retaining dedicated staff, became more difficult. When he turned 73 last year, Singh decided to retire, but not before he found a promising new tenant for his landlord.

Say hello to Mark Namdar, Olena Fedorenko and chef Jose Molina. Former colleagues at the Graham Hotel in Georgetown, they are the new guardians of New Heights – a name they respected enough to keep, with the blessing of Singh, whom Namdar calls “the mayor of Woodley Park”. Veterans of the hospitality industry, the trio are writing a new chapter at the restaurant, which reopened in January. “Our goal,” Namdar says, “is to make it a destination again.”

An analysis of the menu of Molina, 34, only suggests the pleasure to follow. Like many restaurants, this one offers crab cakes, roast chicken and grilled octopus – predictable dishes that are sure to have plenty of takers. Yet no sooner do the plates begin to appear than you pause to admire a new take here, a delicious twist there, a new restaurant for your rotation.

The chef’s Caesar salad is made with grilled broccolini and a creamy vinaigrette with black garlic. Simply-charged “garden greens” raise the bar for house salads; this one is colorful and delicious with grilled corn and dried cherries, all tied together with a bubbly champagne vinaigrette. As an alternative to fries, Molina serves beech mushrooms dipped in tempura and seasoned with hot spices to “bring the mushrooms alive,” he says. All I know is that fried golden clusters, cooled with jalapeño and truffle aioli, test one’s ability to share an appetizer.

The visuals are as entertaining as the tastes. Bright red raw tuna (poke) packs two-bite wonton tacos, topped with emerald seaweed and wasabi. Steamed buns stuffed with molasses-glazed pork belly, its sweetness tempered by pickled onions, are positioned with bright watermelon radishes (and once, an orchid). Does food taste better when the people serving it make you feel like an honored guest? New Heights staff suggest it.

The setting will be familiar to anyone who visited when Singh, dashing reliably in a turban, patrolled New Heights. Patrons encounter an airy bar, specializing in gin, before ascending to an ornate dining room with windows overlooking the treetops and walls adorned with photos or maps of Washington, “the land of opportunity,” says Namdar , originally from Iran. (Him, Ukrainian-born Fedorenko, and Bolivian-born Molina named their partnership American Dream 2.) The restaurant is easier to talk to than ever, thanks to corrugated, sound-absorbing plastic on the walls. Linens, rugs, and fabric-covered booths help muffle noise even when the room fills up. In the spring, at least, the cherry blossom branches drew the eye to large inlays in the ceiling.

The soup allows the chef to make subtle statements. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an obviously personal event for Fedorenko, prompted Molina to add borscht to the menu. Imagine lots of grated beets, as well as carrots, cabbage, potatoes and kidney beans. So that everyone can try it, the soup, finished with sour cream, eschews the meat. By the time you read this, the chef may have perfected his next star bowl: peanut soup to pay homage to his homeland.

While Molina incorporates a variety of international accents, Bolivia is currently represented only by salsa verde over a lamb entree, revealed from a smoky bell that flavors (but doesn’t mask) the meat. The green sauce—not much more than cilantro, shallots and lime juice—is a brilliant filler on the plate, which fills with roasted carrots and mashed Yukon potatoes.

The proximity of the restaurant to several hotels makes it possible to offer mass dishes. Still, Molina tends to stretch, to the benefit of his audience. The herb chicken is staged with velvety roasted peppers and potatoes rich in butter and cream but tempered with lemon juice and rosemary. The cracked-skinned branzino is treated with a slippery cake of Israeli couscous and a buttery sauce lightened with capers and tomatoes. The head is cut off (boo), but “only because so many people asked for it”.

Most chefs know to put a vegetarian dish or two on their menu for diners who don’t eat meat, a notion that sounds “duh” but has been complicated by the pandemic shift to fewer menu choices. Note to restaurants: Your audience for vegetarian dishes may be larger than you think. Many carnivores also like a change of pace, and they enjoy compositions with some thought behind them, not just what appear to be side dishes masquerading as main dishes.

Molina seems to understand this. Its kale and mushroom paella is a must in New Heights. The base alone swells with flavor. Molina cooks Spanish bomba rice in a saffron broth, adding chimichurri towards the end. Before the paella leaves the kitchen, roasted mushrooms, fried kale and a single poached egg add weight to the score. Lots of notes. Big concert.

The most original dessert is a pistachio cake covered with ricotta. It’s done elsewhere, but who cares when it’s as sublime as this pale green beauty? Carrot cake lovers will be satisfied by the soft and nutty slice.

Surprisingly, Molina has just one cook who helps feed a potential crowd of 70 people in the dining room – 40 more if you add the bar and terrace. He says the only thing stopping him from expanding the menu is the lack of help in the kitchen, a truth that makes me appreciate the new New Heights even more.

Singh left the building. Thanks to its editing prowess, however – identifying the right successors – New Heights is once again on a trajectory to the stars.

2317 Calvert Street NW. 202-290-2692. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and take-out and delivery from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Price: Appetizers $10-$28, main courses $18-$42. Sound control: 69 decibels / Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can be accommodated on the ground floor terrace and bar, but not in the second floor dining room, where the only toilets are located. Pandemic protocol: Masks for staff are optional, but everyone is vaccinated.

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