Newton’s Law

The new Bethesda restaurant is headed in the right direction.

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So is Newton’s Table the “wow” we’ve been waiting for? After all, this is the first independent foray by the young, ambitious Dennis Friedman, whose impressive résumé includes chef/co-owner of Bezu restaurant in Potomac as well as stints with some of the nation’s top toques, such as Citronelle’s Michel Richard, Daniel Boulud and Alan Wong. Expectations in the foodie world have been running high.

The Potomac-raised Friedman, whose father called him “Newton” as a kid (as a term of endearment rather than a reference to his aptitude for science), has fashioned an appealing menu that’s a sophisticated cut above most of Bethesda’s offerings. And it’s a cut above price-wise, too: A three-course meal with wine can easily cost $75 a person.

The restaurant had only been open about a month when I visited, and my early impression was that appearance-wise, the dishes are indeed a “wow.” The food looks gorgeous. And much of it goes down beautifully as well.

At times, however, it seems as if the kitchen is trying too hard. I would have preferred less froufrou and more flavor with several dishes.

Cases in point: the Caesar salad, whose hearts of romaine and brioche croutons come nestled in a basket made of Parmesan, set atop zigzags of red and yellow pepper coulis. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out. But the dressing needs brightening—lemon juice, more anchovy, something to give it a little zing. And the clever setup is logistically challenging to eat.

The same goes for the lackluster filet mignon, lounging inside its “gaufrette potato cage,” an igloo-shape of fried, latticed potatoes. And there’s not much pizzazz behind the scallop appetizer, pretty though it is, with its sweet corn puree, asparagus and quail egg. My dining companions one night liked the unusual and attractive duck confit appetizer, with its yellow corn pancakes, black bean puree, hoisin, thyme, Sriracha and garlic. But the whole thing seemed too busy to me, and the puree turned into sludge after sitting for a bit.

Even so, this is a promising place, with enough dishes that taste as good as they look.

The salt and pepper shrimp appetizer, with three spicy jumbo shrimp, is a lovely foil for the creamy mound of polenta. Friedman’s signature appetizer, nori-wrapped squares of ahi tuna fanned out in a circle, is a beauty. While the creamy soy-mustard vinaigrette is a little on the shy side, it gets a boost from the tomato-ginger relish, so be sure to eat it all together.

Less timid are the full-flavored gougères, the classic French cheese puffs made with Gruyère; if you’re looking for a cocktail party-like starter to have with a Manhattan or a glass of wine, this is it. The Molten Cheese, a mini-casserole of baked goat cheese and fontina that comes with toasted baguette slices, is also a good appetizer for cheese lovers; it’s so rich and gooey that it would be hard to eat the whole thing.

When it comes to entrées, the kitchen’s forté appears to be seafood, both in terms of the quality of the raw ingredients and the preparation. The pan-seared sea bass and the grilled rockfish are meaty pieces of fish, perfectly cooked, and their accompaniments (udon noodles, seaweed salad and tomato relish for the sea bass; Israeli couscous, basil pesto and summer squash for the rockfish) complement them nicely. Our tempura-style soft-shell crabs could have stayed in the fryer a tad longer, but were gigantic and fun to eat. And the lobster, cooked with herbes de Provence, is a beast at nearly 2½ pounds. It comes atop an enormous bed of terrific flash-fried spinach that looks like a sea of edible algae.

My favorite non-seafood item was the bison rib eye. The description (spicy cocoa rub, balsamic glazed onions and blueberry demi glace) sounded iffy, but Friedman really nailed it. The spicy-vinegary-fruity combination is fabulous with the assertive meat.

Less fabulous, but nonetheless good are the mushroom ravioli, delicate pasta stuffed to the max with four kinds of mushrooms; and Fuzu, another signature dish, a comfort food that’s a cross between fried rice and pad Thai.

On the other hand, Newton’s Burger, ground sirloin mixed with Friedman’s secret blend of spices, was cooked beyond the requested medium rare, and tasted coarse and crumbly. It might have benefited from gentler cooking.

By now, word probably has gotten out about Friedman’s pig brittle, similar to peanut brittle but made with toasted pecans and crisped prosciutto. Devotees (like me) of things simultaneously sweet and salty will love this; just make sure those dental fillings are securely fastened. Order it with vanilla ice cream so you can dip before you crunch. (It also comes as a garnish atop dried-out bread pudding—an odd and unsuccessful pairing.)

If you’re squeamish about pork for dessert, opt for the chocolate crunch, fancy Kit Kat-type bars with a nutty, candy-like layer on the bottom, and dark and milk chocolate ganache on top. The vanilla bean-honey cheesecake is worthwhile as well: Both light and creamy, it’s a nice alternative to the traditionally heavy renditions.

Located in the former Rock Creek restaurant, whose setting was serene and autumnal, Newton’s Table has gotten a color redo, with navy-blue upholstered seating, a spring-green screen with water trickling over it, and red baseboards and chair rails. It’s a perfectly comfortable space, but nothing special. The restaurant’s logo is an apple, and the décor includes apple paintings on one wall and an apple at the host stand—even though Friedman’s nickname wasn’t derived from Sir Isaac, the 17th-century scientist and mathematician said to have discovered the law of gravity after an apple fell onto his head.

I’m confident that as the months go by, Newton’s will gain momentum—the ice cream won’t arrive half melted, the grilled rockfish filet won’t be served with the bones I encountered, a waiter won’t bring two lobsters to the table when only one was ordered, and a waitress won’t pour pinot noir into a glass partially filled with cabernet (and not offer to replace it).

For now, it’s not a wow. But in time, I think it can be.

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