Restaurant Review: Urban Heights
Our reviewer says the new Asian fusion restaurant from Robert Wiedmaier falls short
The Chicken Adobo Sliders pack a flavorful punch of grilled chicken in adobo sauce topped with cucumber salad and Sriracha mayonnaise. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
AFTER PROTRACTED negotiations, our table of four finally decided how to divvy up the small plates of lamb meatballs and stuffed chicken wings. Each contained three pieces of food. I realize that chefs prefer the visual appeal of odd numbers of items, but the diddling among us is just one of the reasons why I wish little dishes would run away with the spoons.
Alas, small plates are the heart of Bethesda’s Urban Heights, the Asian-inspired eatery from the RW Restaurant Group, which has lately taken our area by storm. Replacing the short-lived Roof restaurant, Urban Heights joins the group’s other recent acquisitions—Bethesda’s Villain & Saint (formerly Markham’s Bar and Grill), Potomac’s River Falls Tavern (formerly the Tavern at River Falls) and Gaithersburg’s Boulevard Tavern (formerly the group’s Brasserie Beck). Robert Wiedmaier and his team already have Bethesda’s Mussel Bar & Grille and Wildwood Kitchen under their local belts.
This hubbub of openings or rebranding has been beneficial for Montgomery County diners, who will generally find more distinctive fare at a Wiedmaier spot than what’s offered by the national chains muscling into our midst. And the suburban expansion seems like a smart move for the restaurant group, which doesn’t have to compete with trendsetting downtown dining destinations.
Left: A drizzle of yuzu cream tops fried Brussels sprouts with shiitake mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Right: Each table is set with droppers of dipping sauces: mirin, ponzu, wasabi soy and hot chili oil. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
The most ambitious of the projects is Urban Heights, showcasing Executive Chef Cliff Wharton’s pan-Asian specialties, some of which were served at TenPenh, the late, great Pennsylvania Avenue eatery where he worked as chef de cuisine until it closed in 2011.
I liked that restaurant, which was smart and special when it opened in 2000. The menu included about a dozen small plates (then called “appetizers”), with an equal number of entrées. At Urban Heights, there are nearly 30 diminutive dishes on the menu (including the tuna bar and a section called “small plates”) and just seven entrées.
Customers can enjoy a treetop view from the second-floor dining room. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
As a diner, I found the combination of small plates and Asian fusion confusing. Eating too many dishes with a gimmick or twist—pretty as they may be—makes for a mishmash of a meal. In addition, while some of the restaurant’s small plates are worth ordering again (particularly those focused on vegetables), others seem passé, and end up being forgettable.
Regarding those veggies, the kitchen breathes new life into cauliflower; roasted and topped with togarashi (a peppery spice), the florets come perched on a kimchee cream with just the right kick. Similarly satisfying are perfectly grilled asparagus spears lounging on a rectangular plate with a mound of tomato sambal and sliced almonds at their midriff. And fried Brussels sprouts take on a new richness with shiitakes, a tangle of roasted red peppers and a drizzle of yuzu cream.
RW Restaurant Group’s Robert Wiedmaier (left) and Chef Cliff Wharton on the roof of their new Bethesda restaurant. Photo by Skip Brown.
Shrimp are also treated well here, whether they’re glazed with honey and xo (Chinese seafood sauce) and draped atop a hill of wasabi-spiked grits, or steamed in tender dumpling wrappers with chives. Also worth sampling: Wharton’s native lumpia, crackly fried Filipino spring rolls filled here with beef, shrimp and cabbage.
But other small plates lack excitement, such as duck rolls with dried-out, shredded filling; blah lamb meatballs with timid green curry sauce; guacamole, with a dull avocado mash and crumbles of what’s-the-point blue cheese; and stuffed chicken wings slicked with sweet sauce. Three items from the tuna bar were disappointing, including a tempura-crusted tuna roll that left the fish mealy and unappealing.
As for entrées, the two I tried, recommended as the best of the bunch by the waiter, were pretty boring: a dated preparation of salmon glazed with hoisin, and a vapid duck breast that was upstaged by the terrific grilled Chinese broccoli served alongside. And none of the desserts I sampled were worth the splurge, including a brownie spiked with sweet soy sauce that killed the chocolate flavor, and lumpia wrappers stuffed with apples, pears and an overload of Chinese five-spice powder.
Aside from the bum steers from the waiter, he was otherwise delightful and dependable, as was the waitstaff during two other visits. The panoramic second-story setting has been spiffed up a bit from the Roof days with new carpeting and paint, and it’s a pleasant enough atmosphere. New patio furniture and some greenery improved the third-floor rooftop deck, and on a nice evening, happy hour up there may be the best way to enjoy the restaurant.
7940 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, 301-312-8282, urbanheightsbethesda.com
Brussels sprouts, cauliflower with kimchee cream, grilled asparagus, shrimp chive dumplings, xo honey-glazed shrimp, lumpia
BEER, WINE AND COCKTAILS:
Good selection of bottled craft beers, plus a few Asian offerings. About a dozen wines by the glass, plus about 50 bottles, including red, white, rosé and sparkling. Short list of specialty cocktails.
Tuna bar, $13 to $14; small plates, $5 to $11; soups and salads, $8 to $18; entrées, $22 to $28.
Sweet but unsophisticated
Here’s a look at the RW Restaurant Group’s other openings in our area, all of which I prefer to Urban Heights. These are comfortable, neighborhood places worth return visits.
River Falls Tavern
I always liked River Falls Tavern, back in the day when it was under different ownership and called the Tavern at River Falls. But now that the RW Restaurant Group has taken the reins, I like the upscale American pub even more. The nature-inspired space is still the same—and even the prior chef is in the kitchen.
Still, the restaurant seems to have more polish, with several new fish dishes and some improved ingredients. It’s not inexpensive, but my dinner of chilled asparagus with lemon herb vinaigrette and lemon ricotta cheese, and grilled swordfish with ratatouille, zucchini pesto and minestrone sauce was lovely.
10128 River Road, Potomac, 301-299-0481, thetaverns.com/river-falls-tavern/
This summer’s revamping of Brasserie Beck Kentlands—the suburban outpost of Wiedmaier’s downtown Belgian restaurant—into a more casual neighborhood eatery was a wise move. Boulevard Tavern is a less tony version of River Falls Tavern (its Potomac sibling), sharing a few of the same menu items, but with more emphasis on steaks and barbecue. The cavernous place has been brightened up from its Belgian days, with new artwork and lighting. Salads are particularly good, and don’t miss the baked feta appetizer with pine nuts and Japanese eggplant marmalade.
311 Kentlands Blvd., Gaithersburg, 301-569-4247, thetaverns.com/boulevard-tavern/
Villain & Saint
For something completely different for Bethesda (and for Wiedmaier),try this Haight-Ashbury-inspired club, featuring live music, lava lamps and photos of dead rock legends. The food is a hit, far surpassing expectations for music hall fare. Divided among “Villain” options (substantial main courses), “Saint” fare (vegetarian dishes) and “Hand and Bar Food,” the menu is best appreciated before the bands begin, when you can concentrate on the conversation and dishes including chart-topping salt-roasted beets, mushroom sauté and pan-seared catfish.
7141 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 240-800-4700, villainandsaint.com
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor. To comment on this review, email firstname.lastname@example.org.