Cliff Wharton, formerly chef de cuisine at the departed TenPenh and most recently executive chef at Chinatown’s Matchbox, is manning the kitchen at the new Urban Heights in Bethesda, Maryland. Urban Heights took over the two-story space which had previously been the short-lived Roof. The new concept is from Robert Wiedmaier’s RW Restaurant Group, and it’s burgeoning Bethesda empire.
Wharton has crafted a southeast Asian menu, drawing from his Filipino heritage along with other cultures and cuisines. The restaurant boasts a Tuna Bar, serving a selection of dishes from sushi-grade tuna kept resting on ice at the main-level bar, and the rest of the menu is dominated by sharable small plates, with the addition of half a dozen entrees, and several soups and salads. Each table will find several house condiments at their disposal, including a chili oil and several flavored soy sauces.
Tuna Bar dishes include Ahi poke, a tuna tartare with ponzu, tuna sashimi served with jalapeno citrus vinaigrette and fried garlic chips, and a tuna roll, with wasabi sour cream and pickled ginger. The tuna roll is actually lightly battered and flash fried — which seems to detract a bit from that highly-touted sushi grade tuna, and the texture and color you’d expect there — so your attention may be better placed on one of the other attractive options.
The small plates lineup is likely where you’ll be drawn, with two dozen different tantalizing choices. A few house specialties include the chicken adobo sliders, the Xo honey glazed shrimp with wasabi grits, and the pork belly doused with a tangy gochujang sauce. If you haven’t noticed yet, wasabi is prominent on the menu, also found in the wasabi blue cheese guacamole and wasabi buttered popcorn. Other highlights here range from Brussels sprouts with shiitake mushrooms, to Asian-glazed short ribs, and shrimp chive dumplings. It’s a diverse and fun mix and match collection of tasty dishes.
If you’ve emerged from your rampage on the small plates with your hunger intact, then notable entrees include Wharton’s signature red curry shrimp with pineapple and jasmine rice, duck with a Tabasco honey glaze, yellow curry and fried rice, and a whole fried fish, with cucumber salad and tamarind dipping sauce. Indeed, while there are loads of small bites to try, you don’t want to skip out on these entrees, either, where Wharton really seems to showcase his culinary style and command of the dishes.
Pick two to three small bites for two people, and nab an entree each. Fitting in the Tuna Bar throws that equation out of whack but you’ll figure it out.
The team, which also includes GM Garth Hamilton, plans on fully capitalizing on its rooftop, too. Expect summertime open pit pig roasts, along with an Island Cocktails menu. The second floor dining area also has space for outdoor tables, while the floor to ceiling windows make for an inviting, bright space.
The cocktails, while great for rooftop sipping, are also built to go hand in hand with the food. Try the Black Ginger, a fresh take on a Long Island, made with star anise and ginger syrup, with guava, tea, gin, vodka and rum. Other Asian-influenced drinks include the Rising Sun, with sake, pineapple jalapeno chutney, lime and cilantro; the Tom Yam, with vodka, coconut rum, kaffir lime, chilies and lychee and simple syrup; and the Sticky Mango, made with rice vodka, coconut rum, mango, lemon and vanilla syrup. They’re also offering a house barrel-aged Manhattan, incorporating Asian five spice.
If you had been to the old Roof, then you’ll notice small changes throughout the space and its operation. During dinnertime at least, there was actually staff at the ground floor to guide you to the dining room or the roof, and the elevator is decked out with tropical green bamboo wallpaper. The restaurant just opened at the end of April, so presumably any kinks in service and execution will be smoothed out in the coming weeks as the operation gets into a groove.
Urban Heights is currently open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. Happy hour lasts from 3 to 7pm each day, and the roof opens daily at 3pm. Visit UrbanHeightsBethesda.com for more info.