Kitchen Remodel Westend Bistro and New Heights deal with staff upheavals.

Not-So-Regular Joe: Palma’s experience with D.C.’s most famous chefs could impress our name-dropping diners.
Darrow Montgomery

Some of you wine-sipping snobs might hate this comparison, but high-end restaurants are like football teams. They recruit the best talent they can afford; they develop a loyal fan base that supports the restaurant, even through lean times; they routinely lose their best performers to the competition. Of course, you could make a strong argument that the last scenario is what separates the fine-dining temples from their pigskin-toting brethren.

Think about it. When Green Bay lost Favre, how many Packer loyalists suddenly became Jet fans? But when a chef splits from a restaurant to work in another kitchen (or to start his own), his followers will often make the same move. I’m thinking specifically of the quicksilver toque Peter Chang, the Szechwan master whose inexplicable wanderings practically had his devoted pack consulting a Ouija board to determine his whereabouts.

But what happens to a restaurant that loses an all-star caliber performer? How does it plug that position and continue its forward momentum? That’s what I wanted to find out with meals at a pair of places that have, in some form or another, suffered seismic shifts in the kitchen in recent months.

Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, located inside the Ritz-Carlton in the West End, was too young and probably too corporate to have any real groupies, but Ripert’s hand-picked lieutenant, chef de cuisine Leonardo Marino, did have his champions, including me (Young & Hungry, “Pardon the Intrusion,” 3/5/08).The Washingtonian, in its three-star review in September, chimed in: “When Westend Bistro opened last fall, celebrity chef Ripert was the draw for many diners. Increasingly, Marino is why they keep coming back.”

But I also got the sense, early on, that Marino was slippery. When I tried to find out which ingredients in Westend’s Eastern Market salad were purchased from the Capitol Hill market, Marino would never answer the question, no matter how directly or angrily I phrased it in our e-mail exchange. The best he would do is say that he always tries to source his ingredients from local markets when possible.

I didn’t hold that evasion against Marino in my review, which would have been petty, but since his resignation from Westend, I’ve thought about whether the chef was toeing the company line with his response or just being a dick. I don’t have any special insight on why the chef walked out the door in September, but Ripert told the Washington Post that Marino and at least one sous chef were suspended for behavioral problems. “Talent doesn’t excuse misbehavior and arrogance,” Ripert opined to Tom Sietsema.

The new guy in charge at Westend is Joe Palma, a self-taught toque who’s worked with some of the finest chefs in the country, including Ripert at Le Bernardin, Michel Richard at Citronelle, and Yannick Cam at La Paradou. It’s his Washington experience that intrigues me, less for Palma’s actual hands-on work, than for what his D.C. stint could mean in a larger cultural context: perhaps that Ripert felt it important to have someone who understands the market running his District outpost, as if no outsider could truly grasp the stately puffery of our town. It’s a theory.

During a phone interview, Palma says he’s been given plenty of latitude to play with Marino’s menu—or as much latitude as any chef can claim when he has to run changes by at least three different people, including Ripert and the general manager of the Ritz. Still, Palma’s done a top-to-bottom evaluation of the old menu, frequently tweaking recipes, occasionally adding new ones, and sometimes tossing out dishes altogether. One dish I tasted under Palma’s watch—a roast chicken with sausage—has just received the heave-ho, the chef explains. The move befuddles me; the bird was crispy on the outside, succulent to the bone, and dripping with the kind of deep chicken flavor that you thought Tyson had bred out of these creatures long ago.

As I wax poetic about the chicken, Palma quickly informs me the bird will still be available as a special on occasion, which provides some cold comfort. The dish was the best thing I sampled during my single spot check of Westend. The braised short ribs, which Palma does coq au vin–style in red wine and chicken stock, were moist but not tender enough for my tastes; nor were they deeply infused with garlic and other aromatics. I did admire, though, Palma’s ability to lighten Marino’s once-leaden mini pork pies, which now boast a zestier filling that needs little whole-grain mustard to cut its richness.

Palma described to me two dishes that he’s added to the menu, a Spanish-style shrimp and grits and a stuffed quail, both of which make me want to run back to West End for another round. I have a feeling I’m not going to miss Marino much.

In a weird, back-handed way, I wish I could say the same thing about John Wabeck. In August, Wabeck left not just New Heights, that Woodley Park institution, but the cooking profession altogether. Waybeck will be the wine director at Inox, the modern American restaurant that chefs Jonathan Krinn and Jon Mathieson plan to open in Tysons Corner. Wabeck’s replacement at New Heights is Logan Cox, who most recently worked the stoves at the Woodlands Resort & Inn in Summerville, S.C. At this point in his career, Cox isn’t worthy to lick Wabeck’s tasting spoon.

Cox did display a flash of brilliance with a first course of butternut squash soup. The chef garnished this fall mainstay with almond “polenta,” dates, and these tiny preserved mushrooms that gave the sweet, silken purée (think pumpkin-pie filling) a welcome hit of sour. Even Cox’s appetizer of duck confit proved the kitchen could master the dish, turning out a succulent, fragrant leg with nicely crisped skin.

But things quickly turned sour with the entrees. The dishes themselves were gorgeous; Cox clearly has a love for an eye-pleasing plate. My small portion of crispy striped bass (otherwise known as the decidedly un-sexy rockfish) was framed with a Joan Miro–like display of vegetables, panisse, and mussels, not to mention a Jackson Pollack–like smear of smoked-onion sauce. The plate was almost too pretty to eat. After my first bites, I wish I would have glazed the entrée and hung it on the wall instead. The smoked-onion sauce had a dirty, charred, off-putting flavor, as if the gravy had been deglazed in a pan with 1,000-year-old fond in it. The Pauly Shore of the kitchen, the sauce ruined everything it touched.

My dining companion’s grilled pork loin followed a similar pattern, beautiful on the plate, not so nice on the palate. The sliced loin was presented like a line of fallen dominos, surrounded on all sides by a golden, tart-apple soubise and a twin-toned bacon-caramel sauce. The flavors got along famously until they disappeared down your throat, leaving you to worry a round of chewy pork in your mouth. On closer inspection, it was obvious that the kitchen had not sufficiently rendered the thin layer of fat before tossing the loin into the oven.

Our service at New Heights echoed the kitchen’s performance in one key way: It was polished on the surface and lacking in fundamentals underneath. As we, the last two people in the dining room, finished our meal, we waited and waited and waited for our check. I’m not sure how much more bored we could have looked. The tableside snub left me feeling nostalgic for New Heights’ previous incarnation, when the service and the chef rarely disappointed their loyal followers.

Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, 1190 22nd St. NW, (202) 974-4900

New Heights, 2317 Calvert St. NW, (202) 234-4100

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.

Our Readers Say

It's obvious Tim did not eat more than once at New Heights, He only commented on a couple dishes. And I know the dishes, I've eaten there a few times and the pork that he ate was pork loin, know idea what fat he was talking about.
Secondly, why is he totally trashing the food, while only criticizing a sauce? I'm a foodie and many of my friends that are foodies feel that Cox's food blows away Wabeck's.
Lastly, why did Tim not mention that Cox was second-in-command under Frank Ruta ate Palena for a year and a half, while during the end of his stint Ruta won James Beard Award for Best Mid-Atlantic chef? Or his tenure under under Bob Kinkead while he was at Colvin Run Tavern? Or that The Woodlands is on par with Inn at Little Washington?
Everyone I know is amazed by the review and feels something's up.
Are you kidding me? WTF do you have against that kid? He is an up and coming young chef, with an amazing amount of talent and food knowledge.

By the way.... you don't render the fat off pork loin.

Seriously... are you in love with the former chef? I have been in the business for a LONG time, and when a chef takes over the kitchen and is given creative control of the menu, of course it will change.
Cox is a fantastic talent, and DC is lucky to have him.

Get a grip, you don't review a restaurant after eating there only once. Hack.
Andrew and Solkitty;

I appreciate your defense of Cox. I like your passion, even if I wish you would not hide behind the cloak of anonymity. I can tell you, unequivocally, that I have no connections to Wabeck, other than an enjoyment of his cooking.

Okay, first off. This wasn't a full-fledged review. It was a pair of spot checks of restaurants with new chefs. The concept here is similar to my Dishing Expedition; it's based on a single visit, just like every other diner who goes to a restaurant and starts passing judgment on it on his or her personal blog or some board out there. Other papers do similar things, like the Post's First Bite column, which is typically based on one visit. It's not a unique concept.

Second, technically the fat on the exterior of a pork loin, depending on how thick it is, needs to be rendered before being roasted. A cook needs to hold the loin over high heat for a minute or two (on all sides) before finishing in the oven. I talked with another, very prominent chef about this before printing it. If you don't render the fat properly, the loin will remain tough and chewy, again, depending on how thick the fat was. In Cox's case, the fat was prominent enough to create that unpleasant chewiness. Could the chewiness have come from some other problem? Of course. But given that I didn't take the loin to a lab for analysis, this was the best tableside inspection I could do. Whatever the case, the loin was not cooked properly.

Third, I think the line everyone is sensitive to, is the one in which I flilppantly say Cox can't lick Wabeck's tasting spoon. In retrospect, I have to admit that my love for a clever turn of phrase didn't serve me here. Cox didn't deserve such a backhand. As I noted in the paragraphs above, he has some good ideas. His kitchen just failed him, in a fairly major way, on my visit, at least with the entrees. For the kind of money I dropped, I wanted far better results.

-Tim
Well, Tim, I generally do not read your reviews. Simply because they tend to be juvenile and exceedingly amateur, many of my colleagues in the business feel the same way. However this review was mentioned to me, in the context of what appears to be a personal attack.

I have sampled Cox's creations many, many times, have never been disappointed.

I would suggest that you apologize to Cox for the comment regarding Wabeck's tasting spoon. It was totally out of line.

Ellen Tucker
(as to step out from behind the "veil of anonymity")
Ellen;

Thanks for coming out of the Internet closet. I don't know anything about you, other than you've worked in the business a LONG time and that you say you know a lot of people don't read me.

Let me give you some of my background: I have studied food, at L'Academie de Cuisine, as well as at other places. But my study is never done; if any thing seems amateurish to you, I'd have to chalk it up to my ongoing education. I've been doing this gig for nearly three years now, long enough to find myself in the Best Food Writing anthology this year. I'm curious, what's your expertise? A quick Google search on your name and various restaurant terms turns up no useful information

Second, I've been debating with myself and others, including my old instructor at L'Academie, about this rendered fat and chewy pork loin issue. The whole thing is a mystery at this point. The loin slices were not gray, which would indicate that they were overcooked. But say they were slightly overcooked, then the fat should have rendered, since it has a fairly low melting point. All by itself, the fat probably wouldn't have made the loin as chewy as it was during my visit; but overcooking it, which would have tightened the muscle to the chewy stage, should have melted the fat away. It's a weird thing.
Tim -

Nevermind the pork for a minute. If you don't think that there is anything wrong with a flippant remark about a chef not being worth of licking another's tasting spoon, then perhaps you are in the wrong line of work. That lacked objectivity and frankly, class. It was rude. Period. Now we learn that your review was actually no more than a "First Look" based on only ONE VISIT to the restaurant.

WOW...just wow.

As a food critic who is - according to you - in the upper echelon of food critics worldwide, I would think that you would be honest about the nature of your visit and subsequent review, and refrain from using language that is more offensive than cute/funny/edgy. By continuing to talk about how right you were/are about rendering pork fat, and not apologizing publicly for your comments, you are doing yourself and the Citypaper a disservice.
Amanda;

I think I've remarked on my use of language already (see above) and admitted it was a mistake that didn't serve me. Any apologies will go to the chef himself. If I offended you, I apologize for that as well.

-Tim
Tim --

The recent brouhaha over Sietsema has obviously brought out the foodie conspiracy theorists in force. "he didn't like the food? there must be some devious scuttlebutt!"

it was nice of you to chime in and respond generously, even to the personal mudslinging. (and yet despite your response, the slinging goes on, just as vicious. the charming world of the blogosphere! Not enough for you to eat a little crow; they want to smear some rancid shit on it before you do. Their implications about a lack of neutrality are particularly funny given most of the commenters sound like they have a personal investment in Cox.)

frankly, i saw a lot of positives in what you said about cox. "flash of brilliance," etc. it certainly didn't turn me off checking out the restaurant, since the soup and duck sound great. it just sounds like this chef is still growing.

I like your writing style, so obviously I'm one of the juveniles! (I wonder if "Ellen Tucker" realized she was not only insulting you, but all your readers?)

For my money, calling the sauce "the Pauly Shore of the kitchen" is the most hilarious line I've read in a food piece for a while, much better and funnier than most of the effete, ruminative bitching that often goes on in food reviews, which is why I read you every week.

don't waste another second on this -- they aren't worthy to sharpen your pencil.
The first two comments are more fanatically rabid than even keeled supportive of the young chef in question, who is merely months into his first executive chef position, whereas Mr. Wabeck has had 2 tours at New Heights. Self professed “Foodies” who are reduced to “WTF” acronyms and “hack” accusations are hardly representative of the chef’s fanbase and would better serve the dining community by relocating themselves to self righteous anti-whaling protests in the Antarctic waters.

The backhanded spoon lick jab was not necessary and to deliver such a stern verdict on the replacement based on one visit so early in the chef’s career is unfair given the original chef’s lengthier career and familiarity with the restaurant’s (staff & kitchen) capacities and liabilities.

As for the vilified pork loin, there is indeed fat (and silverskin) on the outside of any pork loin, and closer to the shoulder or top of the loin, generally from the 5th rib up where the loin gets smaller as it meets the deeper red shoulder butt, the 2 separated by fat. It is very well possible that Mr.Carmen got a less desirable slice closer to the butt which will be invariably fatty. Luck of the draw perhaps. A more reasonable diagnosis would be that the loin was simply cooked at too high of heat, and that could be remedied with constructive criticism rather than disparaging one’s baby steps.
Tim,

Well to let you know, my expertise is in the restautrant business. I don't feel like I need to feed my ego with details of my resume, however I have been in the business for the better part of two decades, front and back of the house.
Though I tend to enjoy being a "behind the scenes" kind of girl, I have no interest in finding my accolades on the internet.
If I am a "self procalimed foodie" then, I am OK with that.
I simply feel that you were way out of line. Furthermore,I do apologize for the "Hack" comment.
Tim,
How do you feel about Wabeck's comments about Chef Cox on Rockwell's blog in regards to this article? I completely agree with him. Chef Cox shows a passion for his craft that is missing in many chef's.

Having dined at both West End Bistro and New Heights, I think you got them confused! West End Bistro (since the new chef Palma) is nothing special. The food is good, but not creative and exciting.

I have dined on numerous occasions at New Heights since Chef Cox has been there. I have never once been disappointed in my meal. He ranks as one of the top chefs in DC in my book. His creations are fresh, innovative and downright delicious. I suggest you go back again.

Alicia
Alicia;

I thought Wabeck's response was perfect for a man in his position--supportive, affirmative, and positive about the future. I would have expected no less. It doesn't change the experience I had at New Heights. But I will definitely be back to eat more of Cox's food.

-Tim
Having dined at Pelena when Mr. Cox was an understudy and now two times at New Heights, we have had excellent meals under his watch. I will admit that the front of the house was a tad off the first time we visited New Heights but when we returned a second time, that was corrected. We had outstanding food on each visit, both of which were with a party of four. We all sampled various items and everything was spectacular.

I'm getting hungry writing about this. I feel that either you had an off-night or you're just off.

Mike McDonnell
I only ate at Westend Bistro once (October 2009)and the food was good, except the Shrimp and Grits - which was wonderful. Anyone know how they made that/the receipe? Thanks Chuck

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