The Bellwether offers elevated cuisine near Lafayette Square

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Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

Slices of cured salmon, tomatoes, capers, pickled shallots, and chive-infused crema on pumpernickel

Same old story: You’re 30 feet up on a climb, about to make the crux move, and you think, “Man, I could really go for a Manhattan.”

Cocktail service and fine dining are in sadly short supply in most rock-climbing gyms, but you can step into your harness and rope up at Climb So iLL, located in a historic former power plant on Carroll Street, content in the knowledge that a lovely meal and nice drink are just a belay away.

The Bellwether opened earlier this year in the space that previously housed Element. The property has been transformed, shifted a floor up into a narrow but lofty space that includes an inviting deck overlooking the city. The building is shared with one of the city’s busiest climbing gyms.

Nearly all upscale restaurants these days look less like Lutèce and more like an Eisenhower-era tool-and-die factory. The Bellwether’s concrete floor and brick walls are considerably softened by elaborate metal chandeliers. Tables are close but not distractingly so, with comfortable enough seating. Alas, many of the tables don’t capitalize on the extraordinary views of downtown. (The cozy nook close to the entrance is an engaging exception.)

Consider sitting on the inviting west-facing patio, especially at sunset. Or cozy up to the modern bar, where the expert staff can point you in the right direction on the menu.

Trendy open kitchens have their charms, but The Bellwether goes in a different direction: The kitchen’s on the floor below, along with The Reference Room (a book-lined space designed for parties that has its own building-length patio). As a result, dishes arrive without any of the racket of the line, making for a substantially quieter atmosphere and adding a civilized touch.

Also refined are the presentations. Small plates—as inescapable an element of dining as smiley faces scrawled on receipts—make up most of the menu. They’re nicely done, bonsai examples of an imaginative kitchen. Some are straightforward. Steak frites are dusted with togarashi, a pepper-bright Japanese seasoning that gives the spuds spark and tastes less gimmicky than it does creative.

Other diminutive dishes are elaborate. A puck of beef tartare is capped with a brittle filigree of Parmesan, dollops of liver-ish mushroom crème, watermelon radish slivers, and a pungent black garlic gastrique and served with husks of bread. It’s an opulent, exciting starter.

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Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

Certainly Bellwether’s fare is upscale, even without table linens or dinner-jacketed staff. A pair of octopus arms is perfectly roasted. The snappy, rubbery texture isn’t compromised; instead, the limbs are delightfully fleshy and delicate in flavor, like a firm scallop. Knobs of bright-hued carnival cauliflower accompanying the appendages get an attention-grabbing treatment: a dressing of Calabrian pepper oil and a curried-mustard beurre blanc.

A filet mignon is transformed into a sculpture, perched on a bank of potato purée and balanced on the plate with a tumble of haricots verts. What would be a steak house standard is elevated—even more so because the filet is juicy, tender, and happily bovine in flavor. A gravlax appetizer is similarly artistic. Pink slices of delicious cured salmon—embellished with blistered tomatoes, capers, pickled shallots, and a chive-infused crema— decorate pumpernickel squares. English pea ravioli does the gastronomic trick; wine-braised chicken shreds provide more protein, the ravioli are al dente, and crackly flecks of chicken skin lend a texture contrast.

The desserts are fine, rich without being over the top: chocolate beet cake, carrot cake with carrot ice cream. 

The Bellwether has a few beers on tap and 25 or so in bottles and cans; should you be looking for craft brew snobbery points, you’ll score big with the Hof Ten Dormaal, from Tildonk, Belgium.

Cocktails are just as much fun. We figured we’d keep going with the whole Belgian thing and order a Schaarbeekse aperitif but didn’t want to embarrass the bar staff if they were short that night of Flemish kriek lambic. You can be sure that you’ll find something to wet your whistle.

The Bellwether is the creation of the folks at Polite Society: Jonathan Schoen, Brian Schmitz, Travis Hebrank, and Thomas Futrell. Like that popular spot in Lafayette Square, this place has quickly earned a reputation for rewarding meals with flair. And it’s the only place where you can “climb to dine”—if you’re so inclined.