A Chef's Reemergence
Peter Smith's new restaurant may disappoint his old admirers
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Nov. 12, 2006
Save for a bacon-laced biscuit or two, there's nothing Southern on the menu at PS 7's, which may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the man behind the meals there: Peter Smith spent more than a decade serving shrimp and grits at Vidalia.
Eager to run his own show, the 36-year-old chef left the comfort of that downtown nest in 2004 and spent the next two years plotting his moves. In September, Smith reemerged in trendy Penn Quarter, with a label that fuses the chef's initials with his new work address.
At PS 7's, Smith seems determined to distance himself as much as possible from his last post. For starters, the menu bucks the traditional appetizer-entree-dessert format for a more complicated division of dishes by price and size -- in half a dozen categories -- and the server's suggestion that you order two appetizer-size dishes as well as an entree. (Do I see a bigger tip dancing in his head?) Consequently, a diner's initial reaction to the menu tends not to be, "That dish sounds good" but, "I don't want to have to think this hard."
The choices embrace a smorgasbord of food fashions, as if Smith had leafed through a year's worth of every major food magazine and eaten in trendsetting restaurants to come up with ideas. Mushrooms are sliced into "carpaccio" for salads. Meat dishes showcase beef or veal two or three ways on the same plate. Popcorn is used to form a crust on halibut, and wines are poured by the half-glass, the glass and the bottle. A list of cocktails is delivered with an aside from the server: "We make our own bitters."
My favorite dishes rely on a minimum of ingredients, beginning with the appealing bread service that gives diners the option of an apple-bacon biscuit, a cottage cheese roll or another one with nuts. All are made at PS 7's, and all will lead you into temptation. You will want seconds.
From the actual menu, Smith's foie gras custard is elegant in its simplicity: Cream and duck liver combine to form a silken pudding, its richness cut with a little garnish of crisp green apple threads. Lighter, but just as luxe, is a slender bar of alternating layers of thinly sliced butternut squash and creamy goat cheese, a finger-long terrine that gets a nice assist from its muscato reduction. Thick coins of sausage made from scallops rest on dabs of citrus compote and fennel puree, and each bite of sausage is jazzed up with a chive frond dipped in tempura batter. The dance of soft and crisp, cool and warm on the tongue is a very pleasant sensation. "East and West" further highlights the chef's decorating skills. One side of the appetizer's large white plate lines up a trio of thumbnail-size Kumamoto oysters, each sporting a tiny potato tuile; directly opposite the bivalves are three small crab flans, their tops shimmering with arugula oil. The look is fetching, the flavors enticing.
I'd like to experience more such pleasures from the kitchen. The reality is, there's a lot on the menu, particularly among the larger courses, that is more fun to read about than to eat. When Smith starts layering, or piling on, the results taste less successful. A "trio of veal" unites a piece of loin, nuggets of sweetbreads and braised breast, each element paired with its own sidekick. My fork keeps returning to the tender breast meat and the dreamy potatoes that support the sweetbreads. Otherwise, the utensil remains at ease. "Beef Two Ways" -- a small round steak and short ribs -- should be edited to a solo act; I cast my vote for the caramelized, wine- and foie gras-enriched short ribs and the plate's nest of root vegetables. The "Maine Lobster Degustation" isn't as impressive as its description. Of the entree's four components, the one I would want to try again is scrambled eggs flavored with bites of lobster. Lobster chowder, on the other hand, proves thin and weak. When a weeknight dinner edges into three-digit territory, I expect more finesse.
The wine list celebrates brevity, balance and a highly personal touch. Or, as one of my knowledgeable wine friends aptly described the document, it doesn't look "pasted together out of the Wine Expectorator." Wines by the glass include an unwooded chardonnay from South Africa and a lovely Italian sparkler, Elio Perrone moscato d'asti, which also represents a good value at $9. If the reds tend to represent some heavies with high alcohol content, they also feature some treats: It's not every day you encounter a Soter North Valley pinot noir (from Oregon's Willamette Valley) or an Acorn Winery cabernet franc (from California's Russian River) on a wine list. Sake is a nice accompaniment to more than sushi, a detail PS 7's recognizes with several selections.
Desserts are introduced as "little sins" and "bigger sins." My advice is to be just a little bad, with a cool slice of ice cream cake or warm sugar-dusted doughnuts served with sauces of chocolate and spiced plum. "You can tell they have a pastry chef," a foodie at my table says as she reaches for her third bite-size doughnut. (Naomi Gallego, formerly of Vidalia, is the party responsible.) The larger desserts include a Linzer torte flecked with gold leaf and "Everything Apples," a plate of tiny French toasts arranged with julienned apple, apple ice cream and cider syrup. The cake is robed in chocolate, sandwiched with mousse and deliciously moist. The fruit dessert isn't as good a fit, tasting more of brunch than a sophisticated end to an evening.
PS 7's is mostly big and beautiful, with sky-high ceilings and a soothing color scheme that blends blue with brown. Flickering votives, set high into the walls, add a seductive note to the main dining room. Far less desirable is the real estate in the rear, where a row of booths faces the kitchen and a sliding door that opens to a bright flash of white anytime someone steps in front of it. (There you are, engaged in food and conversation, and every time the door parts, you're looking into what could pass for an operating room. Just in case, bring sunglasses.) Next to the kitchen is a handsome private dining room set off with a sheer curtain. Unfortunately, the partition doesn't mute the noise of a boisterous dozen or so diners inside; one night, the occupants got so loud that a couple near me requested a table change -- to the main dining room. Acoustics are a problem elsewhere, too, as anyone who has sat beneath PS 7's industrial-size air vents can attest.
Note to restaurant designers: Before a place opens to the public, audition the room. Come to think of it, that might be useful advice for the chef, too. At this point, PS 7's tastes as though it needs more rehearsal time.