Sunday, November 16, 2008
** (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 80 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)
At its best, Art and Soul is a restaurant that makes you forget you're eating in a hotel.
Rather than flowers, small bowls of apples decorate the bare tabletops. Instead of trotting out the usual bread basket, waiters pop warm pull-apart rolls from cast-iron skillets. An appetizer of pork ribs, meaty and smoky and vinegary with shredded cabbage, puts diners in mind of country roads rather than valet parking.
"I always thought of Washington as a soulful Southern city," says Art Smith, the award-winning cookbook author perhaps best known for feeding Oprah for a decade and now part of a name attached to the fledgling Liaison Capitol Hill, an Affinia hotel.
Art and Soul, he says, is his attempt to interweave Southern and mid-Atlantic flavors.
You could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow here. Smith, after all, already runs a restaurant, Table 52 -- in Chicago. He knows what people might be thinking: Another celebrity-branded restaurant with absentee talent. But Smith vows to spend "10 to 12 days a month" in Washington, and he's got solid support in the kitchen here, executive chef Ryan Morgan, to provide customers with "a sense of home." Morgan, 31, comes to Art and Soul from the Asian-themed TenPenh, but he's a local boy who grew up in Oxon Hill and Vienna. His ease is on display as he makes the rounds of his arty dining room, chatting up the people he's feeding.
"Are your appetizers treating you well?" a server inquires one night. Sprinkled with roasted corn, plump oysters on shaved ice make a great launch (well, those that are properly severed from their shells do). Shrimp speaks to the South with its wrap of Virginia ham, puddle of grits and garnish of chowchow, a pickled vegetable relish. At lunch, sweet, plump tomatoes stuff a savory pie that has a stellar, old-fashioned crust. But the starter I'm most drawn to, the dish I found myself ordering again and again -- the welcome change of pace from all the pizzas and flatbreads crowding the landscape -- is Art and Soul's hoecake.
Described on the menu as something eaten "after a hard day's work on the farm," the light and fluffy cornmeal round, akin to a savory pancake, is a delicious illustration of the way Smith and Morgan arrived at their menu. Smith thought to include the hoecakes he grew up eating near the border of northern Florida and southern Georgia; Morgan embellished the idea with toppings. Land and Sea is a rich blanket of braised beef, brie cheese and blue crab. The Pantry scatters grapes, arugula and blue cheese on its base. The hoecake with the biggest glam factor combines cured salmon, dill-flavored creme fraiche and big capers, and makes me want to tear into it with a glass of bubbly.
As is the case at so many restaurants, main courses tend to be less enticing than appetizers. The entrees also reveal more flaws. Scallops are defeated by a parsnip puree that is sweet enough to qualify as dessert, while grouper is overwhelmed with accessories. How can a diner taste the fish when it's masked by pesto, a garden of vegetable ribbons, carrot broth and "buttermilk mash," potatoes and other vegetables in a big fat scoop? I couldn't resist the country pork chop with redeye gravy and spiced onions, but I should have. Though plenty thick, the meat is tough and dry. Rockfish tacos, a lunch option, not only look out of place on the menu but are dry, too.
The chicken comes as a surprise. It's terrific. An overnight soak in buttermilk, cayenne pepper and lemon juice infuses the poultry with flavor; a light topping of white cheddar cheese, bread crumbs and candied pecans heightens the drama. Rockfish in a band of ham atop crab-flecked risotto is another great catch. Entree portions are ample, but the creamed spinach, worthy of a top steakhouse, and the green bean casserole, nostalgia improved with lacy fried onions, are sides to consider.
Having spent eight years working for the local Passion Food Hospitality restaurant group (Acadiana, Ceiba, DC Coast, TenPenh), Morgan is no stranger to busy kitchens. Nor is he a newbie when it comes to preserving food. "I grew up canning and pickling" crab apples and beets during summers spent in Southern Maryland with his grandmother, he says. That zesty chowchow? It's his uncle's recipe.
"People love a good story with food," Smith likes to say.
Desserts hew to an all-American theme. Apple crisp is pleasant, banana pudding dense. There are "baby" cupcakes, too, and though I like the idea of three supposedly miniature cakes on a plate, including one with lots of nuts and fruit that could pass for a scaled-down Lady Baltimore cake, their execution proves uneven. Some are moist; some are dry. The cupcakes are bigger than you'd expect, a fact I commented on when a suited staffer dropped off the dessert at my table. "These aren't babies," I said, "they're adolescents." To which he cheerily, and creepily, responded, "Molest away!"
Some thoughts are best left unspoken.
By and large, though, Art and Soul is watched over by a team of people whose enthusiasm for the food and eagerness to attend to diners' needs smooth over any rough patches.
Smith says he came into the picture after the design was in place, which might explain the disconnect between what's on the plate and what's on the walls. That's not to say Art and Soul isn't attractive or interesting. Playing up its location, the hotel commissioned outsize oil-on-canvas portraits of international movers and shakers, among them Mahatma Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Martin Luther King Jr. (Nixed before they were hung: Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro.) Wire-mesh screens help separate the four dining areas, and Sputnik-esque light fixtures hark to the Cold War. If you want to be discreet, ask for one of the snug white-patent-leather booths against the back wall.
Smith is working for a big corporation, but he doesn't want his work there to smack of it. Rather, he's hoping that he and his kitchen partner are putting out "food that tastes like people made it with their hands." An obvious goal shared by lots of restaurants? Perhaps. But it's also an aim that Smith and Morgan, and Art and Soul, achieve more often than they don't.
Open: breakfast daily 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Valet parking ($12). Metro: Union Station. Prices: lunch entrees $15-$18, dinner entrees $18-$34.