First Bite

Preview of Smith Commons in NE DC

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

There's no one named Smith tied to Smith Commons, the three-story newcomer to the District's rapidly expanding food and drinks scene on H Street NE.

General manager Sheldon Robinson says the owners of the combination restaurant and bar, Bailey Real Estate Holdings, thought "a common surname" would be easy to remember. The second half of the title, he says, reaches out to the commoner: you and me, in other words.

There's less that's routine about the look of the place, whose floor-to-ceiling windows and huge chalkboard for visitors' scribblings grab attention on the street and inside. What was previously a carpet warehouse is now a handsome, loftlike interior consisting of oak floors, exposed brick, tufted sofas and candlelit fireplaces in the upstairs bars and a rear patio that is sure to fill up come spring and warm weather. Checking out the space, I wanted to move in.

The food, from Belgian native Frederik De Pue, borrows from all over, in keeping with the theme established by 42 Degrees. That's the chef's catering company, whose moniker refers to the 42nd parallel connecting "many of the greatest gastronomic cities in the world," as his bio reads. At Smith Commons, a diner could commence with clams and bok choy splashed with a miso-mustard sauce, advance with fish and chips and end the night with creme brulee.

Our early experience? Duck leg confit finds flabby fowl, and the tough steak is upstaged by its golden french fries. Paper-thin slices of beef carpaccio dressed with arugula followed by scallops on a puddle of creamed corn make for better dinner memories; the seafood benefits from a sweet-hot dusting of gingerbread. Vegetarians might feel some love coming from the eggplant lasagna, a starter that could qualify as a light entree. Creamed spinach and a topping of goat cheese give an edge to the usual layering.

You can drink your way to happiness, too. My path of least resistance here starts with a Christiansted: rum, maraschino liqueur, a swirl of simple syrup and fresh lime juice.

- Tom Sietsema

1245 H St. NE. 202-396-0038. Entrees, $14 to $30.

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