One-size-fits-all is typically not the style of restaurant most of us are looking for, at least not until we get the text that family or friends with a catalogue of tastes are coming to town, and since we live here, we get to pick the restaurant for lunch or dinner. Or our vegetarian pal wants to meet the same night as our mutual friend the steak lover. Or there are kids or picky appetites in tow, and we don’t want to sacrifice good taste just to appease them. Or (hasn’t this happened to all of us?) we just don’t want to think too much.
Let me throw you a strife-saver: The Smith. The massive restaurant, which follows McCormick and Schmick’s in Penn Quarter, is a branch of the same-named collection of American brasseries in New York, and you’ll like it for more than its utility. If not every dish pleases, enough of them do, and the Smith, awash in subway tiles and smoked antique mirrors, is the uncommon restaurant where hearing “no” from an employee is as rare as encountering a pay phone.
Can incomplete parties be seated right away? Sure!
Can diners order a dish or two instead of everything at once, so as not to feel rushed? You bet!
Instead of asking diners whether they want still or sparkling water, servers simply deposit two gratis bottles and let customers choose. (The clear flask is plain; the green one is fizzy.) There’s not even a need to ask for salt or pepper because both stand at attention on the table.
Is that a pig I see flying outside?
“We push ourselves to find ways to say ‘yes,’ ” says Jeffrey Lefcourt, the founder and managing partner of the Smith. He seems to have taken a poll to find out what diners don’t like, including up-selling, then keeps such annoyances out of his restaurants.
You’re so happy to be so thoughtfully received, it hardly matters that the bread, dropped off in a white paper bag, smacks of yesterday. No big deal: Stomach space is best granted to a dip, a salad, maybe some flatbread.
The hummus is as bold with garlic and lemon as anywhere else around, speckled with toasted sesame and cumin seeds and offered with sails of whole-wheat lavash baked on site. The salads include a bowl built up with shredded kale, fluffy quinoa, dried cranberries for a touch of sweetness and Dijon vinaigrette for welcome punch. Zucchini flatbread sounds as riveting as watching paint dry — confession: zucchini and I aren’t friends — but the way the snack is presented here, as sheer slices of raw squash with buttery burrata, peppery arugula and garlic vinaigrette to tie everything together, makes a believer out of a skeptic. A thin crust with sufficient char makes a nice form of transportation from kitchen to table — and from plate to mouth.
Notice anything? Some of the choicest eating here is meat-free. Without making a big deal of it, the kitchen gets diners to eat their vegetables. A bowl of pearly rice decked out with kimchi, mushrooms, wilted spinach and a runny egg add up to a fine Korean bibimbap. Most creative of all is a trio of blue corn empanadas, creamy with sweet peas and goat cheese, nestled in a cast-iron skillet and enhanced with roasted jalapeño crema. Each bite yields a blip of lemon zest or mint, sometimes both, from the filling.
“There you go, darling,” a server says, dropping off cocktails. Adult refreshments are hard to ignore. The bar, a spirited pleasure zone of tall tables and backlit flasks, promotes its drinks on outsized chalkboards with a descriptive word or two. On a hot day, I’m partial to the “bubbly” Rosé Rosé, a coupe of sparkling rosé, rosé vermouth, a whisper of peach and a basil garnish. A hard day might call for something “boozy,” maybe Final Breath, coaxed from rye, green chartreuse, yuzu and absinthe. (Hard day? What hard day?)
Area restaurants with an American bent feel obliged to serve crab cakes. The Smith is no exception, and I like how the kitchen, headed by Brian Ellis, treats the subject, shaping seafood into little “tots,” garnishing them with apple-jalapeño chutney and affixing them to their plate with white sauce. There are oysters, too, shucked to shine.
Like I said, the Smith is all-purpose, wooing the steakhouse contingent with five cuts of beef, a choice of fries or salad and a sauce. The best deal is the bar steak for $29, featuring a juicy flatiron cooked as you ask and best flanked by some french fries, hot, crisp and served in a mound that comes close to the city’s height restrictions. For $10 more, you can upgrade to a New York strip, richly beefy, nicely chewy and more decadent when topped with some herb butter.
The pork chop is Mom’s cooking viewed through the lens of a committed tastemaker. (Ellis, 39, has been with the group 14 years.) Brined, grilled rib meat is oh, so tender; soft leeks, a creamy mustard sauce and whatever beans are in season transform “The Joy of Cooking” into the Joy of Consuming.
It’s possible to have a lesser experience at the Smith. One way is to start with fried green tomatoes in a stiff and salty crust of Japanese bread crumbs. Another roadblock to pleasure is roast chicken. The two times I’ve had it, the entree has been dry and compact. On its own, cod is a nice piece of fish, its whiteness in vivid contrast to an otherwise green scheme on the plate. But the entree comes with a topping of vegetables that’s jarringly cold. Pastas tend to be heavy-handed.
Then there’s the noise factor. Brasseries aren’t built to be hushed, I get it. This venue is particularly clamorous, however, given its soaring ceilings, open windows, tile floors and uncovered tables. The roar makes us eat faster, eager to take conversation elsewhere, a reaction that seems contrary to the Smith’s otherwise-hospitable mind-set.
Are you listening, Mr. Lefcourt?
He certainly understands service. The founder says he makes a point of hiring people for their personalities and putting a priority on their well-being, a philosophy that makes for happy customers, too.
Speaking of sweet, the most soothing dessert is sticky toffee pudding, flavored with dates and admittedly rich for a warm day. Billed by a server as “wunderbar,” black cherry pie is only a couple notches better than Hostess, although that didn’t stop the chowhounds at my table from scraping its plate of all but one bite.
Next visit, I’m going to go the zero-calorie route at meal’s end and take a picture with my pals in the photo booth parked near the Smith’s (big and attractive) restrooms. The amusement costs $5 for four pictures and hangs a nice frame on a restaurant that never ceases to go the extra mile.
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901 F St. NW.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $8 to $14, main courses $17 to $44.
Sound check: 78 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.