Chef Smith Bares His Soul
Capitol Hill got its newest culinary addition in October with the opening of Art and Soul at the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel, the elegantly transformed old Holiday Inn on New Jersey Avenue.
The second venture for owner-chef Art Smith, a two-time James Beard Foundation award winner, Art and Soul reflects a mingling of Smith’s Southern roots along with mid-Atlantic influences from executive chef Ryan Morgan’s background.
In drawing on their roots for inspiration, Smith and Morgan tap into traditions that are both based on regionally and seasonally available resources as well as straightforward techniques. That said, both chefs have traveled and lived abroad and borrow freely from the palates of other cuisines.
For instance, ravioli, which you might not see on a Southern-based menu, doesn’t seem at all out of place here. As you bite into the large rounds of fresh pasta — stuffed with a sweet butternut squash filling and served with sautéed trumpet mushrooms and spinach in a rich buttery sauce — you understand the borderless nature of comfort food, which at its heart is what Art and Soul is about.
Art and Soul is also about — as its name suggests — art. The space is sleek and unobtrusive, with muted colors, interesting lighting fixtures and red accent walls serving as backdrops for a series of large black-and-white oil portraits of iconic world leaders. The portraits, by American artist Randy Slack, are designed to highlight “liaisons in history” — hence the Liaison hotel — that helped to bring people together (perhaps a certain new U.S. president will eventually be added to the wall).
In the ArtBar lounge, which links the restaurant and the hotel lobby, dramatically modern seating breaks up the space and creates areas that encourage intimate conversation. The overall effect is a pleasing, understated atmosphere that offers a neutral backdrop for the real focus of the restaurant: art not of canvas and brushes but of skillets and spoons.
It doesn’t take long after meeting Smith — or chef Art as he’s known — to begin to see food in a new light. His passion is contagious. Chef Smith is committed to food — to cooking it, writing about it and teaching it. He believes that food is the common currency of comfort, and that by sharing it with others we can connect on a fundamental level. He has kept this vision with him throughout his culinary career as a personal chef, television chef, cookbook writer, restaurant entrepreneur and finally food philanthropist with his nonprofit Common Threads, which seeks to educate low-income children about the importance of nutrition and physical well being — and the power of food to unite.
Smith’s power also lies in creating simply good food. Just getting past the skillet bread in the beginning is a challenge. Brought to the table in small, hot cast-iron skillet pots, it’s like a savory mini monkey bread — yeasty and rich with butter and sea salt. The wait staff will oblige you with as much as you want, and it’s hard not to spoil your appetite for the other good things to come.
One of those good things is the hoe cakes — so called because they were originally cooked in the field on the back of a hoe blade heated over an open fire. These treats provide a perfect example of how Smith and Morgan transform a traditional dish into something at once novel and nostalgic. The simple crispy little corn pancakes are a platform for toppings that range from refined to elegant to robust. Blue cheese, grapes, arugula and pickled onions are paired for a light and simple effect in one cake, while thin slivers of horseradish and beet-cured salmon served with a dusting of caviar, a dollop of dill crème fraiche, caper berries and a red onion garnish offer a more complicated taste profile. Most delicious among the hoe cakes is a rich blue crab and braised beef concoction dressed up with melted brie in a hearty pairing.
Other starters include a deep red Ahi tuna rubbed with spices and served with crunchy fried green tomatoes and a puckering sour pickle relish, as well as small pork ribs with the meat almost melting off the bone, served with vinegar slaw and barbeque sauce. All are just right to whet the appetite for the main course. Several salads offer lighter options, including the Capitol Hill, a refreshing combination of mixed baby greens tossed with thin slices of local apples, blue cheese, pecans and apple cider vinaigrette.
For the entrées, the menu includes one of chef Art’s signature dishes: chicken with a pecan crust. Accompanied by a classic creamed spinach and spice-rich wassail sauce, it is a nicely balanced combination of flavors, textures and colors that paints a satisfying picture. A traditional chicken dish, Maryland-style fried chicken, is also available on the lunch menu (or by special request in the evening). Served with buttermilk mashed potatoes and homey white gravy, this classic comfort food is notched up by just a bit of hot pepper in the batter coating, giving it a surprising but not unwelcome kick. The lamb chops are another nice choice: Two lean, meaty chops are grilled perfectly and served with mint julep sauce and poached pears that have been slightly charred on a grill. The traditional lamb and mint combination gets an added dimension from the slightly grainy texture and tartness of the pear.
If seafood is your preference, an excellent choice is the scallops. Pan fried and served with parsnip puree and sweet smoked onion marmalade, they are enormous and their texture is perfect. Just three will leave you room for little else. The fish choices are also well done. The rockfish is wrapped in Virginia ham and served with a rich crab risotto and brown butter that makes for a salty but satisfying dish. Another seafood choice offers an island of buttermilk white mashed potatoes supporting a thick grouper filet accented with a tracing of pesto and ribbons of vegetables that rise from a sea of carrot cider broth. Served in a plain large white bowl, it’s a mild dish but dramatic to look at.
Like the rest of the menu, the desserts change periodically but a constant is the baby cakes. The tiny iced cakes in a variety of flavors are a perfect choice for sharing and a good way to sample a range of flavors. Each night is different but may include fresh coconut lemon curd, auntie’s chocolate, Lady Baltimore, red velvet, spice or anything else the chef feels like making that night.
The desert menu also offers seasonal choices. A deep bowl of pomegranate apple crisp accented with vanilla ice cream is a lighter option, with the pomegranate seeds adding an interesting crunchy texture and providing a tart balance to the apples. A heavier choice, the chocolate pecan pie, is all rich dark chocolate and pecans in a perfectly flaky crust — delicious but very filling.
With its chic and sophisticated design, at first glance Art and Soul looks like many other upscale food establishments. But it is different. Diners are more like guests than customers, and like the good hosts that they are, Smith and Morgan make a point of checking in with diners to see how they are enjoying the meal. Likewise, the staff goes out of its way to draw you into the experience. And each dish evidences the heart and soul that underlies the restaurant’s powerful shared vision of the social importance of food. Art and Soul has given Smith and Morgan a chance to show Washington diners that heart is perhaps the most important ingredient of their art, and that food is truly an art of the heart.
Art and Soul in the Liaison Capitol Hill 415 New Jersey Ave., NW (202) 393-7777 www.artandsouldc.com
Breakfast: Daily, from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.
Lunch: Daily, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Daily, from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., and until 11 p.m. Thursday to Saturday
ArtBar: Daily, from 4 p.m. to midnight.
Lunch: to (appetizers) and to (entrées)
Dinner: to (appetizers) and to (entrées)
About the Author
Rachel Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.