Peter's Play on Taste

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Menu at PS 7's As Varied As Chef-Owner's Background

When PS 7’s opened last fall in Washington’s Penn Quarter, it marked the return of chef-owner Peter Smith to the D.C. restaurant scene and the realization of his long-time dream. Incidentally, the name of the restaurant is a play on Smith’s initials and the street address (777 I St., NW).

After many years at Vidalia, where he worked with Naomi Gallego, now PS 7’s pastry chef, Smith took time off to develop his vision for a restaurant whose cuisine would bring together his disparate culinary influences with a contemporary modern American style that is all his own. Those eclectic influences include watching his Italian grandfather create traditional Sunday afternoon dinners, traveling with his family as a child and sampling foods from across the world, studying formal techniques at the local L’Academie de Cuisine, and serving in kitchens throughout the area. (Smith’s resume is truly eclectic, having cooked at 17,000 feet above sea level for hikers at the Mt. Everest base camp while touring Tibet and Nepal.)

His vision was affirmed recently by the nomination of PS 7’s for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s (RAMW) Best New Restaurant Award.

In designing PS 7’s, Smith worked with GrizForm Design Architects to create a space that would serve as backdrop for his creations, rather than compete with them. Full-length windows and soaring ceilings create light and space while the deep chocolate browns, walnut woods, lighter neutral accents and sea-foam glass introduce a calming approach. A single dramatic element, a curvy blue wall that twists upward to become a ceiling running the length of the restaurant, transforms the almost somber feel of the space with eccentric elegance.

The menu at PS 7’s is as varied as its owner’s background—and just as full of surprises. Broken into seven sections, it offers numerous small plates, grouped by price, which provide for easy sharing and sampling, as well as a respectable number of full-size plates.

Salads are complex concoctions of fresh and preserved ingredients mixed and matched to give each bite a sampling of flavors and textures. The excellent Sarah’s salad blends Bosc pears, blue cheese, dried cherries, spiced walnuts, pickled pearl onions and mini-croutons all chopped into bite-size pieces and dressed with a light pear-nectar dressing.

The portabella mushroom carpaccio underscores the meaty character of that beloved fungus when paired with fried capers, aged gouda, herb aioli and mache salad.

Fish and shellfish figure heavily on the menu, and Smith works with them to build dishes that appeal to all the senses. Fat fingers of firm demi-cured arctic char are doused with vanilla-scented lemon oil and nestled on beds of beet carpaccio, accented by toasted shallot crème fraiche and a small dill salad. The tastes are subtle, with the slight echo of citrus balanced out by the rich shallot and bitter dill. More robust, a chunk of monkfish crusted with porcini mushrooms is served over an inspired ragout of sunchokes, English peas and Speck ham in a lemon verbena broth.

Smith likes to work with variations on a theme, and nowhere is this more evident that in his Maine lobster dégustation, which includes a thin chowder, a boudin-like lobster sausage, dumplings and an eggy dish. It’s interesting in concept, but overall the dish was not as effective as many of the others, although the sausage itself was quite good.

On the other hand, the beef two ways, which combines two beef dishes, leaves nothing to be desired. Red wine-braised boneless beef short ribs are wrapped in crisp pastry, studded with foie gras, and served with roasted pom pom mushrooms and glazed root vegetables. The ribs are paired with a pan-roasted rib eye noisette, which is accompanied by fingerling potatoes, roasted marrow, brie and roasted garlic butter. The contrasting presentations (both available separately as well) work together nicely in this ample dish.

Another memorable dish is the popcorn-crusted halibut. Served with wilted watercress, smoked corn, house-cured bacon and cippolini onions, the dish is enhanced with an unusual emulsion of tonka bean and popcorn. The pan-seared scallops served with salt-infused salsify and sherry vinegar sauce is one of the more simple preparations, but is not lacking in flavor.

The creative talents of pastry chef Naomi Gallego—also honored this year with a nomination for Pastry Chef of the Year by RAMW—are evident throughout the meal, from small breads at the start to an array of desserts that are grounded equally in seasonal and exotic ingredients. For instance, the fresh strawberry panna cotta served with zabaglione and accented by crushed Amaretti cookies is a creative interpretation of the classic strawberry-almond pairing.

For chocolate lovers, there is a dense truffle-like chocolate bar accompanied by a small Kahluah-chocolate milkshake, vanilla marshmallow and caramel sauce. The passion fruit meringue pie, meanwhile—served with an icy coconut sorbet, fresh mango tartare and a reduction of pomegranate and vanilla—is a rich medley of tropical tastes and a lighter choice than the chocolate bar.

Gallego also plays with a dessert tapas concept that mirrors chef Smith’s emphasis on small plates. Mini-doughnuts with berry and chocolate dipping sauces are fun and tasty, while the blood orange meringue pies are elegant. These small bites are perfect for those not ready to tackle the more substantial “bigger sins.”

For those wishing to try out the place without committing to a formal meal, the “7 & 7 Happy Hour” from 5 to 7 p.m. during the week is a great bargain, offering numerous small plates as well as classic cocktails and new creations for each. In particular, the tuna sliders—bites of tuna tartare on Parker house rolls—redefine the tuna sandwich, while the veal cheek chips are as good as they are unlikely.

PS 7’s 777 I St., NW Penn Quarter (202) 742-8550 www.ps7restaurant.com

Lunch: Mon. to Fri. 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon. to Thu. 5:30 - 9:45 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 5:30 - 10:45 p.m. Prices: Small plates: - 15; Main courses: -32; Desserts: -12 Dress: Business casual

About the Author

Rachel Hunt and Stephen Qualiana are the restaurant reviewers for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999