So, last week was Restaurant Week in DC. Usually, I’m all over this, rounding up the troops and hitting as many spots as possible. This year, the timing was bad, so I was only able to go to two places…the first of which was Art Smith’s downtown hotspot, Art and Soul. For those of you not familiar with Restaurant Week, let me give you a brief synopsis: three courses for $35.09 (for dinner) or $20.09 (for lunch). Many restaurants allow you to choose from the entire regular menu. Other restaurants, such as Art and Soul, limit the menu. Tremendously.
Art wasn’t there. Well, we assume he wasn’t. I was told that I was not allowed to ask (by my brother, per Anthony Bourdain), and I didn’t see him wandering the dining room. I really wanted him to come to our table, chat, and give us all hugs. But, alas…
Let’s get atmosphere out of the way. Because, lbh, who really cares about that? The decor of the restaurant is very trendy and hip. Everything is black and red and the design attributes are very modern and clean lined. The setup is very open. The dining room leads into the bar area which leads into the hotel lobby. The bathroom is, in fact, there and not in the actual restaurant. But, that’s not important. What, you ask, is important? The food!
And off we go. We’ll start with the bread. Which was delicious. So delicious that we had seconds. And quickly. My brother, one of my dining companions, called it Monkey Bread. Basically, it was a big piece of bread that broke off into pieces. The bread was served out of a skillet and was warm and buttery. It was more yeast roll than dinner roll. How’s that for an explanation? The butter was soft and easy to spread. This, as you know, is a bonus. There is nothing worse than cold butter that rips the bread as you try to spread it.
For our first courses, we sampled gazpacho, the shrimp appetizer, and the Caesar salad. The gazpacho came topped with a creamy dollop of avocado (perfectly ripe, smooth and buttery) and a pretty large shrimp. I enjoy a chunk of tomato or some cucumber every now and then when I have gazpacho…a little bit of a bite, if you will. So, for my taste, the soup that was set in front of me was pureed a bit too much; it would have been quite appropriate for my pre-toddler friends, those without teeth. In addition to it’s smooth quality, it also was a bit bland and needed quite a bit of help from my friend, Salt. That being said, the overall taste was very fresh and it was a great starter on a hot summer night. Best of all, it didn’t have that V-8, over processed taste that restaurant gazpachos sometimes have. The shrimp appetizer was skeweredand grilled to perfection (with a lime chile marinade) and its accompanying sides were a tasty complement. The best part of the Caeser salad was the deviled egg that accompanied it. By now, you know how I feel about the deviled egg…and this one may have been the best yet (I know, I know, I’ve said it before). The filling was creamy and smooth and had just a touch of each ingredient so that not one overpowered the other. Based on the texture of the filling and my experience with the gazpacho, I’d say Mr. Smith and his sous chefs have a very close relationship with the immersion blender.
Ok, so we also ordered an extra appetizer. We could not possibly go to Art and Soul and not sample the famous Hoe Cakes (at Lady and Sons in Savannah, the hoe cakes are what come in the bread basket; as their famous t-shirts attest, “Our hoes are free.” Go Paula.). And, of course, we had to order the most deluxe version: the picnic basket. This variation of the traditional cornmeal treat was topped with pulled pork bbq, baked beans, cole slaw, and “corn on the cob” (think party scene from “Big.” And, how appropriate. Art and Soul? Heart and Soul? How clever. Of me. To make the connection.). The hoe cake was actually pretty thin and tasteless. But the pulled pork bbq greatly made up for it. I could’ve eaten a mound of the that. Sadly, no one ate the “corn on the cob.”
I don’t know how many times, on Top Chef Masters, the judges (ew, Kelly Choi) made a comment about Art’s affinity and talent for cooking chicken. Especially of the fried variety. So, when I saw chicken on the menu, I was stoked. Like thinking about it for days beforehand. But then came the disappointment. The chicken? Not. Fried. It’s just, well, chicken. Pan fried with the skin on, it was still delicious, but not what I had my heart set on. However, the goat cheese drop biscuit, roasted vegetables, and supremely lumplesschicken gravy made up for all of that. As one dinner companion proclaimed, “I only liked my mom’s gravy…until now.” The biscuit was to die for; each bite had the tang of goat cheese which, surprisingly, went quite well with all the other flavors on the plate. The salmon, which came accompanied by pea risotto, golden beet relish, and a preserved lemon vinaigrette was tasty but unremarkable. The risotto was a vibrant green color, thanks to the fresh peas, but it was also a bit gummy. The pork chop, served with charred stone fruit relish and swimming in a sweet onion broth was the thickest chop I have ever seen–at least three inches high. The meat was perfectly cooked and tender.
And, of course, we had to get an extra side of the macaroni and cheese. How could one go to a Southern themed restaurant, where Art Smith is the chef, and not partake in the gooey deliciousness? And gooey and delicious it was. A little more “saucy” than I prefer, it was still among the best I’ve ever had (again with the hyperbole, I know). Touted as the macaroni casserole, this cheesy pasta dish was perhaps one of the best things we ate all night. Give me that and some monkey bread and I would’ve been set. The top was crunchy without having any sort of bread crumbs on top. The waiter claimed that the sauce just had cheese in it–a special cheddar from the middle east…of the United States. This is exactly how he said it, too. Though I’m not always too good at picking out flavors or figuring out technique, I’d be willing to bet that there was some cream mixed in with that middle east cheddar. Cream of the heavy variety.
We had one each of the three dessert choices: a peach pecan tart, a lemon pudding cake with berry compote, and a chocolate cheesecake with chocolate sauce. In this case, pictures may do them more justice.
All in all, the experience was a good one. The food was good but not over the top fantastic. A big bear hug from the chef may have made it better. I am hesitant to call it great because all of the things I had that should’ve been stellar were just good–the chicken and the hoe cakes, specifically. I’m not opposed to heading back downtown and having fried chicken for lunch one Sunday, though. With a side of the mac and cheese, of course.
Here’s a quiz…name that herb! The picture below is of an herb that was on every single plate as a garnish, and also growing, in a little tin pail, as the centerpiece on our table.