Monday, August 23, 2010

Art and Soul

Fat Pants (Noun): Stretchy garments that you must change into after indulging in Southern cooking at Art and Soul in the Liaison Hotel on Capitol Hill.

Art and Soul is celebrichef Art Smith's homage to good old Southern cooking with a modern twist. On a side note: congratulations to Chef Smith and his partner on their wedding which they celebrated at the Liaison this past Saturday.

I'm always skeptical about hotel restaurants, but was pleased that Art and Soul didn't have that generic hotel restaurant feel. While there were cozy booths along the back wall, we were seated at one of those undesirable two tops that is crammed so close to other tables that you have to awkwardly slide into your chair hoping that your butt doesn't knock over your neighbor's water glass. Fortunately, I avoided the butt-meets-water glass disaster. However, since the diner at the next table was eating alone (and therefore not talking to anyone), it felt as if we had a third wheel with us.

My annoyance at the table arrangement faded as a basket full of cornbread was set in front of me. It was moist and flavorful and hard to stop eating.

I was intrigued by the sno cone cocktails listed on the menu and tried the Savannah: vodka, african nectar tea, and peaches. The pesky "Looksbetteronthemenusapien" struck again with this drink. Because it wasn't served with a spoon and the ice wasn't very soft, it just ended up being a regular cocktail with too much ice in it. For $12, I expect more than a few ounces of liquid.

As I was filling up on cornbread, I decided to start with a lighter appetizer. The arugula salad with its blackberry ale vinaigrette,watermelon pickles, goat cheese, and almonds fit the bill perfectly. The watermelon pickles added a unique tart flavor that took this dish from mediocre salad to star.

B is still raving about the shrimp and grits. The shrimp were cooked on a sugarcane skewer and had a wonderful smoky flavor. The grits were packed with bacon chunks and weren't gummy like so many other grits we've sampled. Vinny Gambini in My Cousin Vinny might have even called these magic grits. If you don't know what I'm talking about, stop right here and add that movie to your Netflx queue. Don't worry, I'll wait.

Ok, welcome back. We went off the Restaurant Week menu to sample the fried green tomatoes and I'm glad we did. They had a perfectly crisp blanket of breading which wrapped each green tomato like a high-calorie hug. If that wasn't enough, it came with a wonderfully tart and creamy remoulade for dipping. I'm not going to tell you to add Fried Green Tomatoes to your Netflix queue but you should add Art Smith's dish to your "to eat" list.

By the time the main course came out of the kitchen, I was feeling pretty full. Once I tasted this juicy chicken and dessert-like squash puree, I forced myself to find more room. So many restaurants serve sub-par chicken, but Art and Soul put a lot of Southern love into this dish.

Since the waitress recommended the pork chop, B ate the pork chop. The delectable risotto resuscitated the somewhat overcooked pig.

We had no business eating dessert after gorging ourselves on the previous courses but it was Restaurant Week and it is against the law to turn down dessert. Luckily, my dessert wasn't very good so I didn't mind leaving most of it on the plate. It was a lackluster bread pudding with a run of the mill berry sauce. Yawn.

B's caramel brownie bar with popcorn brittle and and vanilla ice cream was more interesting but nothing we'd go running back for.

When we got home we tweeted that we needed to change into our fat pants after our meal and Art and Soul replied asking whether that was a good thing. In this case, absolutely yes. While the crowded tables and forgettable desserts were misses, there were enough hits that we'd give it another shot. However, with food this rich, we need to space out our visits or else our fat pants will become our every day pants.

Second Thoughts from B

Crowded table, overcooked pork chop, mediocre dessert... sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Wrong. When you're served a dish as wonderful as those shrimp and grits, you can't help but see the world as a glass half full.

It is easy to blame Restaurant Week for the other sins of the evening. We understand that the event doesn't always put a restaurant's best foot forward. Instead, we're looking for a few indications that would guide future dining choices.

So let's spend a moment to praise that unforgettable shrimp and grits dish. When we took our first bite, J and I had the same reaction: this was an Iron Chef quality dish. There were so many things going on, yet they were all perfectly married together. The interesting contrast of the sweet, fresh shrimp and creamy grits was only matched by the dueling textures. Add the tang of the chow chow (not the dog, the Southern relish made of chopped vegetables pickled in mustard) and the saltiness of the bacon and all of a sudden, there was a circus of flavor in my mouth. Finally, I have to mention the char on the shrimp. Never have I seen this executed so perfectly that it added a significant flavor profile to the dish. Well done.

With cornbread that sweet and moist, fried green tomatoes that would make Jessica Tandy smile, and shrimp and grits from heaven, Art and Soul showed us enough during Restaurant Week to put in on the list for a return visit... fat pants and all.
Art and Soul on Urbanspoon

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