Earlier this month, I traveled to our nation’s capital on a culinary press trip courtesy of Destination D.C. and Foodbuzz. Joining me were two other Foodbuzz publishers (Olga of Mango Tomato and Joseph of Gastronomer’s Guide), as well as five veteran food and travel writers from across the country. Our weekend in D.C. took us to some of the city’s most talked about restaurants, and also included a few stops off the beaten path. It was a food tour of a lifetime, and let me tell you, D.C. is delicious. There truly is no better way to explore a city than by breaking bread all across town.
Our excursion began at the Liaison Hotel on Capitol Hill, which served as our group’s swanky home base for the duration of the trip. After checking in and unpacking a bit, it was time to head downstairs to Art and Soul for dinner.
Chef and co-owner Art Smith arrived in D.C. following the success of his restaurant Table Fifty-Two in Chicago and a decade-long stint as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef. Although he is not a full-time Washingtonian, he spends a few weeks here each month making sure that all is perfect at Art and Soul. We were very fortunate to have him join us for cocktails and dinner.
The restaurant’s menu is a blend of Chef Smith’s Southern cooking heritage and the Atlantic region’s finest ingredients. Before sitting down for a full-on feast, we indulged in a parade of small bites. My favorite of the bunch was the mini smoked salmon hoecakes. According to the menu, hoecakes are “cornmeal flatbreads traditionally cooked after a hard day’s work.” Topped with house-cured salmon, caviar, dill crème fraiche, and caper berries, the hoecakes’ flavors were familiar and immensely satisfying.
I was so smitten by the hoecakes that I ordered more as an appetizer. This time around, I chose the oyster po’ hoecakes ($12) comprised of buttermilk battered fried oysters, chow chow remoulade, and romaine lettuce. The crisp, salty, and briny oysters tasted sublime paired with the creamy sauce and warm hoecake. Though not as clean and fresh as the smoked salmon hoecake, I appreciated this one more for its heartiness.
My entree came highly recommended by the man who invented it. The Crab Three Ways ($32) included a fried soft shell, a Maryland crab cake, and a crab-stuffed chile. A mildly spicy chipotle butter tied all of the ocean-fresh elements together. The whole crab was easily my favorite of the trio—I love the crunch of a well fried soft shell. The crab cake and relleno were strong as well, but the portion size and richness had me overwhelmed. Unless you’re an especially hefty eater, this entree is best shared with another.
Even though I was quite full after the main course, I was ready for more the moment desserts arrived at the table. Southern desserts are oftentimes under-appreciated because of their blunt sweetness, but for a sugar-fiend like me, they’re really quite ideal. The bourbon pecan pie ($8) with vanilla ice cream and chocolate ganache captured a thoroughly delightful buttery and nutty profile.
My favorite dessert was the warm cinnamon bun pie ($8) served with a chilled Kahlua milkshake. It looked like a ho-hum pastry at the start, but one bite and I was completely taken. It had all the qualities of a great cinnamon roll with an extra schmear of streusel to top it all off.
Everyone at the table was a big fan of the Art and Soul Baby Cakes ($8), especially Chef Art’s signature Hummingbird cake, which he once made for Dr. Maya Angelou. The base of the Hummingbird cake was a mixture of banana and pecans, while the frosting was classic cream cheese.
And last but certainly far from least, a most decadent chocolate terrine ($8) paired with an espresso gelato and a hunk of salty and sweet popcorn brittle.
Chef Smith’s regional and seasonal approach to classic Southern cooking is reminiscent of the upscale soul restaurants that The Astronomer and I love to frequent while visiting Birmingham. While D.C. is rarely considered a quintessential southern city, the warm hospitality, deep fried oysters, and pecan pie served up at Art and Soul had me fooled.
On a final note, congratulations to Chef Smith and his partner Jesus Salgueiro! The two were hitched this past Saturday at The Liaison Hotel. The wedding feast included buttermilk fried chicken, goat-cheese drop biscuits, and peach barbecued beans. Mmm, boy!