901 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004 (http://thesmithrestaurant.com/)
* and 1/2 (Satisfactory/Good)
When I first heard about The Smith, a trendy New York City transplant to Penn Quarter downtown, it peaked my interest. An American-styled brasserie with an industrial feel, and updated takes on classics: it sounded like a perfect take on the modern restaurant. The Smith looks and feels like a bustling NYC restaurant (be prepared to yell and be yelled out during a table conversation). But while the concept is sound, the food is just a bit underwhelming. Throughout our meal, however, there are moments of fantastic cookery, if you know where to look.
Walking into the restaurant, I take an immediate shine to the dining room. In particular, the bar – located right behind the host stand – is an inviting centerpiece. With a subway tile backsplash, wood paneling, and an overly-stocked bar with both spirits and craft beers, the bar makes for a great place for a drink or a meal. Tiled floors and wood chairs throughout the dining room give off that brasserie vibe, which keeps things casual. Service is friendly and informative, without providing an overly long diatribe about farms, food origins, or dish preparations. A winning start to any meal.
Meeting up with a couple of friends, we begin dinner with cocktails (the way every meal should start?). The drink menu is a bit overwhelming, but do yourself a favor and steer toward anything with the homemade ginger beer (Dark and Stormy or Kentucky Buck, anyone?). The bubbly brew adds a little sweetness and plenty of ginger kick to ensure for a balanced drink. We follow up with starters including Zucchini Flatbread which has “summer” written all over it. Just cooked vegetables, creamy burrata, a punch from spring onions, and a peppery bite by way of arugula. Not to be outdone, the Burrata was nicely offset with roasted tomatoes, and given crunch and flavor via garlic crostini.
Entrees and larger plates are mixed at best. Tagliatelle provides for an interesting turn with squid ink pasta, but lacks in the flavor department. Similarly, a Pot of Mussels has properly cooked bi-valves, but the broth (AKA the entire point of mussels!) is just ordinary. The Prime Burger, however, is something I can imagine grabbing with a cold beer at the bar. The burger is rich with truffled mushroom fondue and Gruyere, but gets a zip of acidity from roasted tomato, and
crunch from onion straws. And while Grilled Shrimp Scampi is a little one note (a heavier hand with lemon would be welcome), the jalapeño grits are fantastic. The grits, also offered as a standalone side, are rich, creamy, and packed with flavor.
Unlike the grits, Sautéed Pea Shoots lean on the greasy end, and have been cooked a bit too much charred garlic. Save the order for a Cantonese restaurant instead. French Fries are cut well and look delicious, but could use a few more minutes in the fryer crisping. But the biggest disappointment of the evening belongs to the Mac + Cheese. Described as skillet roasted, the dish consists of macaroni seemingly stirred together with a block of Swiss cheese and thrown into a cast iron pan. The table agrees that the flavor is Swiss…and little else. Given our excitement in ordering the dish, it’s more than a bit disappointing.
To complete our meal, we order a variety pack of desserts, including S’Mores in a
Jar and Birthday Cake. The S’Mores are childhood all contained in a mason jar; classic flavors given an update. The Birthday Cake is a decadent chocolate cake interspersed with chocolate mousse and salted caramel accents. It’s light and airy
despite its appearance, and worth a try. Our final dessert is an evening special which featured a cornbread cake and mixed berries. The cake, moist and just slightly sweet, makes for a perfect ending for those of us who prefer a little less sugar.
D.C. is quickly becoming a destination for out-of-town restauranteurs (Michael Schlow, Stephen Starr, and Danny Meyer to name a few), and the arrival of The Smith shows that the pattern is not changing any time soon. While a majority of the offerings more than make the mark (The Riggsby, Le Diplomate, and Shake Shack: you all have my attention), competition is tough these days. Bottom line: The Smith offers some tempting comfort foods in an inviting location, but, thus far, lacks the consistency to make it a true star.
Atmosphere: The building, formerly home to McCormick & Schmick’s, is conveniently located in the heart of Penn Quarter. Inside, the restaurant has been transformed into a brasserie: wood chairs, subway tile backsplash, and mosaic tile flooring. The crowd leaned younger during our trip, and the atmosphere was lively (if you’re looking for an intimate dinner in the area, this may not be your cup of tea). Service is attentive and friendly, without feeling overbearing.
Noise: Very Loud. Tile, hardwood, concrete and high ceilings do not allow for much noise dampening. But based on our recent dining experiences, this is nothing new.
Recommended Dishes: Burrata, Zucchini Flatbread, Grilled Shrimp Scampi, Prime Burger, S’Mores in a Jar
Reservations: Recommended. The restaurant was rocking and rolling on a Saturday night, and given the proximity to the Capital One Arena (nee Verizon Center), I imagine most nights find a busy dining room.
$$$ – $50 to $100 for dinner for two