WASH March 2011 : Page 130

food drink | review Smith Commons RAting 1245 H St. N W, 202 .396 .0 038 , smithcommonsdc.com What the stars mean: = fair, some noteworthy qualities; = good, above average; = very good, well above norm; = excellent, among the area’s best; = world-class, extraordinary in every detail. Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service. WHO’s tHeRe Atlas District locals — which means ever yone. A n e c l e c t i c a n d d a s h i n g m i x of n e i ghb o r h o o d i e s a n d H S t r e e t d e v ot e e s l o v e t h i s a r e a fo r it s b l e n d of p e o p l e a n d g r e a t v e n u e s . gOOd tO KnOW The 40 -label in t e r n a t i on a l b e e r m e n u i s a n in n o v a t i v e l i s t a n d a g r e a t v a l u e . A g o o d s e l e c t i o n of B e l g i a n a l e s is complemented by 12 taps of surprising finds. Wine bottles are w e l l ch ose n a n d m i d -pr i ce d , w it h a nice geographical balance. WHy gO Smith Commons is an Vertical Horizon Smith Commons delivers a three-tier, chef-driven escape to Atlas District foodies craving space with room to move. | By Mary Beth Albright | Photography by Greg Powers | A year ago, right after one of those blizzards, Frederik De Pue took a drive to the Atlas District. The Belgian chef was hungry for mussels at Granville Moore’s and curious about the radical turnaround taking shape along H Street NE, where decades of dilapidation had given way to an urbane renewal, sparked by progressive urban planning and fueled by business owners determined to create a new District den. “There was a foot of snow on the ground and it was a Monday night,” the chef recalls. “But, the sidewalk and restaurants were packed. I thought: if it’s this crowded now, imagine what it’s like on a summer night...” The chef no longer needs to rely on his imagination. Less than a year after his sidewalk epiphany, he presides over Smith Commons, a swank three-stor y restaurant and lounge that brings to this burgeoning area what every neighborhood needs: not just a bistro or a beer dive, but a chef-driven, family-friendly, aesthetically intriguing escape with a groov y vibe and intelligent cuisine. In a city with a half dozen reinvigorated neighborhoods in recent years, H Street stands a lone as a place where you can find grit next to strollers, artists next to lobbyists, 130 | expansive, comfortable space for grown-ups. Lively, but not deafening. Spirited , but n o t i n t o x i ca t e d . C o o l , b u t n o t painfully so. Ever yone looks good . HOURs Tues.-Thurs., 5 pm ,-2 a m . Fri. & Sat., 5 pm -3 a m . (Kitchen closes at 11 pm .) Sun., 5 pm -10 pm . Weekend brunch soon. WHAt it COsts Starters, $6-$12. Entrees, $13-$25. Desserts, $6-$8. Bar menu, $6-$12. Cocktails $10. tattoos behind the wheels of BMWs. The rustic-cool spaces here are not crafty knockoffs; they’re reclaimed and restored to their own authentic grandeur. Lofts have exposed ducts, weathered brick walls and mottled floorboards because that’s how they came, not because a developer declared it cool. And the neighborhood crowd, a complementary mix of all DC archetypes, completes the scene. Smith Commons embraces the street with three levels of glass overlooking a construction zone. But what’s rough now will soon represent a glowing stop when the cit y’s streetcar system débuts here in 2012. A stop for what? How about wood-grilled tiger prawns, glowing with a beautiful char and fiery-red watermelon dressing. Or golden-seared sea scallops, dusted with gingerbread, floating atop a pool of creamed yellow corn. Or ra zor-thin beef carpaccio, zestily umami-ish in its own straightforward presentation with arugula, caper oil and sharp shreds of Parmesan. None of these dishes are over wrought, exotic or even surprising. They’re simply good contemporary food, served cheerfully by hip young millennials who blend street style continued ... and insouciance in a casually cool way. AtlAs UnplUgged Overdressed on H street? Hardly. Crustaceans, clams and grilled lamb chops get an unfussy, fully flavorful treatment. | March /April 2011

Food Drink Review

Mary Beth Albright

Vertical Horizon

Smith Commons delivers a three-tier, chef-driven escape to Atlas District foodies craving space with room to move.

A year ago, right after one of those blizzards, Frederik De Pue took a drive to the Atlas District. The Belgian chef was hungry for mussels at Granville Moore’s and curious about the radical turnaround taking shape along H Street NE, where decades of dilapidation had given way to an urbane renewal, sparked by progressive urban planning and fueled by business owners determined to create a new District den. “There was a foot of snow on the ground and it was a Monday night,” the chef recalls. “But, the sidewalk and restaurants were packed. I thought: if it’s this crowded now, imagine what it’s like on a summer night...”

The chef no longer needs to rely on his imagination.Less than a year after his sidewalk epiphany, he presides over Smith Commons, a swank three-story restaurant and lounge that brings to this burgeoning area what every neighborhood needs: not just a bistro or a beer dive, but a chef-driven, family-friendly, aesthetically intriguing escape with a groovy vibe and intelligent cuisine.

In a city with a half dozen reinvigorated neighborhoods in recent years, H Street stands alone as a place where you can find grit next to strollers, artists next to lobbyists, tattoos behind the wheels of BMWs. The rustic-cool spaces here are not crafty knockoffs; they’re reclaimed and restored to their own authentic grandeur. Lofts have exposed ducts, weathered brick walls and mottled floorboards because that’s how they came, not because a developer declared it cool. And the neighborhood crowd, a complementary mix of all DC archetypes, completes the scene.

Smith Commons embraces the street with three levels of glass overlooking a construction zone. But what’s rough now will soon represent a glowing stop when the city’s streetcar system débuts here in 2012. A stop for what? How about wood-grilled tiger prawns, glowing with a beautiful char and fiery-red watermelon dressing. Or golden-seared sea scallops, dusted with gingerbread, floating atop a pool of creamed yellow corn. Or razor-thin beef carpaccio, zestily umami-ish in its own straightforward presentation with arugula, caper oil and sharp shreds of Parmesan.None of these dishes are overwrought, exotic or even surprising. They’re simply good contemporary food, served cheerfully by hip young millennials who blend street style and insouciance in a casually cool way.

With weathered red bricks, blond booths, dark wood tables and a long bar, the uncluttered and rustically sensual ground floor delivers a menu that ranges from international classics (a velvety wild mushroom velouté or an über-aromatic bowl of clams with bitter bok choy and a lush garlicky mustard-miso broth) to American favorites (an Angus burger with grilled mushrooms, a juicy veal porterhouse or a trio of succulent lamb chops with a saucy julienne of dried tomato and grilled eggplant).

If Chef De Pue’s kitchen seems to channel a range of culinary traditions, it’s for a good reason. After all, does anyone have it tougher than the chef to the European Union Ambassador? That was De Pue’s job for six years—diplomatically distilling centuries-old traditions of the world’s great culinary capitals.

The Asian-inspired mango and duck salad shows off the chef’s global worldview. Hey, if he can’t do fusion right, who can? It’s the rare salad that wraps around your tongue and completely takes over: crisp frisée is tossed in a warm green curry dressing, topped with savory duck and slivered, slightly caramelized mango.

De Pue’s three years in local catering sharpened his eye for detail, which makes his eggplant lasagna a tempting starter on a cold night. Unfortunately, this perplexingly named innovation misses the mark. A gorgeous young Capitol Hill staffer at the adjacent table leans over to warn me: “It’s not remotely lasagna,” she whispers. “And just a thin layer of eggplant.” Indeed, my dish arrives with far more creamed spinach than its eponymous vegetable, topped with an incongruous (if beautiful) tangle of greens.“Lasagna” implies a dish of many layers, and we don’t receive what we expected. That wouldn’t matter as much if it were flavorful, but the dense creamed spinach and cheese overpower the scant eggplant, which barely registers.

That Hill staffer’s handsome politico husband—the couple lives within walking distance of Smith Commons— returned his first order of the pork chop entrée. Verdict: too tough. His replacement chop did the trick, but the macaroni and cheese accompanying went unloved. Billed as prepared with aged Manchego, the staple here lacks personality and bite, despite its lactic heaviness.

But many other menu classics hit the sweet spot and occasionally reveal a dazzling flourish. Fried flounder on a fish and chips plate is positively buttery, pillowy and sweet beneath its judicious layer of crispy batter. Served with a trio of side sauces (miso mayo, chimichurri-crème and tartare, all worthy of a fork dunk), it’s the platter that most of the kiddie set munched in the dining room. Nutritionminded parents can be forgiven once you sample a frite or two—gorgeously bronzed, appropriately salted, crisp on the outside and creamy in the middle.

Another dazzling sensation was the heavenly hazelnut biscotti ice cream: rich, nutty, but not-too-sweet, this addictive palate-pleaser perfectly balanced taste and texture, and I all but screamed: Bring me more! Our server, who had recommended it, gave me a friendly eye roll and said, “I was right, wasn’t I?” Indeed. Another super sweet is the Belgian chocolate lava cake, served in a small ramekin, straight from the oven. I know—it’s not rocket science. But when the chef has cooked in Brussels, it just makes sense.Alas, the crêpe mikado—a sweet pancake over a scoop of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with warm chocolate—came in a bit soggy when I’d hoped for a crisp griddle glow.

The “Commons” part of the venue’s name refers to the “public house” second- and third-floor lounges, where an awesomely mixed crowd sparkles in oversized loungy chairs and sofas: Hill wonks, lobbyists, a woman in her 20s with rainbow-striped tights and a sketchbook, a blearyeyed couple with their newborn infant enjoying muchneeded cocktails, families with two dads or two moms. The space used to be a carpet warehouse, and the second-floor’s rear-deck entrance is a garage door that will lift on warm spring nights to create a fluid indoor/outdoor expanse with a distant view of the Capitol. I’m imagining an easy flow from cocktails on the deck to dinner downstairs to Irish coffee by the second-floor fireplace. I’m not sure if I’ll make it to the third-floor bar, but here’s hoping!

While the “modern” house cocktails don’t appear to be duty-bound to seasonality (watermelon in winter?), they’re breezy enough. The James Brown Derby is a bourbon-grapefruit juice-honey syrup concoction that’s both sweet and low-down. The wine list sports some smart selections, with most bottles in the $30-$50 range.

Smith Commons is so perfectly designed for the neighborhood’s mellow 30s and 40s set, I’m shocked there isn’t a big-time restaurant consulting firm behind it. It’s kid-friendly, but not kid-oriented, with a sophisticated but generally familiar menu and nostalgic ’80s tunes on rotation. By spring, the restaurant will be kicking out a savory weekend brunch menu that bridges the gap from night back to daylight. A mimosa might help, too.

So, even if you can no longer pass for a 20-something while sneaking into a hipster show at Rock & Roll Hotel or a burlesque striptease at Palace of Wonders, you’ll be at home here. H Street has grown up, and Smith Commons proves it. Leave the booze-fueled vagabonding to the younger set, and kick back in a space where it feels like everybody already knows your name. Soon, they will.

Read the full article at http://digital.modernluxury.com/article/Food+Drink+Review/652745/62459/article.html.

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