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Power Lunch: A Little Bit of Art and A Heaping Plate of Soul

At Art and Soul, the new restaurant in the remodeled Liaison Capitol Hill hotel just steps away from the Capitol’s Senate side, plenty of perches seem tailor-made for lunchers. [IMGCAP(1)]

The unseasonably warm day cries out for a table on the mod patio. Have sensitive campaign business to attend to? Try the privacy of one of the stylish enclosed booths upholstered in white faux lizard. The sleek bar is also the spot for an early happy hour or a solo lunch.

Art and Soul (415 New Jersey Ave. NW), the latest offering from celebrity restaurateur Art Smith — a former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey and former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and a chef for Martha Stewart Living magazine — is a welcome addition to Capitol Hill’s sparse dining scene. And judging from a few recent visits, the Southern fare executed with a light touch means prime real estate and good seating options aren’t the only things this newcomer has going for it.

The juxtaposition of modern and homey elements might seem jarring — it’s not exactly common to eat comfort food beneath light fixtures that look like they belong in the National Gallery of Art’s modern wing — but the combination is winning. Giant pop art-style portraits lining the walls, Levi’s-clad servers and faux wood-grained tables might say “funky,” but bowls of fruit on the table in lieu of centerpieces and a menu of familiar fare makes sure the word is uttered with a welcoming drawl.

Smith’s Southern roots are most evident in the cuisine, which doesn’t feel gimmicky in the least. A favorite find is the “hoecakes,” fluffy, oblong cornmeal cakes crowned with a choice of several toppings. The cornmeal’s earthy flavor and crunchy texture provide a satisfying base for toppings like juicy pulled chicken, which is lent some zip by a tart vinegar slaw and a kicky house-made barbeque sauce.

Executive chef Ryan Morgan (lately of TenPenh) explains that the name of hoecakes comes from the method originally used by farm workers to make them: A hoe was heated over the fire, then used to cook a cornmeal batter. In far more elegant surroundings than a field, one of the cakes would make for a stand-in for a hearty sandwich or individual-sized pizza. Starters also include a plate of fried oysters, clams, calamari, shrimp and okra that are light instead of sodden, and rustic tomato pie garnished with a swirl of vivid green pesto.

Just make sure not to fill up first on the pillowy rolls covered in garlic-herb butter that are brought to tables in miniature cast-iron pots. Where the bread makes contact with the pan, the rolls come away crisp, which contrasts with the tender interiors.

The best dishes on the menu offer bright, clean flavors, like those of a pepper-flecked, crisp-skinned trout paired with sweet roasted beets and drizzled with horseradish cream. The “Put Up” salad, named after the farm tradition of preserving or “putting up” food for the winter, features a tangle of greens surrounded by a ring of little treats: deviled eggs, tart and sweet ribbons of pickled watermelon rind and a spoonful of corn salad.

The kitchen is clearly enamored of all things pickled and brined; crispy and vinegary bits enliven several entrees, salads and appetizers to good effect. “I love the flavors that come from pickling,” Morgan confessed.

Just as countrified, but much more expected, is the fried chicken. The bird’s crunchy skin too quickly softens between its bed of mashed buttermilk-spiked potatoes and creamy gravy topping. Each of the components is rich and flavorful, but I’d prefer to keep them separate.

Desserts are a mixed bag. “Baby cakes”—essentially miniature versions of regular cakes, not to be confused with muffin-shaped cupcakes — are large and their interiors a bit dry. But a sour cherry trifle layered with vanilla bean-flecked cream hits the sweet spot of sweetness — not cloying but sugary enough to serve in a Southern restaurant.

Service is affable and capable, and the few slips that diners witness are easily attributable to the expected bumps of opening a new restaurant.

Once, a server had to go back to a neighboring table to ask how a diner wanted her salmon cooked, having apparently forgotten to ask while taking her order. On another visit, a server took my party’s order, only to find out that he had accidentally ventured into another server’s area, and a server switch was announced. I’m quite willing to overlook these minor slips because the restaurant is new and the gaffes were handled well by a team of otherwise charming wait staff.

Smith is one of a long lineup of out-of-town celebrity chefs hanging their glittery shingles in Washington as of late. Big names like Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck and Eric Ripert are among those who have added inside-the-Beltway outposts in their restaurant empires. Though Morgan will be overseeing the day-to-day operations in the kitchen, Smith can still be spotted weaving around the dining room on occasion — and, of course, his smiling visage peeks out from the covers of the requisite celebrity chef cookbooks for sale by the door.

And though diners might be drawn at first to Art and Soul because of the draw of Smith’s name, the fact that the chef has cooked for the likes of Oprah and Martha isn’t going to turn them into regular customers.

If the restaurant’s early performance is any indication, they might come for Art, but they’ll come back for the soul.

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