There’ll be a changing of the culinary guard in the Art and Soul kitchen at the end of this month, as Wes Morton hands control of the thriving Hillside dining operation to incoming Executive Chef Doug Alexander.
Originally founded by restaurateur Art Smith in late 2008, the RAMMY-nominated restaurant at 415 New Jersey Ave. NW has matured into a go-to spot for Southern charm-seeking pols, staff-wooing lobbyists and tourists hoping for a taste of what it’s like to be a Washington insider.
That evolution has been gradual but deliberate, with the team of tastemakers attached to the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel tweaking their offerings as they continue to get to know the highly dynamic neighborhood better.
Opening chef Ryan Morgan helped put the property on the map with signature touches such as fried chicken lavished in country gravy, an item that continues to grace Art and Soul’s tables — several iterations later, of course — to this day.
Chef Travis Timberlake took the reins a few years later, eventually ceding the top spot behind the burners to current the executive chef, Morton, in early 2011. Morton’s last day is scheduled for July 31, after which he will make his way back home to Lafayette, La.
Morton said working at Art and Soul has been a constant challenge, partly because he is never quite satisfied with anything less than perfection.
For instance, there was that pesky rabbit dish.
“We made a sausage with leg meat, livers, hearts, dried sour cherries and pecans and stuffed the loins with them, … wrapped them in country ham, then sous vide. It was then picked up in a cast iron skillet to crisp the ham,” Morton said of a multi-step creation he found particularly challenging.
Then again, it’s tough to beat the puzzle that was a snapper with crawfish étouffée.
“We over-thought the plating of the dish no less than 100 times,” he said of the Jenga-like conundrum. “Turns out the most simple way was the best.”
One of his favorite dishes was even harder to swallow. Mostly because it didn’t seem to resonate with patrons.
“It was a pork dish with Vietnamese influence: pork belly with crispy skin, lime scented brown rice cake, lemongrass pork sausage, grilled broccoli rabe, a rich pork broth with flavors of pho and finished with a lot of herbs (Thai basil, cilantro and mint),” he said of the under-performing pet project.
Alexander, an alumnus of the award-winning 701 Restaurant and short-lived Againn gastropub before aligning himself with Team Smith in 2011, praised Morton for instilling in him an appreciation of holistic thinking.
“He taught me to look more at the total picture of not only cooking, but my life,” Alexander said. “It is too easy in this line of work to get trapped in the things right in front of you and let other things pass you by.”
Which is not to say he’s not perhaps a teensy bit pleased to see Morton go.
“I have joked with Wes that as soon as he moves away, I will be making the best boudin in D.C.,” Morton said of the sausage-making skills he gleaned from his mentor.
Those talents should be on full display soon, given that Alexander plans to put his stamp on the menu by introducing a new sausage plate featuring house-made smoked pork sausage seasoned with jalapeno and garlic, and spiked with mozzarella and beer. “The alpha batch was made with imperial brown ale. I tend to use whatever assertive beer we have on tap at the restaurant,” he said of his gift to franks fans.
Alexander also expects to unveil a seared tuna dish (basted with butter and thyme) poised to be accompanied with grilled corn and locally grown tomatoes stewed with onions, fennel, peppers and tasso ham.
Morton, meanwhile, will continue brainstorming ideas for his first self-styled restaurant project. The Pelican State native declined to dish too much about the prospective eatery, but promised authenticity would abound.
“It will be a truly Southern restaurant that pays tribute [to] our Cajun and Creole culture through historical research while trying to move it forward,” he said.
At least part of that “research” may take place in N’awlins, with Morton planning to beeline for restaurateur Neal Bodenheimer’s Big Easy strongholds as soon as he steps off the plane.
“I am especially intrigued with Cane & Table and their homage to rum cocktails. It’s a spirit that is overshadowed by the overbearing love affair with bourbon, but has just as deep of a story to Southern cocktail history,” Morton said.
Once he’s done drinking, Morton plans to fend off hunger like nobody’s business, mapping out plans to feast on: his mother’s rice and gravy (“[You] have to be Cajun to understand exactly what that is.”), the Friday-only, half-catfish, half-oyster po’boys prepared at Olde Tyme Grocery and “as much boudin as I can get my hands on.”
Back here on Capitol Hill, Alexander will presumably have his hands full with retooling the Art and Soul menu, gearing up for summer restaurant week 2014 (Aug. 11-17) and prepping the latest installment of the patio-packing pig- and oyster roasts.
Cheers to all that, chefs!