As we pulled up to the Affinia Liaison hotel on Capitol Hill, our taxi driver was puzzled. “When did this get here?” he asked. “This used to be a Holiday Inn.” But once inside the Liaison’s week-old restaurant, Art & Soul, we saw something vastly different from your average Holiday Inn—something more along the lines of the retro-funky Hotel George a few blocks away.
Silvery, mod light fixtures and chain-mail curtains might be at odds with the homespun bowls of apples that grace each table, but it all makes sense when you think back to the name of the restaurant, which alludes not only to the kitchen’s fancified down-home cooking but also to the man behind it. Before adding Art & Soul to his portfolio, Chicago-based chef Art Smith was known for his famed restaurants, for palling around with Oprah (he was her personal chef for a decade), and for his appearances as a judge on Iron Chef America. Oh, and there are the two James Beard Awards.
Like the Southern-born chef and the decor, the food hits a note somewhere between refined and rustic. And while the result on our early visit was less than perfect, it still managed to taste darned good.
A shrimp appetizer ($14) sat on a slightly dry mound of grits but—like everything else—was aggressively seasoned. The lily was nicely gilded with a piece of ham wrapped around each of the three large shrimp. Hoecakes are a rare thing to see on a menu around here, and Art & Soul makes them into a sort of rectangular pizzalike appetizer. Ours was topped with blue crab, braised beef, and Brie ($12), although there was no hint of crab or Brie. Still, the rich beef and the crispy-edged corn cake tasted good. A nicely cooked piece of rockfish was also wrapped in ham and accompanied by a crab risotto, which was also seemingly crabless. But, you know what? It tasted good. And although the trio of “babycakes”—the kitchen would like you to know that they’re not cupcakes, thank you very much—were tough in texture, they (all together now) tasted good.
At any other restaurant, missing ingredients might make for a disappointing dining experience. But at Art & Soul, such missteps couldn’t hide the fact that the food holds real promise—and, more important, soul.