Art and Soul’s beef tartare is plated, but really, the appetizer deserves a pedestal.
Ditto for the asparagus velouté. An alluring shade of green and a pure expression of the harbinger of spring, the soup is presented with concentric rings of creme fraiche and a crisp float of baked parmesan, plus a few leaves of citrus sorrel. It’s the kind of image you show your table mates before you wipe away its beauty with a spoon.
The gorgeous food at this Yotel restaurant on Capitol Hill stands in stark contrast to the series of dining rooms, separated by sliding doors and some of the most generic seating in town. The bar has the vibe of an airport lounge in an overflown country, except when there’s live music on Thursday nights. Well-trodden wood floors call for a good polish. Art and Soul extends outdoors, though its front patio offers views of a large beige Hyatt across the street.
Danny Chavez, 34, deserves a more attractive job board. Originally from El Salvador, the executive chef came to the United States as a teenager, where he got his start as a dishwasher in his father’s restaurant in Connecticut and let him know every few months or so that was ready for more responsibilities. Washing dishes led to the cold station, the grill and, finally, to a sous chef position. Chavez came to Washington in 2011 to help his mother and landed a job at Art and Soul as a line cook. As in Connecticut, he rose through the ranks. Last year Chavez, who took brief breaks to work at the late Plume and Gravitas, was promoted to the top job.
Celebrity chef Art Smith opened Art and Soul in 2008, but hasn’t been involved with the brand, then an Affinia hotel, since 2017. “He left us his name,” a waiter told me one evening. nodding at a bruise. “Art” neon lights on the wall, one of the few bright spots in terms of decoration. (Before this spring, my last visit was in 2016, when the cuisine had a Middle Eastern tune and Southern comforts included delicious rabbit pot pie and veggie collard greens, but also a few duds, lobster bisque and pie lemon among them. )
Chavez’s food isn’t just easy on the eyes. The chef also puts a lot of flavor into his compositions, what he likes to call “wow” moments. Chances are you’ve seen tuna crudo on a menu. Chances are Art and Soul’s raw fish dish — ruby-colored tuna sprinkled with fried shallots, the plate topped with pinpoint dots of mashed avocado — is among the most enticing. Pleasantly bitter grilled radicchio is balanced by juicy oranges and nuggets of strong blue cheese in a salad that takes a while to fully appreciate; hidden under the pile is Greek yogurt sprinkled with brown sugar and burned, creating a crackling brulee. Like many dishes here, this one ticks the chef’s targets for acidity, spiciness and sweetness.
It deploys heat well too. Grilled swordfish accompanied by a bed of quinoa, started with charred broccoli rabe, arrives with a haunting chipotle dressing that lingers on the tongue and in the mind, even after the entree is sent down. Tender candied octopus is spread over chickpeas fixed to the plate with fiery harissa, a salad brightened with creamy dots of saffron aioli and jalapeño slices.
As much as I appreciate good editing – trimming his work so that the essential shines – Chavez is an exception to the rule. In his case, more can be more. Braised rabbit is just one reason to order the spaghetti, almost hidden by a Garden of Eden of wilted spinach, blanched carrots, pickled pearl onions and (oh, why not?) ramp. Sweet Maine scallops, smothered in mashed garlic and chopped chives, share a fluffy bed of blood orange couscous. At the table, a reduction of saffron and orange completes the picture.
Small lifts — grilled naan with beef tartare, thick house chips with an artichoke-shishito dip — elevate most dishes. Judging from overheard conversations, groups of customers who appear to be meeting for the first time, and solo diners with telltale name badges, much of the restaurant’s clientele are hotel guests on business trips. business. I hope they know how lucky they are to find such distinguished cuisine in such an unexpected setting.
Rarely does a dish disappoint. A lunch of fusilli pasta mixed with peas, mushrooms and candied lemon sounds better in print (a QR code, alas) than on the tongue. The picture lacks salt or another seasoning to bind the elements. Cup Half Full: That’s one less dish vying for your attention.
Speaking of lunch, bargain hunters should head to the bar (only) for “Power Hour” Wednesday through Friday, when a sandwich, salad or fries and a glass of beer or wine are $22. (The ciabatta filled with smoked pork barbecue and tangy coleslaw is a whopper that threatens to ruin dinner plans.)
The second half of the restaurant’s name is best represented by fried chicken. The entree is the only dish on the menu that doesn’t look like a black tie affair. But what a snap of the lips! Chavez brines the bird in buttermilk, sometimes with pickle juice, and pricks its batter with paprika, cayenne pepper and other bold spices before frying it until nice and golden. . The chicken is arranged on a silk-soft mashed potato rich in mostly dairy ingredients: butter, cream, creme fraiche and buttermilk. (After indulging in it twice, I can understand the dinner whose order was “Just mashed potatoes.”) The study in beige is interrupted by sautéed dandelion greens, verdant punctuation for the most intimate dish on the menu.
Some kitchens run out of steam at the end of the meal, treating desserts like a chore. Art and Soul pays the last respect of course. Lucky are chocolate lovers in particular, who can choose between a lovely tiramisu, served as a parfait in a clear glass goblet, or a glossy round of ganache, from which brushstrokes of chocolate sauce finish with a golden topping of popcorn crisp. The sensible thing is to get both desserts and share them. Kudos to the waiter who heard a toast at my table one night and produced a free dessert with a candle for the birthday boy.
There’s nothing about the vibe that would draw you into Art and Soul, where even going to the bathroom with its bright questioning lights makes you wonder why so little attention is paid to basic physical comforts. The good news is that Chavez has spent part of the pandemic dreaming up new dishes at home and hopes to one day open his own restaurant.
Hurry up, boss, hurry up! I plan to be on the front line.
415 New Jersey Avenue NW. 202-393-7777. artandsouldc.com. Open: indoor and outdoor dining and takeout 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday . Price: Dinner entrees $8-$18, entrees $27-$46. Sound control: 74 decibels/must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; restrooms are ADA compliant. Pandemic Protocols: Staff are not required to be masked or vaccinated.