Art and Soul restaurant review: It lives up to its name

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Little green scrolls of shaved cucumber flank a pink bar of minced raw wagyu beef, tweaked with muhammara and carpeted with flowers and herbs. Nearby on the plate are elegant streaks of more muhammara, the Middle Eastern red pepper dip that dances from smoky to tangy to sweet to spicy and back.

The beef tartare at Art and Soul is served on a plate, but really, the appetizer merits a pedestal.

Same for the asparagus velouté. A seductive 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 citrusy sorrel leaves. It’s the sort of picture you show off to dining companions before you erase its beauty with a spoon.

The gorgeous food at this restaurant within the Yotel 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 the city. The bar has the feel of an airport lounge in flyover country, save for when there’s live music on Thursday night. The well-trod wood floors cry out for a good buffing. Art and Soul extends outdoors, although its front patio comes with a view of a big beige Hyatt across the street.

Danny Chavez, 34, deserves a more attractive job site. A native of 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 he was ready for more responsibility. Washing dishes led to the cold station, the grill and, finally, a position as sous-chef. 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 worked his way up. Last year, Chavez, who took brief timeouts 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, at the time an Affinia hotel, since 2017. “He left us his name,” a server tells me one night, nodding to a blue neon “Art” on the wall, one of the few bright spots as far as decor is concerned. (Before this spring, my last visit was in 2016, when the cooking had a Middle Eastern lilt and the Southern comforts included a delicious rabbit pot pie and vegetarian-friendly collard greens but also a few misses, lobster bisque and lemon tart among them.)

Chavez’s food isn’t merely easy on the eyes. The chef also packs lots of flavor in his compositions, what he likes to call “wow” moments. Chances are, you’ve seen tuna crudo on a menu. Chances are, the raw fish dish at Art and Soul — ruby-colored tuna strewn with fried shallots, the plate garnished with precise dots of avocado puree — is among the most alluring. Pleasantly bitter grilled radicchio is balanced by juicy oranges and nuggets of sharp blue cheese in a salad that takes a moment to fully appreciate; hidden under the heap is Greek yogurt sprinkled with brown sugar and torched, creating a crackling brulee. Like a lot of dishes here, this one checks off the chef’s aims for acid, spice and sweetness.

He deploys heat well, too. Grilled swordfish teamed with a bed of quinoa, jump-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 dispatched. Tender confit octopus is splayed over chickpeas affixed to the plate with fiery harissa, a salad enlivened with creamy dots of saffron aioli and teasing jalapeño slices.

As much as I appreciate good editing — trimming one’s work so the essentials shine — Chavez is an exception to the rule. In his case, more can be more. Braised rabbit is but one reason to order the spaghetti, almost hidden by a garden of Eden composed of wilted spinach, blanched carrots, pickled pearl onions and (oh, why not?) ramp pesto. Sweet Maine scallops, capped with pureed garlic and minced chives, share a soft bed of couscous with blood oranges. At the table, a reduction of saffron and orange completes the canvas.

Little lifts — grilled naan with the beef tartare, thick housemade potato chips with an artichoke-shishito dip — enhance most dishes. Judging from overheard conversations, groups of customers who seem to be meeting for the first time and solo diners with telltale name badges, a lot of the restaurant’s clientele are business-traveling hotel guests. I hope they know how lucky they are to find such distinguished cooking in such an unexpected setting.

Infrequently, a dish underwhelms. A lunchtime pasta of fusilli tossed with peas, mushrooms and preserved lemon sounds better in print (a QR code, alas) than on the tongue. Missing from the picture is salt or other seasoning to tie the elements. Cup half full: It’s one less dish competing for your attention.

Speaking of lunch, bargain hunters should belly up to the bar (only) for “Power Hour” Wednesday through Friday, when a sandwich, salad or fries and glass of beer or wine are $22. (Ciabatta packed with smoky pork barbecue and tangy slaw is a whopper that threatens to ruin dinner plans.)

The second half of the restaurant’s name is best represented by the fried chicken. The entree is the lone dish on the menu that doesn’t look like it’s going to a black-tie affair. But what a lip-smacker! Chavez brines the bird in buttermilk, sometimes with pickle juice, and spikes his batter with paprika, cayenne and other bold spices before frying it to a state of good and gold. The chicken is arranged on smooth-as-silk pureed potatoes, rich with basically a dairy case of ingredients: butter, cream, creme fraiche and buttermilk. (Having indulged in them twice, I can understand the diner whose order was “Just mashed potatoes.”) The study in beige is broken with sauteed dandelion greens, verdant punctuation for the homiest dish on the menu.

Some kitchens lose steam by meal’s end, treating desserts like a chore. Art and Soul pays the last course respect. Lucky are chocolate lovers in particular, who can choose between a lovely tiramisu, served as a parfait in a clear glass cup, or a glossy round of ganache, from which brushstrokes of chocolate sauce end with a golden garnish of popcorn brittle. The sensible thing is to get both desserts and share. Kudos to the server who overheard a toast at my table one night and produced a gratis dessert with a candle in it for the birthday boy.

There’s nothing about the ambiance that would draw you into Art and Soul, where even going to the restroom with its interrogation-bright lights makes you wonder why so little attention is paid to basic physical comforts. The good news is, Chavez spent part of the pandemic dreaming up new dishes at home, and hopes to one day open a restaurant of his own.

Hurry, chef, hurry! I plan to be first in line.

415 New Jersey Ave. NW. 202-393-7777. 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. Prices: Dinner appetizers $8 to $18, main courses $27 to $46. Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to be masked or vaccinated.

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