By Amanda McDougall - 04/19/12 10:53 PM EDT
Always a restaurant with its roots in Southern cuisine, Art and Soul at the Liaison hotel on New Jersey Avenue NW has found new life after hiring Wes Morton to lead the kitchen. After nearly four years of solid business, the restaurant was heading into a hotel coma with its primary customer base stemming mostly from the Liaison. Chef-owner Art Smith wanted a larger local demographic. In came fellow Southerner Morton, fresh from the British-leaning kitchen of Againn, eager to finally have a venue to combine the food he grew up eating in southern Louisiana with the French cooking techniques he’s honed in professional kitchens. The end result — loaded with porcine indulgences, Southern flair and contemporary flourishes — is outstanding.
Given Morton’s “unapologetic love for the pig,” it seemed wrong not to start with his charcuterie plate. Without question, this starter is a labor of love and one of the best displays of cured meats in the city. The kitchen houses anywhere from 10 to 15 varieties of stuffed, smoked, cured, aged animal parts, and it presents diners with an array of slices (usually three to eight different types) dealt onto a wooden board with an open mason jar of house-made pickles and mustard. A man who was selected to compete in the upcoming Cochon 555 national cooking event surely needs no further praise of his pork craft. Each and every tidbit of the charcuterie was a divine balance of flavors and textures, ranging from rich and smoky cured duck breast to meaty, cherry-studded headcheese. (Scoop: The chef has been known to reward true food lovers with a wider variety of his cured magic.)
Morton’s favorite main course is the duck and dumplings. Both down-home and upscale, the dish is another embodiment of the chef’s vision of melding Southern fare with French cooking techniques. The duck legs are marinated for a day, braised in beer (“French-style,” the chef says), and cooked with the biscuit dumplings for a very Southern “one-pot” meal. Deeply hued and sapid with an intensely flavored sauce, the duck was soft and yielding. The biscuit was tender and the Brussels sprouts distinct in their slightly bitter, vegetal contribution.
Of course, pork was never more than an arm’s length away while dining at Art and Soul. The Garden Path Farm’s Tamworth pig (another chef favorite — no surprise) was a feast in and of itself. Belly, confit of shoulder and chaurice sausage came nestled in a bed of cider-braised cabbage, turnips and potatoes in a cast-iron skillet. Each portion was appropriately succulent, fatty and oh-so-porky. The only challenges were in breaking through the belly’s ultra-crisped skin to get to the meltingly soft flesh and a desire to polish off the whole dish.
House-cured bacon ornamented the Lock Duart salmon, along with wheat spaetzle, purple cabbage, pomegranate seeds and brown butter. The peach-colored fillet was seared to an ideal state of near-opacity, leaving a glistening, supple center, but the knobby wheat spaetzle were a bit mushy. Sans porcine parts, but no worse off, was the pan-seared Chesapeake bass. The Louisiana-meets-D.C. dish had Morton written all over it with its local-waters fillet with a crisped, silvery skin bathing in an unctuous, creamy crawfish sauce that sang with savor.
The seared scallops dish was a suitable lighter meal with a distinctly contemporary beat. Served on a rectangular plate, the sizable mollusks were flanked by fans of caramelized fennel bulb and drizzled with a nicely acidic citrus emulsion that played off the soft scallop and sweet fennel flavors. A single, large and naked sunchoke-filled raviolo sat at the end of the plate, looking lonely; a dab of the citrus sauce made for a quick repair.
Unfortunately, you also have to save room for dessert at Art and Soul. So many restaurants let their patrons’ meals end on a low note, but this one most certainly does not. To make matters even more difficult, several desserts are worth ordering.
The restaurant’s namesake baby cakes are tiny, three-bite morsels that give another meaning to Southern hospitality, i.e., they will be welcome in your mouth any day. Both the chocolate pudding cake with chestnut genoise and banana ice cream and the pecan pie in a jar with salted caramel and bourbon whipped cream (yes, all those things in one little jar! ) were everything you’d ever hope for: warm, just a bit gooey, crunchy, creamy and not too sweet. The candied kumquat tart was (sigh) also fantastic with its crisp and slightly chewy almond frangipan filling, crumbly, buttery crust, bitter-sweet kumquat marmalade and amaretto whipped cream.
Morton calls his food pure, honest, simple cooking. It’s all those things, and more — it’s straight from the heart.