Surprise! You're dining at PS 7’s

Proper manners say one should not play with one’s food, yet chef Peter Smith seems to be having a grand time creating eclectic dishes that are as interesting to look at as they are to eat.

Smith used his initials and his restaurant’s address at 777 I St. NW to name his PS 7’s eatery in Chinatown, but the “PS” should really stand for “pleasant surprise.” Smith’s contemporary, elegant American fare stands out among other options in the neighborhood, and the creativity from the kitchen makes diners say “oooooh” as soon as their plates hit the table.

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The menu might change often, as Smith aims to use the freshest and most in-season ingredients, but what is consistent is attention to detail and playfulness.

What could be playful about a menu? How about a dessert called Evolution of the Chocolate Chip Cookie. A plate of three cookies — one soft, another cake-like and a third crunchy — arrives with a tiny glass of milk poured at the table. The Elvis, another dessert, consists of small squares of fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches — resulting in an almost cream cheese-like consistency in the middle. A small chocolate milkshake has the surprise: salty bacon flavor.

Smith likes surprises. Anyone walking into the bar can grab a handful of popcorn, for instance, while perusing the drink menu. This isn’t a movie-theater snack, though; with a sweet-heat spice rub mixed in with salt, you instinctively reach for more while considering the 18 hand-crafted cocktails, including a daily seasonal punch, the bartender’s choice (known as “Questionable Content”) and a number of non-alcoholic options.

The first pleasant surprise is the seasonal punch: Chamomile tea mixed with vodka. An herbal tea may seem out of place on a cocktail menu, but the familiar floral flavor in the cold drink makes a nice mixer and should be repeated often.

Also falling into the surprise category are the three 100-calorie cocktail options. A Tighten the Beltway combines Bluecoat gin, grapefruit and ginger; the Chile Flip mixes Stoli Pomagranik with lemon Kashmiri Chiles; and the Moscow Mule blends Sobieski vodka with diet Barritts Ginger Beer and lime. None of these tastes like a diet drink, and all are a great alternative to a light beer. Each has that potent alcohol-and-fresh-fruit flavor you want out of a cocktail.

Drinking a cocktail and eating off the lounge menu is an experience unto itself, considering that the bartenders use fresh ingredients and draw from an almost apothecary-looking array of bottles of bitters and other concoctions at the ready. The ultimate bar food, the salami jalapeño poppers combine goat cheese and salami bits into a pepper, all held together in a fried, breaded crust. The familiar salty-creamy taste of a popper is present, but the goat cheese flavor makes this distinct from others.

The cocktail menu has several distinct flavors of its own, featuring cilantro, ginger, salted ice, beets and cucumber water. It provides a glimpse of the fresh seasonal ingredients that make the restaurant’s food shine.

The cucumber makes an appearance on the food menu, too, alongside another summer staple: the hot dog bun. Smith elevates these basic pleasures from the backyard gathering to fine-dining fare.

A cucumber cilantro slaw puts an Asian twist on the tuna tartare slider appetizer. The diced, spicy, raw tuna on top of mini sesame-seed buns comes with a white miso aioli. The mini hamburger roll seems out of place, but the flavors and texture of the tuna are spot-on.

A cucumber jalapeño relish comes on top of Smith’s pork belly banh mini, which uses a hot dog-style roll more successfully than the slider. This starter puts buttery, melt-in-your-mouth roasted meat with hoisin sauce inside the soft, house-made roll. Pickled carrots and radishes on the side offer a cooling complement to the spicy relish.

As for those hot dog buns, the best filling for them might just be … hot dogs. The trio of house-made petite hot dogs taste more like mini-sausages on top of the chewy bread. The accompanying thin-cut fries and spicy mustard bring children’s food to an adult menu.

Continuing with the food-on-rolls theme, the steak and cheese main entree is a case of “What you read on the menu may not be exactly what you get.” Rather than eating this as a sandwich, diners need utensils, but only a fork; the meat is that tender. Slices of Kobe beef filet lie on a cheese roll with sautéed mushrooms and onion. The seared meat has a nice, gritty crunch on the outside but is delectably tender in the middle. The juice from the steak and vegetables soaks the bread with its flavor, making every bite count.

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The kitchen earns presentation points here, too. Nothing arrives on a traditional round plate, but rather on long rectangles, and the creative arrangements make each dish look like a tiny work of art. The baby beet salad is a perfect example. It’s a colorful plate of purples and reds with pickled pistachios, watercress and cream cheese.

As for other entrees, the Herr pork loin comes on top of Schupfnudeln — German finger-length potato dumplings — and a mustard green puree with a spoonful of pickled rhubarb “kraut” on the side. What reads like a hearty winter dish comes out perfectly cooked. The delicately sliced pork loin on top of the green puree doesn’t taste heavy. The pork is slightly seared on the outside, tender in the middle and seasoned just enough to let the meat’s flavor shine through. The dumplings are soft and squishy and provide a nice contrast to the bitterness of the mustard.

The Chicken a la Waffles entrée puts a meaty chicken thigh and a Pizzelle-style wafer on top of cooked wild mushrooms and ramps. A scoop of ricotta cheese flecked with chopped apricots comes on the side. A tiny pitcher of Vidalia syrup adds a sticky yet distinctively non-maple flavor to the dish.

PS 7’s surprises and delights its diners — and has yet to disappoint.