Precious Mettle: Smith?s bold dishes actually work
Precious Mettle: Smith?s bold dishes actually work Credit: Photograph by Charles Steck

Ask Peter Smith about the inspiration behind PS 7’s, his brooding, brave-new-world restaurant in Chinatown, and the former Vidalia chef will direct your gaze westward to the Second City, home of Alinea, Moto, and those other temples of gastronomic funkiness.

“Chicago comes to the top of my head. They have all these really fun, different, and cool restaurants that are definitely doing things that are not traditional,” Smith says. “To kind of get D.C. on the map in terms of a food town…I think everyone needs to try to do something a little bit different.”

Smith may think of the Windy City first, but his restaurant references a whole ’nother outpost of kitchen wizardry: wd~50 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Wylie Dufresne has been delighting and confounding diners with, among other dishes, a rack of lamb paired with banana consommé or pickled beef tongue combined with fried mayonnaise. Conscious or not, Smith pays tribute to wd~50 with the very name of his place. Both restaurants play the same word-and-numbers game, pairing their chefs’ initials with the businesses’ street addresses.

But regardless of his source of inspiration, Chicago or Manhattan, Smith’s embrace of the avant-garde requires the kind of brass balls usually associated with stray hungry dogs or tobacco lobbyists. It turns the routine gamble of opening a restaurant into the kind of long shot that few, if any, expect to pay off.

Take Dufresne. He’s one of the most recognizable names in molecular gastronomy, but his cooking inspires mood swings worthy of a bipolar patient. Last fall, for example, Anthony Bourdain and Michel Richard debated the merits of wd~50. Bourdain vigorously defended Dufresne to me, even as he admitted that 20 percent of the chef’s dishes fail outright. Richard, a guy who knows something about innovation, all but dismissed Dufresne’s madcap inventiveness. He pegged the chef’s failure rate closer to 80 percent.

The celebrity chefs’ clinical dissection of wd~50 says something about people’s perception of restaurants that emphasize kitchen conception over pure dining-room satisfaction: Diners can view these places more as dares than delights to be savored time and again. The prevailing winds at PS 7’s certainly seem to be blowing from the north: Twice I’ve supped at PS 7’s during prime weekend hours, and the dining room was practically empty. For whatever reason, critics and customers alike seem to prefer the Southern, shrimp-and-grits charm of Smith’s last restaurant over the Modern American thinkpieces of his new one.

Smith sometimes doesn’t help his own case. He disorients you as soon as you enter PS 7’s. Stroll past the fake votives flickering in the vestibule and your grand entrance suddenly dead-ends at a blue wall whose curvy peaks and valleys recall ocean waves. The underwater motif later resurfaces in an unlikely place—the black-tile toilets, where goldfish watch your every move from small glass bowls affixed to the wall. The surprises continue when you open Smith’s diploma-style menu, which dares to blow up the standard dining courses.

You may feel like you’ve been thrown into the deep, but don’t panic. Smith’s approachable plates serve more as life preservers than anchors, particularly when compared to the dishes of his colleagues such as Dufresne, whose heavy-handed food can make you feel like you’re drowning in complexity.

Check out Smith’s veal-cheek chips at the bar. They’re less chips than thin medallions of veal, braised and fried. The initial crunch of the “chip” gives way to an intense meatiness, itself complemented with a sweet cherry dipping sauce. The Maine lobster degustation is equally clever in its reinvention of the crustacean, which is served four ways, including as a Manhattan-style chowder and as a sweet, creamy sausage.

Smith loves to toy with clichéd dishes. Note his braised short ribs, which come with no ribs at all; they’re deboned, studded with foie gras, and sheathed in phyllo. The dish is richer than Warren Buffett’s stock portfolio. Likewise, Smith retires the creaky old seared scallop with his boudin plate, in which the mollusks are reconstituted in a lush, sausagelike form and contrasted, both in texture and flavor, by a battered chive frond, citrus compote, and anise purée.

But like any risk-taker, Smith can trip over his own creativity. His nastiest face-plant is a savory foie-gras custard, a small bowl of cream and duck liver topped with thin matchsticks of green apple; a few spoons into it, the dish begins to look like curdled milk and tastes, on every bite, like used sweat socks. The sea-and-cream flavor combination doesn’t improve a notch with the blue-crab flan, the “Western” half of the “East and West” plate that also features Kumamoto oysters.

Such failures, however, should be forgiven, even encouraged as Bourdain suggests. They’re not signs of incompetence but of gutsy invention. I personally love invention, even when it leads to Naomi Gallego’s churros dessert at lunchtime. Like most of the pastry chef’s little and big “sins,” the dessert surprises you—in this case with an airy pastry, rolled in sugar, that allows the bitterness of the chocolate sauce to poke through all the sweetness. It’s a great finishing course, ’cept for one thing. The churros look like dimpled fingerling potatoes. That’s not an association I ever care to make with a dessert, no matter how inventive the restaurant is.