For a celebrity chef who spends way too much time around Oprah, Art Smith sure knows how to mix in with the locals at his new District outpost, Art and Soul, on Capital Hill. Smith’s menu, as executed by Ryan Morgan, formerly executive sous chef at TenPenh, is dotted with regional flavors and ingredients, whether rockfish (the Maryland state fish) or his appetizer shrimp wrapped in Virginia ham or even his addition of Rappahannock oysters. But the dish that really floored me was Smith’s take on Brunswick stew.
I spent a week in early 2007 researching Brunswick stew; for all its history and all the territorial fights over its creation, I was surprised at how little of the stuff can be found in Virginia, northern, southern, or otherwise. You mostly find the stew in barbecue joints around our parts, which makes sense, since the meat is smoked before hitting the stew pot.
Smith’s version looks much like those bowls I sampled in southern Virginia, which is to say it’s not the most appetizing-looking dish in the world. His take is a tangled mass of pork, chicken, navy beans, and mirepoix in a brownish-orange liquid, served with this decidedly cute, cob-shaped piece of corn bread; this haute interpretation of a communal, small-town stew misses the mark in one critical area: The dish is supposed to be, by all accounts, so thick you can stand a spoon up in the bowl. I tried to do that with Smith’s Brunswick stew. It dropped like a fallen soldier.
The dominant characteristic of Smith’s stew is its smokiness, courtesy of an in-house smoker at Art and Soul, which you gotta love. It’s far smokier than any Northern Virginia barbecue-joint interpretation that I’ve sampled. His stew also has a decent kick on the back end. I’m tempted to call it the perfect winter soup, except, of course, it’s not a soup. It’s hearty, though, hearty enough to satisfy that deep-seated need for heat and meat on bitterly cold nights.
One warning: The bowl is so packed with meat that I would hardly call it an appetizer. You could easily pair the stew with one of Smith’s hoecakes, say the horseradish-and-beet-cured salmon, and call it a meal. You’d leave pretty damn happy, I think.
Photo of the Brunswick stew at Bubba’s Bar-B-Q by Charles Steck.