Here are two phrases you usually don’t find in the same sentence: “the chef once worked under Alain Ducasse” and “H Street Northeast.”
But they happily combine now that chef Frederik De Pue — who did, in fact, work for the famous Ducasse — is helming the kitchen at Smith Commons, the newest, and perhaps the foodiest, establishment on the H Street corridor.
Smith Commons occupies a three-story building that once housed a carpet warehouse, and the setting offers a warmed-up industrial vibe that’s all soaring ceilings, exposed brick and candlelight. On the ground floor, a good-sized bar and flattering light invites sipping, as does the cocktail list that’s smart without being overwrought and the array of craft brews and wine.
The best seats in the house might be on the second floor, where low lounge chairs snuggle up to a massive plate glass window that offers a sweeping view. Overhead, a chandelier forged from antique wine barrels casts a soft glow.
So far, Smith Commons still might sound a little, well, common. Plenty of other establishments in the neighborhood offer stylish backdrops and a good bar scene. But it’s the food that sets this newcomer apart.
Comfort-food standards like burgers, roast chicken and pasta carbonara are a chiffonade above average. The brawny burger is topped with portabello mushroom and miso mayonnaise, a combination that sounds like excess but serves to punch up the patty’s beefy flavor. And the carbonara is a deep bowlful of penne made glossy with a combination of smoky bacon, Parmesan and egg.
The menu also offers a few options that read — and taste — more like fine dining. A mushroom veloute soup is refined in texture but earthy and rustic in flavor. Entrees such as seared scallops and duck confit would be at home on a starchy white tablecloth.
“I put a menu together that’s all over the board,” De Pue says. “I wanted to give people options. This can be an everyday restaurant or more of a special weekend one.”
Prices range from $25 for a dry-aged rib-eye steak to $14 for the burger.
For much of the past 15 years, the Belgian native’s clientele has been even more exclusive than it was at the fanciest French restaurants: Washington’s diplomatic corps, including luminaries such as Alan Greenspan and Hillary Rodham Clinton, were among those he cooked for as the executive chef to the ambassador of the European Commission Delegation in Washington, D.C.
Opening an establishment on H Street was a bit of a gamble. Before visiting the semi-renovated building, De Pue had never eaten, or even gone out for a beer, in the area. He had only seen it once on a Food Network show, which featured mussels from the nearby Belgian-accented Granville Moore’s.
And it is hardly an established dining destination. So far, few true restaurants have opened along the bar-dominated strip. Liberty Tree and the newly opened Atlas Room are among those expanding the options for diners looking for a sit-down meal.
The blogger behind neighborhood site H Street Great Street, who prefers to be anonymous, says Smith Commons isn’t just the corridor’s most attractive eatery, it’s also proof that the area isn’t just for the PBR-swilling masses.
“It’s H Street growing up from a place to drink and eat to a place to dine and also have a drink,” he says.
Another test for De Pue was stretching beyond the repertoire of moules, frites and carbonades that diners might expect to find on a menu created by a Belgian chef.
Instead, his food zigzags around the Continent (fish and chips, eggplant lasagna) and takes detours to the American heartland (macaroni and cheese and pork chops).
“It would have been an easy way out to do a Belgian place, but it didn’t make sense for the neighborhood,” he says. “I want it to have a broad appeal.”