Although it is a quiet Tuesday when we arrive at The Smith’s U Street location, its wide open facade and dark grout subway tiles make it feel like we have stepped right into an aesthetic medley of a Parisian cafe and New York subway station. Its semi-outdoor seating invites eaters to sit and enjoy a nice lunch while watching all the hustle and bustle.
Part of a greater network of Washington, D.C. and New York restaurants, The Smith has the trendy American brasserie vibe that everyone covets for their Instagram feed. Its selections blend basic with bold, offering everything from avocado toast to garlic and clam pizza.
Upon arriving, the waiter adamantly vouches for the $13 creamy skillet-roasted macaroni and cheese, which he promises is always a crowd pleaser. When it comes to the table, I hear the cheese still sizzling in the cast iron skillet. The top is perfectly golden with just the right amount of extra crispy bits, contributing to its fresh, home-style plating.
At first, the mac and cheese seems to live up to its hype with the Boomerang-worthy cheese pull that emerges from the first scoop. However, in a disappointing turn of events, it lacks all the textures it promised to have.
The cheese sauce is more oily than creamy, lacking the silky, comforting feel that all tasty mac and cheese should have. The top, which upon first glance looked so perfectly crisp, tastes more like hardened cheese that has already been melted and then baked again. The overall taste is pleasant with a sophisticated blend of what tastes like Gruyere and aged cheddar, but in the end, it feels and tastes like it was left over from the dinner service the night before.
Next arrives one of the more interesting items on the menu: “The Clam” pizza for $16. It comes complete with tender but slightly chewy middle neck clams and calamari, scampi butter, lemon breadcrumbs and a dusting of parmesan cheese. The crust is the star of the show, with a crunchy, almost-fried texture that would be delicious by itself. The garlic and lemon flavors are there, but they are too subtle for what should be bright, bold flavors. It is a welcome variation from the typical tomato sauce and mozzarella, but its flavors surprisingly fail to pack a punch.
Alongside the pizza, we receive the $14 grilled chicken sandwich. The first bite elicits a mixed reaction: I am torn between the mouthwatering flavors of the creamy burrata and “overnight” tomatoes and the disappointingly soggy bread that serves as the base. The chicken itself is well-cooked and still juicy; unfortunately, it offers the only textural variety in what is otherwise a mouthful of all soft food — not the most appetizing when the menu boasts a crispy sesame baguette and arugula which is instead wilted and soggy. Like the mac and cheese, the flavors of the sandwich tantalize, but the grilled chicken entree maintains the feeling of something that was assembled the night before.
Shortly after, the $14 Sicilian Baked Eggs arrive, inviting us to dig in with the smell of perfectly fried bread and spicy marinara sauce wafting through the air. The first of three eggs is set on the top with a perfectly runny yolk that melds in ribbons with the surrounding marinara sauce, offering a satisfying combination of a rich and addictive kick. The next bite is a tender artichoke that adds a nice bitterness in contrast to the rest of the dish. Disappointingly, the two other eggs are unappetizing with jelly-like yolks and unevenly cooked whites.
In a slightly unsatisfied mindset, we opt to try one of the many lunchtime desserts offered on the menu, choosing the $10 “Blueberry Brown Butter Cake.” The pastry quickly becomes the saving grace of the whole meal. The small cake is perfect for sharing and feels like an old family recipe with the volume turned up. The exterior is just slightly caramelized, offering a sweet crunch with every soft, fluffy bite balanced by pockets of tart, fresh blueberries.
Served with the cake is a sweet corn pastry cream that mirrors the velvety texture of a thick custard flecked with real vanilla bean. It comes with a fresh blueberry jam and toasted graham cracker crumbs on the side, which are all brought together by a big scoop of creamy blueberry ice cream. Each component of the dessert is delicious by itself but makes for a dreamlike bite when combined all together, finally giving us the satisfaction we had been looking for.
Although lunch at The Smith is not terrible, it feels unnecessary given the success of its brunch and dinner menus. Like in many restaurants, The Smith’s lunch service feels slightly forgotten, with dishes that time and time again lack the texture they are meant to have. Instead, the best the lunch menu can offer is a few great bites of food among otherwise mushy and unevenly cooked dishes. In the future, I think I will stick to the Sunday brunches for which The Smith is better known.