- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

At Union Station, travelers and trains come and go. So do restaurants. One restaurant with s taying power is B. Smith’s, an elegant redoubt of Southern cookery at the east end of the station in what was once the presidential waiting room.

In former times, when presidents, like everyone else, rode the rails, the waiting room was off-limits to common folk. A perfect restoration offers visitors not only a soupcon of what travel was like once upon a time, but also presents a wonderfully luxurious surrounding for a meal, festive or casual.

The room is magnificent — soaring, vaulted ceilings; art deco friezes; French doors opening onto a glass-enclosed gallery along the side of the room. But too many tables squeezed into the center of the room make it difficult for diners to relish the splendor of their surroundings. The effect is reminiscent of a dining hall rather than a dining room. Definitely not B. Smith’s style.

The menu includes several New Orleans dishes, such as gumbo, the classic red beans and rice, and jambalaya. But the focus is on traditional Dixie dishes such as barbecued ribs, country fried chicken, pulled pork and (farm-raised) catfish.

American classics such as chicken pot pie, salmon and a lunchtime lobster club sandwich are no longer on the menu. Instead, the ubiquitous Pacific Rim has crept in: “C’asian” fried barbecued shrimp “with Cajun seafood fried rice,” and “Ca’sian” chicken wrap, described as “basmati rice, roasted chicken breast, crisp carrots, fresh spinach and portobello mushrooms bundled in a soft rice paper and served with exotic chips.”

B. Smith’s classics remain: the “swamp thang,” a combination of shrimp, scallops and crawfish; roasted chicken; grilled steak (fillet at dinner, ribeye at lunch); and barbecued ribs, Memphis style.

Still on the menu at both lunch and dinner is the catfish, perhaps B. Smith’s best dish. The lemon-pepper fillet is a substantial piece of catfish, coated in cornmeal and fried to a crisp turn. The flesh remains moist, tender and sweet and is not overwhelmed by the crunch of the crust. Excellent stewed tomatoes, a mound of unusual macaroni and cheese and a portion of tart and tasty greens, usually collards, are served on the side. It’s a fine dish.

Catfish fingers, served as a large appetizer portion, are more breading than fish. The same fresh fish is used, but so much cornmeal is added to the slim fish fingers that the delicate catfish taste doesn’t come through. The fingers are served with what the restaurant calls a “caramelized onion-tartar sauce,” but it tastes like a pleasant, but ordinary, tartar sauce. A spoonful of very good vinegary cabbage salad accompanies the fingers.

Fried green tomatoes, served with a dollop of the cabbage salad, have no tomato flavor whatsoever. Nevertheless, the tomato slices are juicy in a crisp batter and drizzled with a red-pepper sauce. Shrimp and grits are, in fact, shrimp and polenta. Polenta is all right, but why not grits? Grits have a more robust flavor than polenta. What came to the table with the polenta were four medium shrimp, perfectly grilled. The polenta was inexcusably lumpy, and the whole was smothered in a sauce tasting of canned tomatoes.

Creole Caesar salad is only distant kin of a genuine Caesar salad. Romaine lettuce is covered with a creamy dressing, more akin to ranch than Caesar, and topped with chopped tomatoes. The salad comes with “country crisps,” which taste as if they came right out of a cardboard box. It’s a nice salad, but don’t expect a real Caesar.

The ultimate chicken salad is a luncheon salad of greens topped with strips of chicken breast. The chicken is tender and good. The lettuce is drenched in what is called a Parmesan-peppercorn dressing, which has the heat of cayenne pepper. Too much heat for what is basically a straightforward chicken salad with slivers of carrots.

Crab cakes disappointed. The crab was good quality, but the cakes were overcooked and dry. A pulled-pork sandwich has a sweetness typical of some Southern barbecue sauces, cut somewhat by the accompanying creamy coleslaw. Cajun french fries should be crisp on the outside; ours were not.

A good bread pudding is the star of the dessert menu.

The wine list is a nice mix of California and international vineyards, and several fine reds and whites are offered by the glass. Speaking of bread, it’s hard to resist the basket of yeast rolls, tiny cheese biscuits and miniature corn muffins while waiting for service, which can be slow, especially in the evenings, but the staff is invariably courteous and helpful.

B. (for Barbara) Smith is a beautiful former top model and chanteuse; the author of “Entertaining and Cooking for Friends,” which has been likened to a black answer to Martha Stewart; hostess of a popular television cookery show; and a successful restaurateur. She lives in New York, site of her first restaurant. Her Washington restaurant needs a little loving attention to overcome a slight fatigue. Come on down, B. Smith, and freshen up things.

RESTAURANT: B. Smith’s, Union Station, 202/289-6188

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday and to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters $7 to $12 (lunch and dinner); entrees $12 to $18 (lunch), $17 to $30 (dinner); sandwiches $10 to $18; desserts $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Validation for parking in Union Station garage, $1 for two hours

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Union Station

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