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Reservations Recommended

Food Games: PS7’s

Right on the cover of Play with Your Food, a whimsical book for cooks who love to amuse themselves in the kitchen, is a lemon face. Actually, it’s a lemon with rind circles for ears and dots for eyes, just a witty way to entertain kids and adults. And after you’ve had a meal at PS 7’s in the Penn Quarter, you’ll wonder if chef/owner Peter Smith inspired the book’s authors. Here’s an adult with a kid’s eye for food humor.

Not that he serves lemon faces with his meals. Smith is rather subtler than that, but his food is just as playful. For example, he’s elevated the humble frank into a designer dish in his highbrow restaurant. That came about because he enjoys curing his own meats — just look inside his glass-walled wine cellar where you’ll see curing meats hanging from the ceiling, rather like oddball décor. And somewhere along the line, he came up with the “franks” idea, and frankly, that was a stroke of genius.

Although their assembly is labor intensive, Smith keeps a ready supply on hand, for chances are that midday patrons will grab a seat just so they can get their mini-frank fix. Served with vinegary, freshly made curly fries jammed into a paper cone and with assorted condiments alongside, the whole meal seems reminiscent of childhood lunches while sitting on a back porch.

But don’t get this wrong: Smith may clown around in the kitchen, but he’s a seriously talented chef whose flavors and compositions are first rate. Take the shellfish stew, for example. Building upon the ideas of a classic French bouillabaisse, Smith uses a roasted red pepper broth seasoned with fennel for his cooking liquid for the medley of mussels, shrimp, and clams that steam in this fragrant broth and burst open with heightened flavors. Everything is carefully balanced and conceived, and even the vegetables that add their own robustness to the dish are precision cut; to add whimsy and flavor, Smith has garnished the steaming stew with buttered and toasted baguette triangles.

Although it’s listed as an appetizer, the generous portion might well become the whole meal, but then you would have to forego the franks, and you simply can’t miss these. Note that the shellfish stew is on the dinner menu, the franks are not.

What else springs forth from his imagination? Well, consider his breads, which come as three savory biscuits — caramelized onions with walnuts, dill, and apple-bacon — served with softened butter all ready for spreading. And there you are sitting, having sworn off those extra bread calories. How can you pass up the biscuits? Well, the truth is, you really can’t.

If lunchtime is lighter, the dinner menu goes along a different track, with ampler dishes based on more citified fare. Hot and cold appetizers, of course, are separated out, and among them, look for the shellfish stew. Otherwise, Smith designates his seafood entrées under the heading “Aqua” and his land meats under, well, “Terra.” Then choices become a toss-up between such offerings as the potato-encrusted Alaskan halibut, delicious with its house-cured bacon or the roasted pork rack offered with fresh sausage and sunchokes. With either dish, you’ll sample more of Smith’s cured meats repertoire.

Desserts, of course, can’t be ignored in a restaurant with such a playful cast of characters. If you can’t fit in big bites, consider the mini doughnuts with berry and chocolate sauces. But if your waistline is elastic, consider one of the kitchen’s weightier offerings, such as the semolina and olive oil cake with chocolate touched by orange flavoring.

Whichever your mealtime choices, you’ll leave PS 7’s with a lighter step, a happier heart, and a stretchier waistline.

PS 7’s / 777 I St., NW; (202) 742-8550; www.ps7restaurant.com. Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2:30pm; Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5:30-9:45, Sat. to 10:45pm. Lounge open 11:30am-closing. Dinner entrée price range: $28-$30.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.