The best face-lifts make people think you’ve been on vacation. Oval Room took a month off this summer, emerging from a million-dollar operation that erased some of its 20 years while adding fresh lighting, cool art and a bar that no longer feels like an afterthought but a genuine drinking destination. The modern American menu reveals a chef, Tony Conte, who digs Asian flavors — and a craftsman at the top of his game. At the new! improved! restaurant, green mango and shaved fennel make a nest for sweetbreads, gently smoked and soft as custard, and kimchi provides fiery support for duck, marvelous in a glaze of soy sauce, honey and thyme. Not even the strip loin, bedded on multigrain risotto, is standard issue: gougeres with centers of liquid blue cheese make the plate (and your eyes) pop. That said, if you just want a nice pasta, you can have it here; agnolotti plumped with goat cheese is also light with lemon butter and fresh sorrel. See the cart rolling by with what appears to be a chemistry set? The Oval Room now brews its coffee tableside, using elegant glass siphons for smooth effect. In a part of the city with lots of distinguished addresses, this White House neighbor ranks as one of its most reputable.
2013 Fall Dining Guide
2013 Fall Dining Guide By Tom Sietsema
October 10, 2013
Judging by the limo purring out front and a sprinkling of VIPs inside, the second-most-famous oval room in Washington is the one owned by Ashok Bajaj. Some observers might credit the restaurant's proximity to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for the renown. Food enthusiasts might point to the top gun, Tony Conte, who delights in slipping surprises into his cooking. Somehow, his pea soup tastes like peas times 10, and only after spooning in did I discover the vegetable's affinity for rhubarb -- as in sorbet. Rockfish set on soft diamonds of carrots, in a broth of carrots and mussels, becomes magical with smoked coconut in the mix. And crisp duck with kimchi and stamps of foie gras-filled pasta channels France, Korea and Italy -- beautifully -- in every bite.
But what's with the dull bread basket and the less-than-enticing oysters? The wine list could use refining, too. As could the comfortable but showing-its-age interior.
A bite of chocolate "velvet" cake, made with beets and served with buttermilk ice cream, brings dinner to a sweet conclusion: The kitchen remains pretty starry.
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