Editors' pick

Oval Room

American
$$$$ ($25-$34)
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Editorial Review

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.

2012 Fall Dining Guide

2012 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012

If you've eaten Tony Conte's food before, you know the chef's penchant for teasing diners. Tonight is no different. Sweet shrimp in a pool of garlic butter become electric with the addition of lime and Thai chilies, and totems of succulent veal tenderloin with shaved Parmesan get a breeze of mint to offset the richness. The chef does well with the straightforward -- pasta swirled with truffles and toasted hazelnuts is understated elegance -- but the unexpected always tastes more thrilling. Consider the way Conte serves a pork chop, which heads south with gnocchi made from cornbread and shifts east with kimchi coaxed from watermelon rind. Or the ramp-green tent of pasta draped over his braised lamb shoulder. One of the most beautiful constructions is a dessert of tropical sorbets, meringue sticks and coconut dacquoise: art you can eat. I wish the pastry chef would have stopped there, though. A post-dessert sampler including off-tasting caramel popcorn and a dry cupcake suggests a mere mortal had a hand in it.

2010 Fall Dining Guide

2010 Fall Dining Guide

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010

If there's one lesson Tony Conte took away from his time at the four-star Jean Georges in New York, it's this: "I try to keep things exciting," says the chef of the Oval Room. Every dish, he notes, should have "a little pop and a little zing." Thus, a late-summer cucumber soup is dolloped with a cloud of foam that smacks of lime and jalapeno, and duck breast is spackled with a paste of honey, thyme, soy sauce and kazu, the yeasty byproduct of sake that might be the next "it" ingredient. Sliced into rosy bars, that duck is divine, but it's not the only draw on its plate. Conte adds to the entree's allure with glazed turnips, golden "tots" shaped from confit and potato, and pickled sour cherries to foil the richness. Vegetarians are welcomed with house-made whole-wheat pici (picture fat spaghetti) tricked out with sliced matsutakes, a warm web of Parmesan and hazelnuts shaved tableside. Walls the color of sage and chairs in burnt orange make for a tony place to eat raw slices of gingery hiramasa, the king of yellowtail fish and a refreshing first course; regulars such as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs underscore how close you are to the other oval room.