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.
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.