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.