Is it true love, or a marriage of convenience? In the last year, the Oval Room lost two chefs; meanwhile, George Vetsch, having closed George, his K Street restaurant, bounced from one chef job to another. Now Vetsch and the Oval Room have joined forces. The moment was right, but is this a real commitment? I hope so.
Ashok Bajaj, owner of the Oval Room as well as the Bombay Club, 701 and Ardeo, is a talented restaurateur. His restaurants are all luxurious without being stuffy, and their service is like great vanilla ice cream in a hot fudge sundae: a smooth, subtle background to the showier part of the dish. They are the quintessential restaurateur's restaurants: Even their regulars might not know the name of the chef. They simply succeed as a whole.
The Oval Room, one of the closest restaurants to the White House, draws politicians and journalists, lobbyists and lawyers. With its ornate mahogany chairs and starched napery it might look strait-laced if not for the mural of Washingtonians past and present frolicking the length of the dining room, and it might seem claustrophobic rather than cozy if one side weren't all windows. Even the sidewalk cafe could have looked sterile without its tall plantings of brilliant flowers and thick greenery. Bajaj has taken a stretch of downtown that looks like architecture's homage to bureaucracy and rendered it intimate.
For a restaurant this well tended, it hasn't seemed to matter whether the food was excellent. It's been good enough.
George Vetsch is a chef who has excellence in him, though it doesn't always burst forth. At some restaurants where he's worked, the food has been inexplicably awful. More often it's been a pleasure. And on his own at George, he cooked with great flair and sure-handedness. His food was superb.
Many of his dishes at the Oval Room recall those glorious meals at George. Then comes a plate that's too complicated, a touch messy, food that suggests he's cooking to compete rather than to please. Like many chefs, he aces the appetizers. Oddly, though, his soups and salads waver. And the entrees are a gallery of hits and misses.
So the beginning of a meal at the Oval Room leads to high hopes. Countless modern American chefs do tuna tartare, and even more serve crab cakes. Few so well as Vetsch, though. The distinction begins with the quality of his basics. The diced raw tuna is glisteningly fresh and seasoned exactly, so that you taste the fish and don't have to reach for the salt or lemon to bring it out. It comes with a perfect accessory, a slice of tuna enclosing horseradish cream, and lightly pickled cucumbers. The crab cake is swathed in zucchini and potato, fried to a crisp, and accompanied by naturally sweet fresh corn relish. It wouldn't work if the creamy crab cake were less perfect than it is. But then comes a dish that tries too hard: Vetsch wraps his scallops, huge shimmery ones, in a delicious armor of prosciutto. He doesn't stop there, though, and garnishes the scallops with sauteed shrimp, fried lemon and carrots rubbed with Moroccan spices, until the dish tastes like too much of a crowd. The scallops and fried lemon would have been more comfortable as a twosome.
Keep in mind Vetsch's chicken soup in the fall. It's thick with beans and rich with root vegetables, as fragrant and hearty as a well-herbed minestrone. Summer's mango soup tastes more like carrot. As for salads, the tomato-mozzarella is all it should be, while the Caesar isn't enhanced by spinach substituting for romaine, and the most that can be said for its dressing is that it's thick.
I wish I could find some pattern to Vetsch's strengths and weaknesses. The salmon with littleneck clams suggests he's got a knack for seafood. The fish is crusty and just barely set, still moist and succulent, and the four clams in the shell have added their brine to the limpid broth with vegetables; it's a lovely light entree. It is equaled by the grouper with a gentle corn sauce and a tower of tempura vegetables. And at lunch a mound of fried seafood and vegetables is sensational: Lightly veiled in a grease-free crust, it's a dazzle of crab-zucchini fritters, lobster claw, fish and shrimp, plus some unfortunately shriveled mollusks. Grilled swordfish lacks character and flavor, and lobster is chewy and dry in its murky, faintly sweet cognac sauce.
Meats show the same inconsistencies. Vetsch's liver and onions was renowned at George, and here, too, it is a cunning interplay of fried onion rings made with pickled onions, seared tender liver and mashed potatoes fragrant with olive oil. Loin of veal blooms when pan-roasted just until rosy and served with crunchy thin risotto cakes, though its tomato-mushroom ragout drowns out the subtlety. Most of Vetsch's dishes would be improved by fewer ingredients. In his Thai-spiced rack of lamb, thick, lean and supple chops get lost in a tropical jungle of vaguely peanutty sauce, green mango and parsnip chips.
The best dessert here celebrates summer, with superb fresh peaches bedded on a foamy marsala sabayon. Vetsch makes his own mascarpone and shows it off with light hazelnut meringues and fresh fruit. There's also a barely sweetened, grainy, homey chocolate almond cake, a creditable creme brulee and an invigorating coconut milkshake in a martini glass.
Start with the tuna or crab and finish with fruits in elegant creams, and you're bound to conclude that this match of George Vetsch and Ashok Bajaj shows both to advantage. Maybe this will be a marriage that lasts.
THE OVAL ROOM -- 800 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW. 202-463-8700. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.95 to $7.95, entrees $12.50 to $17.95; dinner appetizers $5.95 to $8.25, entrees $15.50 to $23.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $65 per person.
I came back from Barcelona this spring to find we've got Barcelona right here in Adams-Morgan. Cities, the 18th Street restaurant that changes its decor and menu to represent a different city every year or two, has picked up stakes after being long settled in Paris, and has reinvented itself as Catalan. Sort of. I didn't see foie gras with apples or goat cheese with plums and tapenade in the real Barcelona, but Cities' Catalan sausage-and-chickpea soup, rice with rabbit and chicken, and black rice dressed up with mussels, clams, squid and sweet little head-on shrimp are all recognizably Spanish. Grilled pork chop tells the restaurant's tale: It's thick and gorgeous, glazed over the fire and deliciously teamed with cooked pears, roasted potatoes and hearty coarse sausages. But in Spain would the meat be that hard to cut or the potatoes so wrinkly? I hope not. What feels authentic here is the long list of tapas -- nine hot, nine cold -- served at the bar. Squint your eyes as you nibble your tomato bread with ham, potato tortilla or tuna empanadas, and 18th Street might begin to look like Las Ramblas. -- P.C.R.