This much I can promise: No one goes home hungry after dinner at Obelisk.
A plate of greens gets dropped off. “Puntarelle,” a server says, introducing the crisp hollow stalks of a vegetable that Romans gravitate to in winter. The pleasantly bitter salad is slick and delicious with anchovy vinaigrette. On the heels of the greens are a couple folds of smoke-perfumed duck garnished with pickled sour cherries, red on red. I’m marveling at the dance between the fowl and the fruit when some suppli interrupt the performance. Like the burrata, the fried-to-order balls of Arborio rice and mozzarella cheese taste a breed apart from so much suppli out there. The proportion of crisp-soft rice to stretchy cheese is ideal, and, like the puntarelle, a Roman holiday.
“Don’t eat any more bread,” I caution my dining companion — this, after I wolf down a second piece of crusty sourdough. (Critic, heal thyself. Or MYOB.) Experience tells me I need to pace myself at Obelisk, but it’s been so long since my last visit, I feel like I’m catching up with an old friend and, well, rules are meant to be broken.
Any moment now, I expect my first course. The kitchen has other ideas, specifically creamy lobster salad on a finger of toasted bread — a single, glorious bite that plays up the flavor of the sweet seafood.
Never been to Obelisk? You’re missing, ahem, a lot. Veteran restaurateur Peter Pastan brought the idea to life in 1987 and eventually sold the 27-seat business to longtime employee Esther Lee in 2016. (Pastan is the talent who had us lapping up Neapolitan pizza when he rolled out 2 Amys in 2001.)
Raised in Columbia, Md., Lee strikes a modest pose, referring to herself as “a kid from the suburbs” who went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in 1995. Like her former boss, she eschews attention. She figures the only reason some people know about Obelisk is because her servers insisted she post a few photos on Instagram. The younger faces I’ve noticed in the restaurant might be the result. “They think they’re discovering something,” says the chef with a laugh. Otherwise, the clientele tends to be “pure Washington,” as in “unflashy.” No bros, in other words.
Lee, 51, has changed so little of the familiar recipe, any tweak seems like a big deal. For as long as I can remember, the drill has been five courses, with a few choices per course, in a setting that’s simply dressed with a band of mirrors at eye level, affording every diner a view, and some strategically placed framed drawings and small obelisks. The room shimmers more these days, thanks to a copper-painted ceiling and silver fabric on the banquettes, but otherwise, it’s the same cozy enclave I recall from years ago. Unlike at so many restaurants now, no one is told how long they can stay. How very Italian of Obelisk. Pastan is no longer a presence, but his presence is felt. “He saw what other restaurants were doing and did the opposite,” says Lee, who subscribes to the same, steady-as-she-goes theory.
Lee says she’s thought about cutting back on the flotilla of snacks, “but then I think, you don’t have to eat everything!” Easier said than done when the crumbs of the antipasti are brushed away and your choice of pasta lands on the green-and-gold place mat. A little leaning tower of lasagna features chestnut pasta and roasted chestnuts, bound in rich bechamel and cheese, hinting of speck (smoked ham) and scented with sage. Your dining companion has stopped talking to you because his gnocchi draped with duck ragu is demanding his full attention. Unlike in some places, the mouth-melting orbs taste of potato, not flour. Of course you switch plates. Of course you can’t declare a favorite. Both pastas are prizes.
Your choices might not be mine, for the simple reason Lee changes her menu every week. If she’s offering pork, hope that it’s something similar to the plump brined chop I encountered not long ago. A server let me know the meat wasn’t shy on seasoning, and she was right. Every slice burst with what the chef calls “porchetta” spice — black pepper, fennel, coriander — and improved in the company of a bed of creamy cranberry beans and grill-wizened radicchio. If fish is an option, anticipate dorade, crisped on one side and accompanied by a salad of carrots and braised artichokes and a scoop of olivada, a tapenade coaxed from green olives, parsley and garlic that Lee ought to consider selling as merch.
Can you squeeze in some cheese? Yes, you can. The plate is a changing trio of small tastes, a constant of which is housemade fig jam in winter, which pairs beautifully with the dab of earthy-salty Gorgonzola I got. Somehow, you rally for dessert as well. Silken panna cotta, bright with Meyer lemon and draped with golden caramel, feels like the perfect end to the night, although I admit to leaving no crumb of a companion’s walnut cake, veined with chocolate chips, behind. A scoop of coffee-caramel ice cream negated any need for an espresso.
In the world of Italian restaurants in Washington, Filomena is where you go for a show, Tosca is where you go to seal a deal, and Fiola is where you want to propose. In contrast, Obelisk feels like a poetry reading graced with sublime food.
Diners who like their meals on the quiet side will rejoice in the relative peace at Obelisk, which even at prime time registers “conversation is easy,” a rare occurrence in a good restaurant. Surprise No. 2: There’s no musical distraction. The loudest Obelisk gets is the clinking of glasses or muted laughter in the kitchen now and then.
Is Lee having fun? My ears suggest she is. So does my tongue.
2029 P St. NW. 202-872-1180. obeliskdc.com. Open for indoor dining 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Prices: Five-course chef’s menu $123, optional wine pairings $83. Sound check: 64 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: The entrance is reached via steep stairs; wheelchair users cannot be accommodated. Pandemic protocols: Staff are masked and vaccinated.