Lunch in your cubicle? Why bother when there are restaurants going out of their way to reel you in? Let me direct you to two choice midday retreats, both better than anything out of a bag.
When he thinks about what to feed his guests, the chef at the Oval Room in the shadow of the White House knows his regulars have certain expectations. “You want the food to match your location,” says Bryan Moscatello. A prized address merits something special on the plate.
The chef is delivering precisely that at lunch, my favorite time to visit the sole modern American restaurant in the collection of dining rooms owned by Ashok Bajaj. Restaurant Week is over, but a good deal lives on at the Oval Room, which features a three-course lunch for $35 Monday through Friday. Customers select from three options per category and there’s not a bore in the bunch.
Rabbit meatballs rock — and reveal a chef with a sense of fun amid finery. Sporting caps of ricotta chips and hit with pickled mustard seeds, they come four tender rounds to an appetizer. Closer inspection finds even more to admire: a fennel puree and roasted tomato jam. Pork belly in the meatballs, which sometimes incorporate rabbit kidney, lends juice to the first course.
Next: firm, sweet stone bass, an entree propped up with fleshy crisped mushrooms and a bundle of shaved, charred zucchini that has me reconsidering my dislike for the vegetable. After a bite of fish swiped through the celery gastrique on the plate, I’m an even happier camper. Act III proves a hit, too. The lemon tart is a sliver of tang dolled up with creme fraiche, candied pine nuts and a dollop of spiced honey.
The Oval Room understands that not everyone has an hour to spare for lunch. Clock-watchers who don’t mind sidling up to the trim bar have a bargain of their own: A “dish” and dessert for $20, with four options per course. (Five bucks more buys you a nice glass of white, red or rosé.)
A recent quick lunch in the lounge revealed food as considered as anything in the dining room. Housemade spaghetti placed between a froth of Parmesan and a brushstroke of charred, pureed eggplant and truffle came with directions from the bartender: “The chef says to push them together. That’s when the good stuff happens.” For sure, sir. Gilding the lily, Moscatello slips truffle butter under the pasta. The combination of smoke, earth and fat — to say nothing of spaghetti cooked so that it retains welcome resistance — is seductive. So is dessert. Passion fruit custard decorated with pinpoints of meringue and beads of honey is designed as much for the eyes as the tongue.
With two midday meals under my belt, the only question I have regarding the Oval Room is . . . when’s dinner?
800 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-463-8700. ovalroom.com. Lunch entrees, $17 to $32.
Lunch at Woodmont Grill in Bethesda always feels like dinner. Part of it is the lighting, set to dim even at high noon, and a dress code that frowns on tank tops, flip flops, hats in the dining room and “provocative clothing too casual for the dining experience we provide,” according to the establishment’s website.
Then there are the hours. Lunch extends to 5 p.m., a boon to anyone who’s ever found himself looking away from his laptop to realize oops, noon was hours ago and he wants beef filet or a rainbow roll ASAP.
You read that right. The all-American chain added sushi to its script in October, going so far as to install a dedicated raised kitchen in the dining room and a bouquet of chopsticks on every table. A warm little towel signals the imminent arrival of some pressed sushi: a glossy rectangle of raw tuna atop a neat stack of pearly rice, creamy avocado and spicy tuna. Sixteen bucks gets you five pieces, a kick from jalapeño in the mix, and a substantial “light” lunch.
Woodmont Grill could use more vegetarian options, but hurrah for a kitchen that serves an omelet, tangy with goat cheese, throughout the day and a French dip — when’s the last time you saw that anywhere? — built with slices of roasted prime rib.
The kitchen apportions everything as if two of you will be eating a dish. The likelihood of leftovers is strong and involves more face time with the servers, who deftly pack up what you can’t finish at the table. Typically, I prefer any remains to be dealt with out of sight, but the staff at Woodmont Grill is quick about transporting leftovers from A to B.
Anyway, it’s nice to open the fridge the next day and discover more buttermilk fried chicken and crunchy kale slaw between slices of house-baked bun, the goodness held together with four-inch wooden spears. Be warned: There’s no neat way to eat the construction, including tomato and Swiss cheese, some of which you are likely to dismantle to fit in your mouth.
Dinner has the advantage of live music near the bar, seven nights a week. Lunch is blessed with relative quiet in a dining room dressed up with modern art on the walls and booths the shade of rare beef. So grown-up. So swell.
7715 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-9775. woodmontgrill.com. Lunch entrees, $16 to $39.