The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide.
Power brokers are as ubiquitous as water glasses at the Oval Room. The reporter in me is trying to read the lips of my neighbor, Janet L. Yellen of the Federal Reserve, but the critic in me is repeatedly distracted by what’s on my table: one enchantment after another. Grilled head-on shrimp rise from a base of grits to form a lovely seafood tent, and mahogany chicken (chicken!) is a head-turner, thanks to a gorgeous swipe of spring pea puree and sliced morels strewn just so on the plate. Even better, the chef’s food tastes as good as it looks; I especially love the shaved coconut in the creamy grits and the bacon vinaigrette on the plump chicken. Raspberry mousse is art you’re reluctant to destroy with a fork: a crimson globe, glinting with gold leaf, of raspberry gelee covering white chocolate mousse and pistachio cake. Heady stuff. Basil-fed snails and potato-stuffed agnolotti in five-spice bone broth is a dish that feels heavy for spring, but is also testament to a chef whose flavor combinations generally succeed. The nearby Mirabelle, with a menu by the esteemed Frank Ruta, might be basking in the glow of publicity right now, but I’m here to tell you that the Oval Room will be there for you, just like it always has, when you decide to come back.
800 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-463-8700. ovalroom.com.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.
Prices: Lunch mains $16 to $26, dinner mains $26 to $32.
Sound check: 64 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The following was originally published March 11, 2015.
Under a new chef, it tastes as vibrant as ever
The gent sitting next to me takes a bite of a beautiful Cuban sandwich, prompting everyone within earshot to swivel and smile as the bread — packing pork belly and a party of accents — crackles.
“That’s a good sound,” says the bartender from the other side of the marble counter in the lounge at the Oval Room near the Oval Office, where a clutch of lunchers have gathered for One Dish/One Dessert/One Drink. The $20 promotion — a creative sandwich or salad, something sweet, a glass of wine — goes down like Restaurant Week, only better, because the bargain is ongoing. My meal deal is shrimp salad with a dressing that swings from sweet to sour and with accents of fresh cilantro and crushed peanuts that place me in the tropics. To wash back the mix of poached shrimp and delicate lettuces, the bartender pours a marsanne. Dessert is devil’s food cake (when’s the last time you saw devil’s food cake?), made more fun with peppermint ice cream.
Thank you, John Melfi. Thank you for a lunch that is anything but ordinary, and thank you for not tinkering too much with a successful recipe. I confess, I was concerned when I heard that Tony Conte, the restaurant’s greatest asset for nine years, was leaving to open a place of his own, Pizzeria Inferno, in North Potomac. But Melfi, who comes to the downtown dining room from the sizzling Fiola Mare in Georgetown and earlier made a mark at Blue Duck Tavern in the West End, hit the ground running when he took over the kitchen in January.
The guy can cook. Scallops in a pan roast of cockles and pared potatoes enriched with duck fat demonstrate the chef’s passion for seafood that dates to the time he worked in Charleston, S.C. Meyer lemon vinaigrette lends tang to the sea treasure. Indian-spiced lamb rack with charred eggplant and smoky red pepper finds him crossing conventional borders.
Conte was a master at juggling offbeat flavors, one of the few chefs who could pull off, say, rhubarb sorbet in pea soup. Melfi has a penchant for Asian accents and for slipping surprises into traditional dishes. Hence the yuzu emulsion with the yellowfin tuna sashimi and the kimchi firing up an entree of roasted duck, splayed across stir-fried farro. You may think all lobster bisques are cut from the same crustacean. Watching a waiter pour creamy soup over an elegant lobster salad with shimmering cubes of sherry gelee, and tasting the magic that follows in subsequent spoonfuls, reveals otherwise. That scraping sound? It’s whoever ordered the bisque. Equally imaginative is the way the chef showcases foie gras. The seared liver rests on warm carrot cake, more savory than sweet, and comes with a crown of carrot relish ignited with jalapeño. The chef has the good sense not to mess with such a delicacy as Dover sole, which he sautés to a light golden hue. A scattering of fried basil and spinach leaves makes the fish modern.
Some restaurants forget that vegetarians aren’t the only customers who want to forgo meat. Even card-carrying carnivores like to mix it up now and then and eat something born in the ground. Melfi embraces the challenge. Among his appetizers is a riff on steak tartare that replaces ground raw beef with minced roasted beets beneath a layer of citrusy papaya salad. And his pastas include a “Bolognese” on house-made linguine. The sauce is coaxed from root vegetables cooked with tomato paste and olive oil. The outcome is rustic, hearty and thoroughly pleasing. What looks like fresh snow on the pasta is a powder of pecorino grand cru, the prized aged sheep’s milk cheese from Sardinia.
I love Melfi’s risotto, rich with sharp cheddar cheese and dotted with little balls of apple and preserved black walnuts, enough so that every bite comes with an edge, some sweetness and soft crunch. In a city where risotto is as common as trophy walls, this bowl is a standout.
Petals in purple and orange brighten a number of dishes. The chef has a fondness for flowers that rivals FTD’s. Look for a special menu incorporating his garnish of choice on Mother’s Day.
Suffering from root vegetable fatigue? The Oval Room offers two side dishes I haven’t encountered anywhere else. Grits decked out with toasted shaved coconut manage not to taste like dessert (cheese helps), and sprout-size lollipop kale, flash-fried and zipped up with Espelette, seems destined for future stardom. “I love the odd and the new,” says Melfi of the vegetable suggestive of Brussels sprouts.
Throughout winter, pastry chef Traci Fritz offered desserts designed to celebrate the season (rosemary-lashed pears nestled in buttery pastry) or take our minds off Arctic blasts (coconut cheesecake with a texture that falls between marshmallow and pot de creme). The most interactive end to lunch or dinner is a cup of coffee brewed table-side using a siphon system. The price for the show is $12 for two cups, and worth the splurge for caffeine obsessives.
Meals at the Oval Room are all the merrier for a dining room that got a million-dollar makeover last year and attracts famous faces from nearby corridors of power.
Flaws? You may encounter a few. The ordinary bread basket does not live up to the otherwise high standards of a meal here, and monkfish with braised endive and black garlic proves the wallflower at an otherwise delicious party. A few of the servers, while pleasant, lack the polish of their colleagues at some of the Oval Room’s sister establishments, foremost the original Rasika and Rasika West End. But the overall takeaway from lunch or dinner is: How soon can I come back?
Chef Conte’s work is missed in the city. Chef Melfi’s food keeps the bar high.