Washington D.C.’s The Oval Room isn’t really oval, nor does it house the Office of the President of the United States. No, that is the nearby Oval Office, perhaps a bit more well known than the Oval Room, which in some sense is a pity. It’s not that the Oval Room is as important as the Oval Office in the grand scheme of things (though some might argue that it is). Rather, it is just that The Oval Room under Chef Tony Conte, really deserves much more attention than it appears to get. The Oval Room setting itself is nice and it is comfortable, though, as a restaurant space, it is nothing extraordinary. It neither accentuates nor detracts from the main reason for being there – the food. Conte’s food, which somehow seems to fly under the critical radar, can be truly extraordinary. A recent meal hosted by my good friend, Amy Persons to celebrate her fabulous husband’s 50th birthday provides an excellent illustration of just how special his cooking can be.
While the food was our main draw, the meal started with a bit of liquid – a couple of aperitifs that got the evening off to a rousing start. The first was an aperitif of Dolin Blanc Vermouth with lemon peel and a bit of lemon juice. The weather in Washington D.C. that day had been assaultingly hot and sticky. This aperitif provided a welcome oasis of refreshment against that stifling heat. It was tasty and melon-y, leaving a lemon-buttercream note on the palate.The second cocktail was a slightly mis-named Oval Room Champagne Cocktail. The cocktail contained Prosecco rather than Champagne, making me quibble over the drink’s name (a personal pet peeve). Fortunately, the light prosecco, was a good choice for the quality of the cocktail, which also included Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur, Hendrick’s Gin and a bit of candied ginger, which served as a CO2 dispenser. The result was delicious, bubbly, spicy, floral and herbal.
Now suitably lubricated from the aperitifs, the first wine poured was a magnum of 1999 ZD Reserve Chardonnay, brought by our dining companions, Alex Talbot & Aki Kamozawa. They had purchased the wine during their honeymoon ten years ago. The golden chardonnay had held up beautifully and provided a wonderful backdrop to the food that started to come from the kitchen.As we were there celebrating a milestone birthday, Chef Conte prepared a special tasting menu for our table.
The first course, “pastrami cured kampachi, Chinese mustard ice cream, caraway, pumpernickel,romaine rib, tomato jam & micro red mustard,” wowed us right off the bat. A great combination of flavors and a classic one when used with beef brisket, but one might have thought that the fish would have been overpowered by the aggressive flavors. Somehow that didn’t happen. Instead,because the dish was constructed so skillfully with just the right proportions and plenty of nuance, we were left with flavors and textures that blended and complimented each other rather than battled. This play on a traditional ethnic food was a stunning introduction to Chef Conte’s work.
Beet salads are lovely, but they have become relatively ubiquitous, making it difficult for one to stand out. Chef Conte’s stands out as one of the most delicious, most beautiful and most memorable of my experience. As deservedly classic as a beet and chevre combination is, it was refreshing to come across a novel approach to the root. Conte’s salad, “roasted organic baby beets, passion fruit gelee, horseradish, Minus 8 (vinegar) shallot dressing & micro arugula,” blended brilliant color with brilliant flavor. The passion fruit and minus 8 provided a nice acid kick, while the horseradish added a bit of spice. Overall, this was an incredibly well balanced and satisfying dish in every respect.
I have mixed feelings when different dishes are presented to different diners for a particular course with distinctions generally drawn across gender lines. While it is nice to share an extra taste, (which I’m sure is expected to happen by the kitchen and it does save time by not overly extending the duration of a meal as would happen if everyone got every dish), I almost always wind up preferring the dish served to my wife and I get envious (fortunately, she does share). Notice, I did write almost always. For the next five courses Chef Conte used this device to extend the range of our tasting with the ladies getting one dish and the gents a different, though related one. Amazingly, I did not need to get jealous, because each dish I received was at least as good as the one my wife received and we did both get to taste each other’s to our satisfaction. The conceit worked as well as it could have. The first dual serving involved pasta. With Chef Conte’s Italian heritage, it should come as no surprise that pasta would be served, but if his Italian-American family is anything like mine, this was not his mother’s pasta (as wonderful as I’m sure that is). The men received “whole wheat pici, shaved matsutakes, toasted hazelnut & rosemary.” The perfectly cooked and seasoned pasta supported the terrific, savory sweetness of the shaved mushrooms leaving the rosemary and hazelnut to play accent notes.
The ladies received “Sweet potato angolotti, brown butter, 12 year old balsamic & marjoram”. Once again, Chef Conte displayed a deft and delicate hand with his ingredients , leaving them to weave a synergistically magic interplay.
I love crab. Being near the Chesapeake, I wasn’t surprised to have been served some. The ladies received a “Maine peekytoe crab salad, old bay mayo, lime gel, chili oil, toasted brioche, microcilantro & basil” that was delicious, even if the crab within wasn’t of the local variety. The dish still effectively used a classic local crab accompaniment in the Old bay seasoning of the mayo. I was very happy tasting this dish, but I was even happier with the one I was served.
One of my favorite ways of eating crab is eating a well-prepared soft-shell crab. Chef Conte served the men soft-shells, but with a twist that would have served him well had he been competing to be The Next Iron Chef. He served, “Tempura fried soft shell crab, blu cheese puree, celery ribbons, parsley & buffalomayo,” a take on an American classic – the buffalo chicken wing. Once again, he somehow took flavors that could have easily overshadowed the main ingredient, but prepared them in such a subtle way that while true to their inspiration, somehow managed to let the star shine through. This dish was simply fantastic!
Chef Conte and his team includingExecutive Sous Chef Tamesha Warren have a deft hand with fish as well. Both the “smoked mustard & soy glazed baja white sea bass, pea raviolis, crispy ham hock, brownbeech mushrooms, mustard seed vinaigrette” and the “Crispy rockfish, crab chowder, licorice, parsley & cilantro” were stellar with perfectly cooked fish that were well accented by their respective supporting casts. In this case, it truly didn’t matter who got which dish, though I do love crispy fish skin more than my wife does. The white bass dish, in particular, was a great example of the Catalan concept of mar y montaña or surf and turf, highlighting elements from sea and land in the same dish. The porcine elements in this dish contributed to an enhanced savoriness, while the rockfish was mar delicate and clearly sea-centric.
Prior to the fish course, another magnum of ZD brought by Alex & Aki was poured, this time the decadent 1999 Carneros Pinot Noir. Once again, delicious! It provided a beautiful pairing for the fish as well as the subsequent savories.
The seafood parade continued with “Delaware sea scallops, heirloom tomato stew, poblano semolina dumplings & herbs” for the gents and “Butter poached lobster, hot buttered rum puree, pickled rhubarb, caramelized endive” for the ladies. As my wife is more into scallops than she is lobster, we traded after the obligatory tastes. Neither of us were disappointed. The lobster was sweet. Lemongrass in the lobster preparation added subtle, haunting notes, while the rhubarb brought a welcome tartness to the sweet lobster. The dish had great acidity, while the flavor of the perfectly cooked lobster stood out. The endive added texture while its flavors melded into the rest of the dish.
Chef Conte moved us along to a single meat course with “kazu marinated Buddhist duck, confit tots, farro, English peas, baby turnips, 8 brixreduction, pickled sour cherries & duck jus” for the men and “Prime beef strip, tamarind condiment, red wine reduction, glazed carrots & rosemary scented potato puffs” for the women. The selections were right on again as I am a much bigger duck enthusiast than my wife. The kazu, or sake lees, used to marinate the duck gave it an unusual and wonderful flavor. Both proteins were cooked to perfect temperatures – in and of itself not unusual in today’s restaurants given the techniques available and in widespread use to achieve this. The beef,though, while cooked to the perfect temperature had a texture that I did not particularly like. Sirloin can certainly be tough, which this wasn’t. However, it was more than just tender. It had a mushiness that I suspect came from prolonged low temperature cooking. Chef Conte may very well have been aiming for just this texture, however, I like my beef a little firmer to the bite. That being said, the flavor of the dish was superb.
Though we were totally sated from the extraordinary savory courses, we somehow managed to find room for dessert and no wonder, given how delicious they were. At this point, Chef Conte returned to a single dish for each diner for the first dessert course. This was “white peach curd, sour cream ice cream, cinnamon pie dough, basil, mint, peach salad & honey-thyme gelee.” Essentially a deconstructed peach pie, this was a perfect reflection of the season, albeit towards the end of peach season. The beauty of the concept, though, is that it could work with just about any seasonal fruit from which pies are made.
Ricotta cheesecake is a great Italian-American tradition. I enjoyed some truly great ones growing up. Conte’s “ricotta cheesecake, licorice bottom, white coffee ice cream, licorice puree & walnut crumble,” while reminiscent of them, stood on its own merits. This was paired with a delicious 1982 Bodegas Toro Albalá 1982 Gran Reserva Pedro Ximenez.
Although the day had been unseasonably hot, the last dessert made a delicious segue into autumn. “Cranberry butter cake, chartreuse ice cream, cranberry gel, cranberry compote” would be just as welcome on a contemporary Thanksgiving table as it was here to finish our meal. A lovely Deglacé Willamette Valley Pinot Noir dessert wine from Adelsheim rounded out the dish.
Regretfully, this wonderful meal had to come to an end, though it did so with style. We were given some house made strawberry marshmallow petits fours along with some bubbly Moscato d’Asti rosé to wash them down.
This was a truly extraordinary meal, one of the best I’ve had so far this year. I expected it to be good, but I couldn’t have expected it to be as wonderful as it was. We wound up at The Oval Room on the recommendation of Alex & Aki, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was as great as it was, but still, I don’t understand how Chef Tony Conte and his food isn’t more well known than he is. His food is original, finely crafted, playful, beautiful and most importantly, delicious. He and his kitchen staff have a great ability for nuance and subtlety, all while providing clean and deep flavors, a very difficult feat, to say the least. From the initial kampachi pastrami down through each course, the flavors and textures were spot on. The one element that did not fully resonate with me was the texture of the beef, which I found to be a little “mushy,” but in such an incredible and inspiring meal, that is surely nitpicking. The food was not the only superb aspect of our meal. The service was polished and attentive, efficient without being obtrusive. Tucked as we were, in a corner of The Oval Room, we were able to fully relax and enjoy the splendor laid out in front of us. Chef Tony Conte of The Oval room is a culinary force to watch!