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Chef Tony Conte’s new menu includes seared salmon with fresh corn polenta, soy-kaffir infusion and crispy shallots and ginger.

Oval Indulgence

by David Hagedorn | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | September 30, 2014

It’s not restaurateur Ashok Bajaj’s style to pass off an inexpensive fluffing up as a renovation, so he spent upward of $1 million to have designer Martin Vahtra (Projects Design Associates of New York) redo The Oval Room, his modern American restaurant one block from the White House. This year marks the eatery’s 20th anniversary and the eighth for its chef, the talented Tony Conte.

Bajaj is happy to take you on a tour of the 100-seat restaurant. Here, you’ll find discreet, sound-absorbing padding in wall panels (bravo!), stunning work by important artists; swiveling club chairs that automatically return to the 12 o’clock position, white Carrara marble and mahogany finishes, and tablecloths—sadly, as popular these days as dial-up modems. Bajaj notes, however, that seven tables throughout the dining room don’t have cloths, a subtle way to walk the line between formal and casual.

Vahtra took a previously subdued interior and transformed it into a sophisticated, up-to-date space that’s at once kinetic and soothing. The feel is Mad Men modern in tasteful, muted tones. The faux leather upholstery is armless, with side chairs in beige and black (like Chanel spectator pumps) and sleek settee banquettes in burnt orange or teal.

Movement is achieved by texture. A corner wall in the main dining room is constructed of multihued blocks of wood planed at angles in opposing directions; the result is like a pointillist sculpture. That theme extends to an adjoining wall, where neat rows of marble-size raised dots are pressed into slate gray vinyl panels. The stunning Jennifer Bartlett seascape hanging on them also connotes pointillism. An oval tray ceiling (referencing that in the eponymous White House room) houses a chandelier made of multilevel theater lights suspended with black cables.

Conte’s sure-handed cooking matches the elegance of its new surroundings. Though regulars will notice many familiar components, the menu has received an update. It’s larger and includes a section of crudos and separate sections of hot and cold appetizers in addition to entrees. A four-course tasting menu is also available ($60, or $90 with wine pairings).

A smart strategy is to order some crudos for the table. Tuna crudo resembles a nest of little eels, the pristine yellowfin having been cut into long, thick noodle-like strips instead of rectangular slices. They are dressed with bonito and ginger dressings and zesty tapioca pearls, which serve to bring out the tuna’s sweetness. Deft slices of delicate white fluke are lightly touched with coconut milk, lime, togarashi seasoning and sliced breakfast radishes.

Conte always tweaks dishes to keep them current, ingredient-wise, or just to fine-tune them. So, the green-tomato jam and pickled mustard-seed sauce that accompany a juicy, 2-inch-thick chunk of grilled Berkshire pork loin one day may be switched out the next for a chops with brunoise rhubarb relish with a sweet char siu glaze and a raviolo filled with wild onions and guanciale.

My visits are in late summer, so my sampling of appetizers got off to a great start with heirloom tomatoes in creamy nori dressing and shiso, and a square of peekytoe crab salad with horseradish and fresh peach cocktail sauce. Conte’s chilled corn soup is light and flavor-packed, thanks to a broth made from the cobs and their milk as well as Thai chiles. Bits of charred corn, red pepper, scallion and cotija cheese—and kicks of jalapeno—turn the broth into liquid elote.

On the hot appetizer side, charred jalapeno spaghetti in pesto with stewed tomatoes and toasted garlic marries herbaceous punch with a hint of smoke and heat. Lightly smoked sweetbreads are nicely creamy, but don’t benefit greatly from a sweet mango salad accompaniment. Lightly coated fried white Gulf shrimp arrive atop preserved black-bean mayonnaise and corn kernels spritzed with lime juice.

Among the entrees, Conte seems to be favoring a Japanese profile (nori, shiso, bonito, togarashi, for example). Seared salmon­—with soy-kaffir infusion and fried ginger and shallots—falls into the category, even with fresh corn polenta. I could make a habit of the perfectly poached lobster (tail and intact claw meat, no shells) in bright orange saffron ginger broth with sliced julienne sugar snaps, fresh bamboo shoot and nasturtiums. It’s colorful and light, with the sublimity of the lobster shining through.

Other dishes clearly identify as Indian, Southwestern or Mediterranean. Crispy red snapper with pistachio, fennel, clams, guanciale and roasted allium butter is a good example of the latter. Indian-spiced rack of lamb with charred eggplant puree and lemony cucumbers could have fit in at Bajaj’s acclaimed Bombay Club. Order a side dish of coconut grits, a perfect balance of sweet and savory.

For dessert, I can rhapsodize over the blueberry tart and sweet corn ice cream and brioche doughnut holes with caramelized peaches, but they aren’t the stuff of fall. Better I steer you to the finger of dense, intense ginger chocolate ganache with curry orange ice cream.

The Oval Room has much to celebrate: a fresh look, a new menu, an exemplary chef and an air of confidence that comes with longevity. A 20-year run and a bright future are more than the inhabitants of the other oval room will ever get to boast.

The Oval Room
800 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202.463.8700

Appetizers, $11-$16; entrees, $20-$34;
desserts, $10-$16

Mon.-Fri., 11:30AM-2:30PM (lunch); Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10PM; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30PM

Join the Lunch Club
Settle yourself into a comfy leather club chair at the bar and order Jeremy Ross’ craft cocktails (the Rosalie of gin, rose syrup, lime juice and soda) and Tony Conte’s snacks (duck confit tartare tots, buttery shrimp toast). You’ll like the one-dish, one-drink, one-dessert lunch at the bar. Goat cheese ravioli with sorrel, a glass of malbec and sorbet or rice pudding for $20? Sign us up!

National Gallery of Bajaj
Owner Ashok Bajaj is an art collector, so the Oval Room does double-duty as an art gallery for significant artists. Upon entering, a stunning Rimma Gerlovina and Valeriy Gerlovin photoglyph portrait entitled “Absolute Relative” catches your eye, as do two vibrant Oleg Kudryashov drypoint prints in the private dining room and a sweeping Jennifer Bartlett seascape in the main dining room.