“This tastes like Jean Georges, but Italian.”
I was looking at a pair of shrimp in a buttery, roasted garlic bath, but talking to Alex Talbot, one-half of that brilliant blog, Ideas in Food.
Perhaps that’s because Tony Conte had worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I didn’t know that until Alex told me. But, the influence was obvious in the tasting, a partnership of acid and heat conspiring against a fatty middle.
Twelve courses Conte and his pastry chef Cicely Austin cooked for us last month, many of which were among the most memorable, and beautifully plated dishes I’ve had in recent memory. Together, it was an amazing collection that left me inspired and impressed.
Having worked together, Alex and Conte were good friends. So, when planning our Mid-Atlantic road-trip, Alex had suggested that we take a quick detour to have lunch at The Oval Room, which sits just on the other side of Lafayette Park from the White House. I had walked by it dozens of times when I worked in D.C. a decade ago. But I had never stopped to eat.
In the intervening years, Conte arrived.
What he’s cooking now at The Oval Room is sort of Italian, sort of Asian, and non-stop delicious.
Conte’s a master of flavor, perhaps more than he is a technician, which is saying a lot give his precision.
He overlaps them in unexpected ways, like pairing toasted hazelnuts with white truffle, garnishes to casarecce pasta in a creamy fonduta. Or beets, which he used as a filling for ravioli, and spiced wine, which he used to stain clarified butter; an inky spill of claret. Both were brilliant couples, perhaps more brilliant that the pasta itself.
The casarecce was pretty great, but the crimping on the ravioli was a bit dense. And, if I’m to be honest, I liked our third pasta dish less for the pasta and more for the lusty mix of peppers and Mexican chorizo, spicy and rich. That was a great couple as well.
Conte’s use of flavors is clear and concise.
There was a delicate filet of amadai set atop eggplant kimchee, which was full of acid and heat. This was very Asian, very good.
That roasted garlic butter bath I mentioned earlier was even more acidic and even spicier, a carefully strung tension that begged me to return to it again and again. It was addictive.
Even in subtlety, his use of flavor purposeful, confident.
Tangy buttermilk and tamarind added dimension to the clean flavor of raw tuna.
Tangy sorrel ice cream balanced against the richness of creamy white asparagus soup and toasted pine nuts warmed in brown butter. Tucked among it all was a mild, creeping heat that remained just on the periphery. I couldn’t pick a favorite dish from our meal, but this one was particularly memorable.
And there was a lovely, carrot broth, round and sweet, brightened with slivers of endive dressed with orange vinaigrette. These were accessories to a fat lobster tail, curled and crisped with a light crust. This was another great dish.
Flaws were so few, so minor, that I’m loathed to nitpick. Partly, because my inexperience renders me unable to determine whether those giant Hawa’iian shrimp had a dense texture by nature, or whether they were slightly overcooked, or whether it was because they were served cooled. Either way, I recognize that texture is preference, and preference is personal, and this observation may only be applicable to me (Alex took no issue with the texture of those shrimp). And partly, because it might be just as much my fault as the chef’s for not realizing that a rolled piece of veal is easier to cut (and more importantly, chew) if turned on its side than the way it was presented, standing cut-side up. After a few frustrated mouthfuls, I knocked the roll over to slice it against the grain. After that, it was smooth sailing.
While Cicely Austin’s desserts were technically sound, I found them a bit over-thought. They needed a little editing.
Our first one, for example, was a kitchen sink of tropical fruits. After nine courses of Conte’s thoughtfully counterbalanced dishes, this dessert seemed a muddled mess in comparison, with half a dozen flavors bleeding into each other: no borders, no order, and worse, with almost no reason.
That might describe our second dessert too, which seemed more of a collection of techniques than a thoughtfully composed idea, with meringues, fried dough, bruleed fruit, and sorbet in random assembly. Each component was well-made, delicious even. But together, they were confusing.
Our last dessert, called the hazelnut “Twix” bar, was by far my favorite of the three (even if it had very little resemblance to the candy bar after which it was named). It also happened to be the simplest, with caramelized hazelnuts ringing a gathering of chocolate and caramel.
We were refused a bill. So we left a tip and thanked Conte for his generosity and hospitality. I hope you won’t let that fact dilute my praise or recommendation for Conte’s food. His use of flavor is unique. It’s compelling. It’s dynamic. It’s exciting – more than enough to help you ovelook the few, minor nits you might find here, or there.
Tony Conte may be one of the most under-exposed, under-appreciated chefs in America right now. If you don’t know him, take notice now. If you’re in Washington, D.C., consider The Oval Room.
Here is our twelve-course menu. Please note that many of these dishes are on the dinner menu, and not normally available at lunch.
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Sashimi of Tuna
Smoked tapioca, tamarind, and buttermillk.
Sorrel ice cream, pine nuts and brown butter.
Roasted garlic butter, herbs & lime.
Red Beet Ravioli
Spiced wine syrup and brown butter.
Mexican chorizo, peppers.
Our Truffle Pasta
Black truffle fondue and toasted hazelnuts.
Eggplant kimchee, lily bulbs & spring onion.
Celery root, carrot, and orange vinaigrette & endive.
Mint & Chili-Spiked Veal Tenderloin
Parmesan, sunchokes, and lavender.
Lemon-lime sherbet, mango lhassi, and candied mint.
Cocoa donuts and meringues.
Hazelnut “Twix” Bar
Pot de crème and caramel ice cream.
To see all the photos from this meal, click here.
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The Oval Room
800 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20006
Photos: Beet ravioli with spiced wine and ricotta salata; tuna sashimi with buttermilk, tamarind, and smoked tapioca; white asparagus soup with sorrel ice cream and pine nuts in brown butter; amadai with eggplant kimchee and lily bulbs; Hawa’iian shrimp with roasted garlic butter and herbs; and caramelized bananas with cocoa donuts and meringues.