Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #7, Washingtonian 2009 #9, Washingtonian 2008 #13, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry Top 50 DC Restaurants
Neighborhood: Farragut Square
Official Friend of DCWD Deal is leaving for Buenos Aires in a month, and she prepared a bucket list for DC before she flees for at least a year. I couldn't talk her into skydiving, but among the things that I did convince her to do was splurge and throw away her food budget for a Wednesday night Restaurant Week reservation at Oval Room. And yes, I know: three Ashok Bajaj restaurants in three days? It wasn't intentional, it just happened that way.
The night before I had gotten two hours of sleep due to some leftover illness and an unsettled stomach, which still lingered with me during dinner. It also meant that when I unwisely decided to lie down on my couch after work, I fell asleep and somehow bolted awake only 5 minutes before our 7pm reservation. Obviously sprinting to the restaurant isn't a good way to shake off indigestion.
Unfortunately, this was not a night in which my dinner companion was late. In fact, she was early. Now Deal by her own admission is not a white cloth kind of diner, so she was a little disoriented upon entering, and actually took someone's seat at the bar. The hosts were apparently a little curt with her, or at least not as understanding about her confusion. They finally seated her down at one of the extra bar tables until I arrived, which luckily happened by 7:15.
The setup of Oval Room has you enter into the bar area which is a narrow area, and a little difficult to navigate when the restaurant gets fuller. Oval Room has two main dining areas which are both decorated very similarly; ecru walls covered in contemporary art, with the whole room accented by red and brown. We were seated in the middle of the large dining area, which isn't an oval room, though it did have a giant oval cut out in the ceiling where a modern light fixture hung; the lights that hung from it gave the whole room a soft but warm brown glow. The only downside to the space was that, as Deal noted, was that the whole space seemed cramped and small, a fact augmented by the little armchairs that made up most of the seating. So while this might make it a little more intimate, but it also means other parties are on top of you.
For the Wednesday of Restaurant Week, the menu was already very different from the one that Washingtonian had posted. Whether that was the product of running out of items, or misreporting is unclear. In any event, for the appetizers, Deal went with some thin sliced hamachi cured in citrus, which was good, but utterly unmemorable, a quality reinforced by the fact that she and I both had a hard time remembering what it was exactly that she even had.
For my part, I had the cauliflower soup with cheddar and pickled apricots. The soup itself was wonderful (reminiscent of a lighter version of a creamy potato soup), and I thought the cheese was a pleasing addition, but the apricots were the confusing aspect for me. They would be a wonderful taste contrast as soon as they hit my tongue, but actually eating them wasn't as pleasant an experience.
I knew that I wouldn't be able to stomach much, so I went with the diver scallops, which were seared and presented with what I remember as crispy leeks, and some white sauce. For such a quality kitchen, I was actually unimpressed by the dish; I've had much better scallops in a number of other less regarded restaurants. In fact, the overwhelming memory I have of the meal was that the scallops were a little gritty, as if they hadn't been thoroughly cleaned. Not exactly the best impression.
Deal had a much better experience, going with the pork medallions. This was much more spot on, with each piece maintaining a pink center (as it should) and working absolutely perfectly with the reduction it was in. After stealing a bite from her, I instantly realized I should have ordered it. Deal was totally blown out the water by it, saying it was one of the most delicious things she had ever eaten.
For dessert, Deal played it safe and went with the blonde brownie chocolate bar with coffee ice cream, which was good but not spectacular. She remarked that, "in making it high end
it lost some of the deliciousness that comes with a gooey brownie and ice cream dessert at other places." I had a similar feeling about the upside-down pineapple cake with white chocolate ice cream I ordered; it was good but not spectacular. I felt underwhelmed enough by it that when my stomach started saying no to it, I didn't feel completely terrible about asking for a box.
It's tough to say exactly what my final impressions of Oval Room are; the entire experience was up and down. The host staff seemed dismissive and haughty, but our server was warm and friendly, and was only MIA when we were trying to flag him down for the check (perhaps he thought Deal and I were on a date, or maybe he was giving us time to finish the bottle of wine we had ordered). The space was intimate, but the table next to us was within arm's length. The meal had its high points (the soup, the pork), but also was disappointingly unmemorable given my expectations for the meal, a feeling that Deal shared. Given that, I can only rate it as above average.
Food Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Business
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
Vibe: Calm to Chatty
Cost: $$$$ (out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing: The Oval Room is literally across the street from Lafayette Park, and thus the White House. A walk around the Ellipse/White House at night is always fun, especially if its Christmastime, and the National Christmas Tree is up.