Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 #14, Washingtonian 2010 #26, Washingtonian 2009 #24, Washingtonian 2008 #16, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry's Top 50 Restaurants 2009 and 2010, Washington Post 2009 and 2010 Fall Dining Guide
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle
After our successful blog dinner at Komi (and successful is a wild, wild understatement), Official Friend of DCWD Beatrice took it upon herself to set up our next shared meal. After asking me for my restaurant wish list, we settled on D.C. icon Obelisk. Joining us for this meal were Official Friends of DCWD Stormtrooper, Swizzle, and Jay.
Obelisk is perhaps the most nondescript of all of D.C.'s culinary powerhouses, identified only by a metal cutout of the restaurant's eponymous monolith; Beatrice would later tell us that Obelisk used to have a sign with its name, but that it had fallen down years ago and they didn't feel the need to replace it.
The restaurant sits on the second floor of a townhouse, and as such is small with conservatively 20 seats in the whole space. The space is decorated like eating in someone's kitchen: nothing too modern or refined, but just a simple tile floor, with pictures of fruit hanging on otherwise nondescript tan and white walls. Except for the table we sat on in the window, the tables are all simple wicker furniture in half booths with one row of half booths topped by a cabinet full of wine. There's a center table in the space with flowers and the staging area for the cheeses, and a small bar in the back by the kitchen. By nightfall, the restaurant has a nice soft glow to add to the atmosphere.
Obelisk's menu is handwritten each day, and there's no website for it either, so it's a little bit of a mystery what you're getting on each meal. Beatrice remarked that she had spent the better part of the previous month passing Obelisk on her daily run just to check what she might be in store for.
First came the antipasti, a bunch of unwritten small plates for the table to share. First to arrive was burrata, a generous helping of the cheese with olive oil, salt, and pepper. There are certain things that I classify as "I did not understand people's obsession for it until I myself tried it and now I can't stop raving about it" : roller coasters, hookah, and horseradish cheddar, for example. Burrata is in that category. This was brilliant and beautiful, though I don't know that Obelisk gets any more credit than just selecting a nice piece of cheese, and not trying to suffocate it in toppings. Still, good choice.
Next were chickpea fritters, little rectangles of crispyness which decidedly did not taste like fried hummus. Which was a good thing. These were Swizzle's favorites of the antipasti, and I thought they were a nice dish by virtue of being simple and clean.
Third in line in this rapid-fire antipasti barrage was a presentation of thinly sliced radish and bottarga. This was by far my least favorite dish, because nothing had been done to take away the sharp taste that radish has. In salads, it's good as a foil to the other ingredients, but presented by itself and raw was something I found unpleasant. The bottarga also added nothing to the dish, and might as well not been on there.
Next was the "porketta" - suckling pig made into a sausage of sorts and wrapped in phyllo, served with onion marmalade. This was solid, albeit not something memorable. A decent meat flavor, and the onion marmalade was definitely a mild caramelized sweet flavor that paired nicely with the pig, but I sort of wanted more from it.
Last was slices of smoked swordfish belly with fennel. This was a polarizing dish for the group, in that I actually liked it, and I don't think that opinion was shared by the table. I love swordfish in its steak form by itself, but sometimes I don't care for that meaty, strong flavor that comes along with it. This dish, a mirror of a similar one I had at Two Amy's, was a nice texture play for me, especially with the fennel. That being said, I could understand the group's complaint: that it lacked any real bold flavor.
For each course after this, we were given three options. So between the five of us, we divvied up the menu to make sure everything was accounted for. The winner was the endive ravioli with walnuts, which I settled on ordering as the odd man out, but for which I'm glad I got it. I think we all knew going in, based on Obelisk's reputation, that rich and perfectly cooked housemade pasta was the baseline. But what brought this dish up eight notches was the combination of the absolutely amazing endive filling and the brown butter sauce that it came in, mixing to create this epic sensation of creaminess that was altogether satisfying and left you craving more than your one allotted piece of ravioli (six pieces meant I was the only one who got two).
The other two dishes were more along the baseline. One was tagliolini with squid and peas, a dish that relied on simplicity and flavor combination rather than dressing up a single ingredient. It definitely featured a lot of clean flavors. The dish was "good," in the way that people say "fine" as a euphemism for "I'm not really thinking too deeply about this," but you know, a step above that. The sort of dish that you would continue eating while it's in front of you and enjoy, but maybe not order the next time.
Third was gnocchi with zucchini, ham, and ricotta. This was my original preference, and it would seem that putting these four things together would be pretty basic, but for some reason there was just something not "lovable" about it. The gnocchi was well-done so it wasn't that, but I think most of us agreed that the salt of the prosciutto was probably a little too aggressive for the dish. On the flip side, the ricotta was the key part of the dish that made it workable, but overall it sort of just was.
For me, the second course followed a similar pattern. The best dish was the snapper with Roman artichokes, peppers, and a green sauce. Here were clean flavors that just shone: a fleshy but simple fish that was juicy and had the perfect amount of salt, artichokes and peppers that were crisp and sharp and clear. There was definitely a lot to love too about the composition of the dish, with each texture and flavor building on the next.
Sadly, this bested my own pick, the duck breast with morel mushrooms, asparagus, and garlic scapes. Any chef worth their salt knows that duck should be at most pink in the middle, or you lose all the juiciness that makes duck so worthwhile. But on this one, I think the kitchen took it too much to the extreme, with not enough time in the pan to move the breast past red to get to its succulent prime. On the other hand, the sides for this dish were jaw-droppingly amazing. As in, I didn't know asparagus and morels could taste this good.
Last was the simplest of the three: a pork chop with pea shoots and cippoline onions. By all accounts, this was a dish that everyone loved, but I just couldn't get over the fact that it didn't taste any better or worse to me than the pork chops I make for myself. This probably owes to the fact that for two solid months I cooked nothing but pork shoulder and pork chops for myself (the product of a Costco run and ensuing massive quantities of meat in the freezer), and so I probably got a better handle on the protein than others I've cooked. But still, I wanted more imagination.
What's there to say about the cheese course other than it was there? I have no opinion on cheese courses, mostly because I only vaguely understand its place in gourmet meals. Still, for this dinner, the three cheeses were Grande Vecchio, Bonrus, and Barilotto, and came with a green tomato jam, which was probably my favorite part of the whole endeavor.
For dessert, the first of our options was a lemon almond cake with vanilla ice cream. This was more crumbly than anything, and drier than I thought it would be. Still, it was a hit with the majority of our table.
A good surprise was the chocolate pudding with cherries, which compared favorably to a pots du creme. Topped with some caramel brittle, it was a nice amount of rich chocolate favor, and the cherries were that good sour sweet that stewed cherries can be (the cherries themselves were probably my favorite singular component of the desserts).
Last was a strawberry shortbread, which came as a pile of strawberries and cream on a shortbread disc, repeated twice. I thought that it was nice, since it ate like a deconstructed strawberry shortcake, except with the pie-crust-like texture from the shortbread.
Some small mignardises (toffee, some form of chocolate nuts) capped the night.
It's hard to compare this meal based solely on itself. I came in with so many expectations, lofty ones that would've been hard to match. And by its own merits, it was a solidly good meal. The hits were high, the misses were still medium, and the endive ravioli was definitely something eminently amazing.
Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Bar Rating: N/A
Cost: $$$$$ (out of 5) (more than $100 for two)
Pairing: Assuage your guilt for such a perfect (but fairly expensive meal) by doing something good for others. Clean out your closet with your significant other, and donate it in the collection box (one of which is almost right across the street from Obelisk).