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Review of The Oval Room : Washington, D.C.

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PHOTO: Hamachi Crudo at The Oval Room (c) Sery Kim

Within the strict confines of “old school power dining” in Washington, D.C., Ashok Bajaj’s The Oval Room has always positioned itself near first place. Perhaps it is the proximity of the restaurant -- a mere block from The White House -- which has gravitational pull over White House staffers, elected officials, lobbyists and wanna-be D.C. power players within its rarefied yet tiny dining space.

Certainly it has not been the food, which has been a bland combination of steak and potatoes. (Fine D.C. dining is usually not the grease of political deals.) Thus, whatever glamour The Oval Room’s power-player-scene had on Washington, D.C., the rapid (or vapid) changes in the Washington, D.C. restaurant market has resulted in a forgetfulness of this storied D.C. restaurant.

Until now.

One of Washington, D.C.’s premier chefs John Melfi recently left the popular Fiola Mare on Georgetown’s waterfront to helm a full-scale transformation of The Oval Room. Executive Chef Melfi is one of those rare D.C. talents whose resume defies expectation as to why he has not been swept up in a flurry of Food and Wine magazine covers and Food Network audition spots. I have been a long-time fan ever since his days in the kitchen of my favorite D.C. restaurant Blue Duck Tavern and his work has never failed to live up to my lofty expectations.

The full-scale kitchen revamp starts with the bread basket. I typically avoid this bottomless pit of worthless calories because the bread is usually stale or recycled from a previous table (thank you Anthony Bourdain for that gross little tidbit). Yet each of the components of carbs within The Oval Room’s breadbasket was noteworthy. A gentle olive wheat; a piping hot ciabatta; and my favorite sunflower and raisin each made its way into my stomach before I could start with the amuse bouche. A disastrous detour for my diet but a gloriously fun experience for my finicky carbohydrate taste-buds.

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PHOTO: Phoenix Risen Cocktail at The Oval Room (c) Sery Kim

Naturally, a cocktail would be the best recourse to expand my bread-filled palate and thusly the Phoenix Risen Cocktail, with its sweet bourbon base, came fully loaded with a carnival of flavors. I very much enjoyed both the slightly pomegranate-flavored finish as well as the light after-effects of the usually heavy bourbon.

For those disinclined to cocktails, The Oval Room has several lovely bottles of wine. The Domaine Long Depaquit Chablis 2013 was gentle, as easy to drink as a glass of water, but I much preferred the slightly sweeter, more unique sensation of the Upstate New York Dr. Konstantin Frank Semi Dry Riesling 2013. This Finger Lakes, New York bottle of wine combined a slightly acid finish with a sweet uptick and I enjoyed it very much.

I should also note, since most of my friends are red wine drinkers, the Sommelier recommended Barco De Piedra Ribera Del Duerto 2012, a Tempranillo, which was a delicate and elegant companion to the boldly visual meat course. Though I always veer towards Malbecs when it comes to red wine, this Tempranillo certainly left an impression which I will remember should a Malbec not be an option.

Bread. Cocktails. Wine. None-of-these elements of eating out particularly amuse me and yet at The Oval Room I found myself on a detour after detour into realms of caloric emptiness. Thankfully, the appetizers began to magically appear and the gorgeous Hamachi Crudo, with purple ninja radish, avocado puree, pineapple and lime vinaigrette popped into my life with a visual burst. Incredibly beautiful and simple, the avalanche of citrus colors created a stark contrast to the pure white plating while the delicately handled hamachi and vegetables shrugged off any lingering indifference I may have felt to yet another press dinner at yet another D.C. restaurant.

Facebook - A truly #phenomenal #foiegras #bestthingiatethisyear @TheOvalRoomDC #

PHOTO: Foie Gras Terrine at The Oval Room (c) Sery Kim

Chef Melfi’s talent lies in his ability to construct something hauntingly arresting out of familiar ingredients. His Foie Gras Terrine encapsulated this sensation by being the best dish I ate of the evening. Rather than a boring pancake-esque plating of foie gras, The Oval Room’s new presentation looked more like a pastry contest winner than an appetizer. A bed of black cherry anchored a foie gras terrine which resembled a peanut butter pie more than foie gras, with the same salty sweet texture I have grown to love in this dish. Then garnished with generous heaps of Coco Nib Granola like rose petals falling on a wedding aisle, this dish would rival any cake made by the legendary wedding cake maker Sylvia Weinstock. Absolute perfection.

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PHOTO: Mangrove Cockles at The Oval Room (c) Sery Kim

Still, as much as I admire Chef Melfi, not everything at The Oval Room was perfect or divine. The Mangrove Cockles // Winter Citrus, Smoked Trout Roe, Yuzu Emulsion // carried with it a tight, uncomfortable tang. The emulsion existed uncomfortably with the winter citrus creating a dichotomy of texture and flavor. With every chew, this appetizer felt like the ingredients were competing with each other.

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PHOTO: Pan Roasted Icelandic Cod at The Oval Room (c) Sery Kim

I rather felt the same indifference to the Pan Roasted Icelandic Cod. While stunning in its presentation with the Italian Radicchio, Shaved Artichokes, Capers, and Lemon Vinaigrette, the dish was missing a warmth in temperature as well as a zest in flavor. My cod was cold. Not arctic cold but definitely below room temperature. I felt the dish could have been livened by 10 additional degrees or a greater amount of capers to add some nice saltiness to this dish.

My grievance with both seafood dishes seems odd since I loved everything Chef Melfi did at Fiola Mare. This is why I am disappointed at the seafood performance. I know what Chef Melfi can do … and he didn’t do it at The Oval Room.

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PHOTO: Cherry Cola Braised Short Rib at The Oval Room (c) Sery Kim

Of course, let me be very clear and say the most compelling dish Chef Melfi did for the table was the Cherry Cola Braised Short Rib, which he saved for last. Presented with a full bone, the braised short rib fell off with the lightest of touches -- and the vanilla scented parsnip puree, heirloom baby carrots and shaved fennel were there to capture every delightful taste of cherry cola. The dish was exceptional in color, presentation, taste and texture; thus, it is inevitably bound for greatness at The Oval Room.

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PHOTO: Peanut Butter Feulletine at The Oval Room (c) Sery Kim

I am so pleased I could try so many of the wonderful dishes at The Oval Room and I hope that when they fix their pastry program I can return for a fully glorious meal because the Peanut Butter Feulletine was merely adequate. The dessert needed more sugar to create a truly sweet dish or the kitchens needs to revamp this dish to match the lushness of the accompanying Raspberry Sorbet. Perhaps less peanut butter and more raspberry? Or sugar coated raspberries as garnishment? A host of options is available.

Either way, what Executive Chef John Melfi is doing for The Oval Room should be commended and I am looking forward to adding this restaurant back into my staple of favorite places to be in Washington, D.C.

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