- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2001

Only a short walk from the White House across Lafayette Square, the revamped Oval Room is trying to bring some New York spice to Washington's power lunches.
Not only did the interior decoration change from federalist Georgian to modern last summer, a new chef with a flair for blending different tastes in food took over the menu.
"This is more cutting edge," says Ashok Bajaj, the restaurant's owner. The politicians, bigwig corporate executives and media moguls who were offered food as straight-laced as their job titles can now choose from a menu that mixes flavors from around the world.
The soups and salads in particular have noticeable Mediterranean and Asian influences.
To help with the restaurant's face lift, Mr. Bajaj hired chef Frank Morales, who established his reputation as a top-tier chef at New York's Union Pacific Restaurant. Along with the chef came the culinary preferences of his home city, which also mirror the world.
Mr. Bajaj describes the difference between Washington and New York menu preferences as being similar to the difference between conservative and liberal.
"If you blend A and B, New Yorkers would be more willing to try it than Washingtonians," he says.
Favorite choices among dinner patrons now include big-eye tuna with three apples and a Granny Smith teriyaki. Another one is braised short ribs of beef with Gnocchi (potato dumplings) and Porcini mushrooms.
Freshness of the foods is one of the distinguishing characteristics. To maintain it, Mr. Bajaj has set up a network of local growers to deliver the fruits and vegetables straight from the fields. The scallops, flown in from Maine, are delivered in their shells to keep them firm, rather than risking the mushiness that might result from having them removed before they are about to be cooked.
The brazed sea scallops with onion risotto and fall mushrooms are one of the Oval Room's most popular lunch items. It makes for a colorful arrangement, with the scallops sitting on a bed of mushrooms surrounded by risotto. A delicate sauce does not dampen the robust taste.
It is preceded by a salad of baby-filled greens covered by a puree of acorn squash with basil-infused oil and ginger pumpkin. The combination makes for a spicy but unique taste.
Equally unique is the butternut squash soup. The taste of squash could have come from Middle America, but the tanginess and spice gave hints of Paris and New Delhi. It was followed by a fall vegetable pot-au-feu, or soup, that includes carrots, beets, potatoes and bok choy. The broth added to the taste without smothering the uniqueness of each of the vegetables.
The question for the Oval Room is not whether the food is high quality, but whether it will appeal to a clientele that so far has given the restaurant an unusual degree of loyalty. About three-fourths of the customers have their own tables, where they come to fraternize with colleagues or consummate deals.
Madeleine K. Albright practiced the speech she read hours later when she was sworn in as Secretary of State while eating at the Oval Room. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, unscathed after someone mailed him a letter laced with anthrax, ate there last week. Other customers have included former President George Bush, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and media personalities Dan Rather, Bryant Gumbel and Sam Donaldson.
"The good thing is that when the power changes from Democrat to Republican, they still come back here," Mr. Bajaj says. The question now is whether they will keep coming back.

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