- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

The only oval in the Oval Room on Connecticut Avenue between H and I Streets NW is the light well in the center of the main dining room. On the other hand, the other oval room is a mere block south of the restaurant.

The Oval Room, one of a group of restaurants owned by Ashok Bajaj and featuring new American cooking, recently acquired a new executive chef Frank Morales, down from New York's Union Pacific. (The others in the group are Ardeo and its neighbor Bardeo, both on Connecticut Avenue across from the Uptown Theatre; 701 on Pennsylvania Avenue NW; and the Bombay Club, across the street from the Oval Room.)

The restaurant has two dining rooms divided by a narrow bar. On your right as you enter is a small room with too many tables. Past the bar on your left is the main dining room, the Gold Room. The room, facing Connecticut Avenue, is all angles, with some pleasantly spaced tables.

(Beware of the first booth by the window with its view into the kitchen through what appear to be permanently open doors. Restaurant designers never seem to sit at the tables to experience what diners encounter. It's no fun to have an elegant dinner spoiled by the view and sound of clattering crockery and scurrying waiters and bus boys.)

The service is pleasant and efficient, helpful without being insistent or obsequious. Wine by the glass ($8 to $10) is well-chosen, if not outstanding. The Oval Room is somewhat cold in atmosphere at night, but at lunchtime, its pale lime-green walls and assertive abstract paintings, as well as the outdoor tables for good-weather meals, make it a lively, pleasant place for Washington movers and shakers to meet, greet and eat.

Prices are high for lunch, reasonable for dinner. The chef has talent, but as a whole, the dishes, with certain exceptions, disappointed.

We started dinner with carrot-and-ginger soup with a dollop of lime creme fraiche on top. The soup was delicious to savor and beautiful to behold, its bright orange color sparkling in the white plate. Ginger livens up the sweetness of the carrots and adds a nice tang to the dish.

Equally fine was a goat-cheese frico, a small round of creamy, slightly warmed cheese wrapped in thin slices of mild, yellowish, blanched-but-still-crisp icicle radish. The cheese is surrounded by a moat of raspberry reduction. Sweet, yes, but the sauce complements the cheese, and the fragrance of the berries is lovely.

Shrimp fritters with a pineapple sweet-and-sour dipping sauce were not a success. The three large fritters were tough and heavy with none of the requisite crisp airiness. The almost nonexistent filling of tiny pieces of tough shrimp added nothing. The nondescript dipping sauce was a thin, sweetish soy-based broth. At a price of $8.95, this dish is not worthy of Mr. Morales' talents.

Dinner main courses consist of half a dozen fish entrees and half a dozen meat. One of the most tempting fish dishes is sea scallops on a mound of Israeli couscous with diamonds of zucchini, slivers of black olives and a spicy "orange gremolata" sauce. The dish, although pleasing, was not quite as good as it sounded: The four medium-size scallops were not altogether fresh, the couscous (actually tiny balls of pasta) was without dressing of any kind, and the zucchini was merely steamed. The sauce, although it had a spicy tang, had only the color of a blood orange and none of the fragrance or flavor of one.

Rockfish was an excellent choice. The thick slice of fish was prepared beautifully, with a light tangerine glaze and accompanied by beet puree and mashed sunchokes. The fish was as fresh as could be, cooked as requested, and the beets and sunchokes are interesting and unusual accompaniments.

Roasted salmon with white hominy grits (served at lunch with warm potato salad); cod chowder; and grilled jumbo prawns with tomatillos, sweet plantains and sugar snap peas are other seafood dishes.

From the choice of roast chicken, duck, New York cut steak and grilled rack of lamb and pork loin, we tried the pork. The two slices of pork loin were good, relatively tender, and served on a bed of chopped green beans and cherry peppers. Good, but not exciting. Both the fish and the pork suffer from an excess of sweetness. Some chefs have a heavy hand with salt, but Mr. Morales' weakness appears to be sugar.

Gnocchi "as you like it" are offered with a choice of sauces roasted tomato, balsamic vinegar and basil, sorrel pesto or Maytag blue cheese, a delicious alternative to meat or fish entrees. The gnocchi, although good-sized, are not heavy, and the sauce, sprinkled with chopped chives, is deliciously cheesy and creamy. With the addition of some freshly ground pepper, it's a fine, light dish.

Main courses at lunch include four fish and four meat dishes, including a pork schnitzel with wilted spinach. In addition, the kitchen prepares "Mom's meatloaf sandwich on a sticky bun" and tuna burgers, grilled vegetables and a vegetable wrap. Beef carpaccio (ever-so-thin slices of tenderloin) and crab salad complete the lunch menu.

Among the desserts, the apple strudel was not up to par the pastry was too heavy, and plain vanilla ice cream or simple whipped cream would have been more appropriate than cardamom ice cream as an accompaniment.

The Oval Room offers an attractive pre-theater menu from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. daily. The menu includes a choice of starters, such as chickpea soup with melted leeks, Caesar salad, baby greens or grilled squid with Serrano ham and peas. Main courses are salmon, chicken or gnocchi with roasted tomatoes, and there's also a choice of desserts. It's a good deal for $25.

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