- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Antonio Conte, the new chef at the Oval Room, has taken the restaurant straight from good to best, blowing right through better.

Not only have changes been made in the menu, but prices have been shaved a bit and on Saturday evenings guests can bring their own bottles of wine and the restaurant will uncork them at no charge. During the week, there’s a $15 corkage fee.

Mr. Conte succeeded Paul Luna, who is no longer in Washington. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Mr. Conte, a native of Connecticut, has cooked in several of the best restaurants in New England. Before moving to Washington, he was the executive sous chef for Jean-George Vongerichten at the four-star restaurant Jean George in New York City.

Service at the Oval Room is worthy of the cooking, professional and attentive. On a recent rainy evening, we lingered long past closing time without being made to feel that the staff wanted to clean up, close and go home.

First courses are varied with several unique dishes. Warm squash “chowanmushi” is a Japanese version of an eggless squash custard garnished with a tiny dice of crisp vegetables and sprinkled with cocoa powder. The ingredients are mixed together in a small bowl by the diner, and each spoonful combines the silky smooth custard with the crunchy texture of the tiny bits of onion and other vegetables. The cocoa adds a touch of an almost imperceptible flavor.

Crab salad is a nice-sized round of jumbo crab pieces, combined lightly with a subtle mix of mustard and chopped radish and apple. Seared diver scallops meld beautifully with the deep-red cranberry coulis.

It’s tempting to forgo the main courses and order more appetizers: celery root soup with crab fondue; roasted beets with passion fruit gelee; sauteed foie gras with quince and almonds, or tuna and avocado. For those who prefer just a salad, there’s the choice of baby lettuces with whipped goat cheese, or burrata, a type of creamy mozzarella, with figs, lettuce and basil, although on a recent evening, the kitchen was out of the burrata.

Main courses are divided into five fish dishes, three meats and a pasta. The highlight of one dinner was the poached lobster. A good-sized portion of fresh lobster is poached in butter just long enough for the crustacean to be cooked without becoming tough. Served in the most delicate of sauces with a little diced squash and Asian pears, this is a memorable dish of moist, tender, succulent lobster.

Equally well prepared is the halibut, served with a mound of mixed sliced raw and cooked fennel and bits of grapefruit. The combination is excellent. The menu lists chorizo as an ingredient of the dish, but what came to the table lacked the sausage.

The roast chicken is a tender breast and wing, served with mashed potatoes and braised cabbage enhanced by small pieces of prosciutto. The prosciutto adds just the right touch of salty contrast to the cabbage.

The sole pasta dish on the dinner menu — also available at lunch — is a dish of ravioli filled with creamy ricotta in a sauce incorporating butternut squash and chestnuts. It’s a satisfying autumn dish.

The menu is rounded out by beef tenderloin with a side of cauliflower and a dish of pork tenderloin with couscous. For lunch, the pork is accompanied by spaetzle and Asian pear. Fish dishes include bass with eggplant, slow-baked salmon with sweet potatoes and brown butter, and crispy snapper with squash and tomatoes. It’s a varied menu that should appeal to any taste.

Desserts are quite good but not yet up to the standard of the appetizers and main courses. A cup of icy coffee granita is topped with creamy white chocolate mousse and accompanied by tiny round doughnut balls filled with a chocolate cream. The parts are all fine, but the whole doesn’t quite work.

A small round of warm chocolate cake with a topping of salted hazelnuts is accompanied by excellent praline ice cream and a smudge of chocolate sauce. Other desserts are a fig clafoutis, strawberry and lemon verbena meringue and rice pudding.

Mr. Conte has put together a seven-course tasting menu for $70 per person, or $100 with wines paired for each course. The tasting menu, which must be ordered by everyone at the table, includes the squash chowanmushi, smoked corn ravioli, a foie gras terrine, halibut, duck and the espresso granita with white chocolate and mini doughnuts.

Most of the dinner menu is available at lunch at slightly reduced prices. In addition, the restaurant serves several entree salads, such as a Caesar salad with or without shrimp, chicken or steak, and a Cobb salad. A grilled vegetable sandwich with mozzarella and basil, a turkey club and a steak sandwich round out the lunch menu.

The wines are carefully chosen, a mix of American and foreign labels. Wines by the glass are available in a three-ounce portion as well as the usual six-ounce size.

Mr. Conte has put the cuisine of the Oval Room into a new realm, fitting for one of Washington’s power restaurants located just across Lafayette Park from the real oval room. But the food is about more than power. It’s all about truly fine dining.

RESTAURANT: Oval Room, 800 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/483-8700

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday and until 10:30 p.m. Saturday

PRICES: First courses $7 to $12 (lunch), $8 to $16 (dinner); main courses $10 to $22 (lunch), $16 to $29 (dinner); desserts $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking; complimentary valet parking after 6 p.m.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Farragut West (Orange and Blue lines) or Farragut North (Red Line)

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