Chef Tony Conte: Outside the Box at The Oval Room

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
July 2010

It turns out DC has more than one important oval-shaped room. Sure, the Oval Office is the scene of some of the country’s most important decisions. But The Oval Room is the scene of the some of DC’s most important cuisine, and the restaurant of choice for many of the city’s most important decision-makers, past and present. So while so many sour-faced suits hash out the details of the nation’s budgetary and diplomatic future in one top-secret oval room, another team, clad humbly in chef’s whites, is hashing out the details of our culinary future in The Oval Room—and Chef Tony Conte is their culinary commander in chief.

We’ve seen imagination coupled with technical skill, but Tony Conte is doing something more along the lines of sophisticated culinary whimsy. We loved his dishes at The Oval Room in 2006, when he was a Rising Star, but four years later, we found Chef Conte playing giddily and skillfully outside of the box. Who else would serve us meaty kampachi pastrami (with a classic deli-worthy pastrami crust) topped with hot Chinese mustard ice cream that was at once spicy, cold, and sweet?  Or pair brown-butter poached Maine lobster with Thai galangal, pickled rhubarb, nutmeg, and spiced rum?

Chef Conte knows what classic flavors work—his lobster had its requisite elegant dose of pure vanilla—but he also knows how to incorporate unexpected elements with such grace of execution that the results seem entirely natural, seamlessly appropriate. And Conte isn’t just working within the bounds of modern American cuisine, although he’s doing that extremely well, too, featuring local produce like baby beets, or national treasures like Pennsylvania duck and Alaskan halibut. But like any good citizen of our nation’s capitol, Conte is paying attention to the rest of the world, incorporating ingredients from fresh ricotta salata and pancetta to yuzu and tamarind.

And he incorporates these international influences delicately but determinedly, with dishes like Jerk Foie Gras—all the lush elegance of perfectly prepared foie gras coupled with warm ginger jelly (a double dose of heat) and traditional jerk seasoning, inspired by his Barbados-born sous chef. Chef Conte isn’t afraid to treat something like foie gras to a healthy dose of the unexpected, in much the same way he’ll boldly treat a piece of fish to traditional meat preparations. Besides his pastrami-cured kampachi (hamachi wasn’t meaty enough to stand up to the cure), Chef Conte does a shrimp chorizo that has all the texture, spice, and mouthfeel of classic chorizo with the subtle sweetness of shrimp. Crunchy black olive crumbs—little bursts of umami depth and salt—and creamy avocado puree gave the dish a roundly Mediterranean flavor profile.

But Chef Conte isn’t just playing outside the savory sandbox. He isn’t afraid to approach that domain feared by many chefs, dessert, and even in that uncharted territory, where most savory chefs might play it safe, Chef Conte toys around skillfully. He creates a deconstructed blueberry pie (an all American dessert) with local blueberry curd, pieces of pie dough, and sour cream ice cream (it’s doubtful that chocolate or vanilla will ever make his ice cream list). And his Cornflake Custard with freeze dried strawberries elevates the comfortingly mundane flavors of a bowl of cereal to new, gleefully unusual heights.

The Oval Room is part of the mini restaurant empire of Ashok Bajaj, whose other properties include the modern Indian Rasika and the upscale rustic Italian Bibiana Osteria Enoteca, but the restaurant has a magnetism all its own. And everyone from Washingtonian socialites to political bigwigs are making a second home of it. Whether it’s a former president (both Clinton and George H.W. Bush are fans), a weathered reporter from the Washington Post, or even an exhausted Congressional Page treating him or herself to a night of sweet reprieve, DC denizens are flocking to The Oval Room, reaping the fruits of Chef Conte’s freewheeling imagination as it plays, so very nimbly, with the ever-expanding mosaic of textures, flavors, and concepts of modern American cuisine.

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