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The Oval Room


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Out-of-town clients travelling to DC and looking for a good combination of "power dining" and good food. The Oval Room has been mentioned, but I have heard little about it of late. Any insight would be appreciated.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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The power dining takes place at lunch there.

Shhhhh. Out-of-towners don't know that.

Have you heard anything about the food lately?

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Ah...after watching West Wing last night they do!

Food is a convenient way for ordinary people to experience extraordinary pleasure, to live it up a bit.

-- William Grimes

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  • 1 year later...

The Oval Room stole my favorite chef from upstate New York, Matt Secich, formerly of The Inn at Erlowest. I will have to make a trip down there this spring to check it out. Has anyone been?

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I have a good friend who just came by the house to brag where he's been eating lately -- Bouley last night and Chez Panisse the night before -- who is also a regular at the Oval Room. We didn't discuss the place in detail, but he seemed quite pleased with the way the new guy is settling in. I almost got the feeling that he found it an improvement.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I have a good friend who just came by the house to brag where he's been eating lately -- Bouley last night and Chez Panisse the night before -- who is also a regular at the Oval Room.  We didn't discuss the place in detail, but he seemed quite pleased with the way the new guy is settling in.  I almost got the feeling that he found it an improvement.

Good to hear, not that I doubted it.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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  • 3 weeks later...

Last Friday I landed in the Oval Room with my wife and a good friend (thanks again, Matt!) for a journey through newcomers Matt Secich’s two tasting menus and a long conversation with the chef himself, and came away very impressed -- if not entirely blown away -- by the experience.

But first, who’s been putting what in Ashok Bajoj’s coffee? Bajoj made his reputation with a modestly-sized restaurant group (701, Ardeao, Bardeo, Bombay Club, Oval Room) that rarely seems to put any dining rooms on the various top lists but always seem to offer good food and professional service in classy, if not cutting-edge, settings. All the sudden, he opens up Rasika, the high-end Indian restaurant in DC most to make your thoughts turn to the Karma Sutra – especially after the Black Cod and a couple of custom martinis. Then, to shake up the steps-from-the-White-House power lunch place Oval Room he brings in a guy who, when he hears the phrase “thinks go better with Coke,” has a couple of lobes of foie gras delivered to his kitchen. Bajoj appears to be getting a little frisky these days.

The man who served me seared foie gras with coke syrup and a coke ice cream sundae on the side, is Matthew Secich, late of the Inn at Erlowest in Lake George, NY. In addition to that Inn, he’s butchered at The Inn at Little Washington, and staged with Pierre Gagnaire and at La Manoir aux Quat' Saisons (two Michelin stars), as well. He appears bent on using all that experience to change speeds at a restaurant where diners have been, until now, more likely to be impressed by their proximity to power than what was put on their plate (no matter how good it was).

In person Secich - close-cropped beard and intense eyes framed by rimless glasses – comes off as a cross between Thomas Keller and Strelnikov, the revolutionary-cum-Communist General in the film version of Dr. Zhivago: determined, passionate and perhaps a bit visionary. As he is wont to say, he “takes things very seriously.”

The test, of course, is how that passion and vision asserts itself on the plate. Especially for someone still finding his way around town, I think they are translating themselves into some pretty good cooking. The Chef’s Menus – there is both a vegetarian and an omnivore menu – are precise demonstrations of wit and skill, a daring that didn’t always work for me, and a devotion to fundamentals that did.

There was that foie gras, a dish that, days later, I still find bizarrely compelling. Less odd, but no less compelling, was the first-course crab Bloody Mary – bits of crab served in a glass with chopped tomato, vodka gelee, what appeared to be (and crunched like) Old Bay-flavored Jello, and a bit of celery. It seemed boring and obvious when set before me but -- as the textures and tastes began to pile up and contrast – it seemed instead refreshing and new.

After the crab but before the foie, I was pleased to see my first sea-urchin in far too long arrive at the table. Actually, a sea urchin flan, cooked in the urchin’s shell and served with lobster and white asparagus.

Stephanie started off with a vegetarian version of the currently-unavoidable Butternut Squash Soup aromatic and heady with black truffle and truffle oil, tasty. Her wild mushroom lasagna came off heavy and bland, though, the mushroom flavors all jumbled together to no obvious distinction.

Both the main courses were home runs. The vegetarian entrée was a seemingly austere serving of cipollini onions stuffed with wild rice made rich by -- apparently -- a long simmer in vegetable stock. Even richer were perfect slices of lamb loin poised atop carrot cake, an unusual but strikingly delicious combination.

Talking after dinner Secich more than once allowed that he was unfazed if not everyone liked every dish. “People are 50-50” on that one, he said about the Peanut Butter and Strawberry Monte Christo dessert, about which I found myself in the wrong 50. I was impressed that he was willing to go out on a limb – and that he didn’t act as though I’d called his (new) (second) baby ugly when I said I didn’t care for it.

The Chocolate Five Ways, though? Chef Secich, you have a beautiful baby.

Secich is committed to finding the obscure and delicious, testing the boundaries of his suppliers so he can broaden the horizons of his diners. He’s throwing himself into the local scene, already (he just arrived last month) planning a dinner in conjunction with Virginia’s Jefferson Winery, featuring five as-yet-unreleased wines. (Details Here, click "events"). He’s breaking in a new kitchen staff. He’s finding new ways to put together flavors, new and old, and trying to make sure that some of the delight of meals in mom’s kitchen comes through in a dinner eaten off starched tablecloths. I wonder what’s going to happen when he catches his breath.

I know it’s going to be different. But, Secich is aiming at extraordinary. I think he has a chance to hit it.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Thanks for the review, Charles. I am happy to see that Chef Secich is settling in in D.C. While he does occassionally have some misses, his cooking is more typically extraordinary. I am still very upset that he was not able to pull together enough financing to be able to stay up here in northeastern N.Y., but this just gives me yet another reason to visit DC.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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  • 2 weeks later...
Thanks for the review, Charles. I am happy to see that Chef Secich is settling in in D.C.

In one of those eGullet moments, last night I found myself at the Oval Room discussing food and eGullet's accuracy with Chef Matt Secich who spoke in glowing terms about John Sconzo and Charles Sweeney. But to the food first. A caveat; it was a dinner for about 30 persons; ergo forced limited choices, but pretty good and worth a retry for sure. First were butternut squash soup with walnut foam and baby lettuce with a truffle vinaigrette and warm Blue Ledge Farms Chevre - both fine. The mains were also good but of the three, I give the award for product to the grilled rib steak with pureed apple and a divine sauce although the scallops with a truffle cleriac puree were close behind. The cod with stuffed fingerling potatoes was not out of the ordinary. Both desserts - a chocolate tarte and creme brulee - were while standard fare, made correctly.The wines for a group dinner were also quite good - a white Carmel Road Chardonnay and red Grant Burge Shiraz. The bill? I have no idea, wasn't paying. But it's clear Secich profited from his stages at lunch with Guy Martin of Grand Vefour and Pierre Gagniere.

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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The man who served me seared foie gras with coke syrup and a coke ice cream sundae on the side, is Matthew Secich, late of the Inn at Erlowest in Lake George, NY.  In addition to that Inn, he’s butchered at The Inn at Little Washington, and staged with Pierre Gagnaire and at La Manoir aux Quat' Saisons (two Michelin stars), as well.  He appears bent on using all that experience to change speeds at a restaurant where diners have been, until now, more likely to be impressed by their proximity to power than what was put on their plate (no matter how good it was).

In person Secich  - close-cropped beard and intense eyes framed by rimless glasses – comes off as a cross between Thomas Keller and Strelnikov, the revolutionary-cum-Communist General in the film version of Dr. Zhivago:  determined, passionate and perhaps a bit visionary.  As he is wont to say, he “takes things very seriously.”

I went there tonight with a friend. The foie gras was not seared, but was a terrine of goose foie gras ( ! ) with the Coke treatment. Stellar! I didn't think of it as Coca-Cola, but as a flavor. It couldn't have been improved on. The other dishes: scallop and lobster were perfectly cooked. I found myself using the salt shaker. That isn't a complaint, just a personal preference. Add to that a classy looking place and super attentive service. Matt does take things very seriously.

Mark

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  • 5 weeks later...

We had the tasting menu on Saturday night, erved with wine pairings:

Amuse of mussel with mussel foam

Red Mullet, foie gras, fava beans, orange vineagrette

Salmon tartare, salmon roe, salmon ice cream on cucumber soup (excellent!)

Lobster, morel, fiddleheads on pea puree

Lamb, topeka, peas, bluefoot mushrooms and jus

Zuchini cake, buttermilk icecream, carmel (one of the 10 best things ever!)

Roasted pinapple, crisp pinapple and ice cream

Selection of 7 cheeses (including one delicious and illegal blue)

Chef Matt Secich came out and talked with us for a while, he is incredibly nice and really cares about his food. I can't believe he has only been here 4 months!!

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Word on the street is that Chef Seccich has moved to greener pastures -- at least pastures in the Green Mountain State. More information as it becomes available.

This bums me out a bit, as I thought that, if he got a little running room, he might do some interesting things here in town. Alas, I think the Room's crowd and management weren't ready for what he wanted to do. He will be missed.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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  • 4 months later...

Something to ponder this weekend: the Oval Room has announced a no corkage policy for Saturday nights "ad infinitum" (I'm not sure that's the phrase they were looking for but it's the one in the press release), which dramaticaly lowers the cost of checking out new chef Anthony Conte’s cooking, which was recently awarded 2.5 stars by the WP. Given his previous position as Exec Sous Chef at Jean-Georges, it's reasonable to hope Conte's 2.5 stars is just the beginning. I saw him foraging for produce at that Dupont Market the other Sunday, this is always a good sign.

Note also that, with two days notice, the chef will design a menu around your wines, for $65. This has some potential.

And for those tracking the progress of former Chef Matt Seccich, word is that he is on his way to Chicago to do some time with Charlie Trotter. Presumably Chef Seccich will not be doing his foie gras and coke thing, but I think they will get along.

(BTW, if anyone clicks onto the Post links, do the reader reviews strike you as maybe, oh, planted?) :wink:

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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  • 1 year later...

New Chef Tony Conte has been getting good press since his arrival from Jean-George's kitchen and the Oval Room is a force for the first time in many years -- hitting 13 (up from 49) on Washingtonian's Top 100. But I wasn't necessarily feeling the luv the other night. Four of us went through the tasting menu and I thought there were as many misses as hits.

An amuse of some alarmingly fresh fish whose name I had never heard of and which I can't remember now, served with a shot glass of sunchoke soup started things off pretty well. But the first course, a kind of deconstructed fish taco -- raw tuna, chipotle gelee, avocado and a shell made of crunchy tapioca -- was kind of meh, though we all agreed that the gelee was pretty cool. Then the kitchen all went on a smoke break or something leaving me with the kind of pissiness that comes from deep hunger and wine on a nearly empty-stomach. Finally, after we'd finished the bottle of wine which we'd hoped would last for the first three courses (we'd started with a sparking Alsatian so it wasn't entirely wishful thinking), they brought out another conceptual course that was too high-concept for us. In retrospect I assume that the "coffee soil" beneath the quenelle of chocolate ice cream was meant to reflect the earthiness of the pickled beet, a strip of which has been tied into a knot. At the time, though, we were mystified, and even now I remain unconvinced. The three small scoops of foie gras that followed lacked flavor but looked cute.

By then, though, the kitchen was back from their smoke break and if I wasn't blown away by the food, the pacing had improved considerably, as had my mood. And, I should point out that the floor staff was wonderful all night.

The dish of the meal, for me, was the striped bass on a fennel puree. I do love it when a place cooks fish well, and puree -- and a little bit of oil with fennel pollen (?) in it -- was an inspired match. The beef on what I'll call candied mushrooms (think futomaki) but which they called something else was excellent, as well. Dessert was coconut, which is against my religion, but the rest of the table finished it up with alacrity. I should have asked if they had any ice cream and soil left.

The chef was out that night, whether that affected the performance or not I cannot say. But, as much as I enjoyed some of the food, I was far from blown away. My wife had a more favorable impression than I, so maybe I was just pissed at turning [another year older].

The wine thing is problematic -- and not. If these guys really are going to play in the bigs, they need a serious upgrade on the wine list. It's just short and obvious, though we were pleased with the Alsatian and would have been delighted if the Italian Gewurztraminer -- what else is going to match chipotle gelee, beets and foir gras ? -- has lasted through the three courses. On the other hand, Saturday nights are free corkage nights, up to two bottles, so we brought a stellar and brutally expensive Batard Montrachet and my friend had them decant an '82 Margaux (not the Chateau M. but from the region) that was quite lovely.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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