By Amanda McDougall - 03/31/11 12:36 AM EDT
Roasted chicken, steak and fries, pasta Bolognese — regular destinations in your culinary repertoire. They have their places, but sometimes your palate needs a little adventure. If booking a flight to Mumbai or Lyon isn’t in your itinerary, then consider doing some local culinary travel and reserve a table at the Oval Room.
The restaurant is modern and lively on a weekend night, with a raved-about outdoor dining patio when warmer weather hits (and sticks around). Colorful abstract paintings hang from the walls, and a massive, oval chandelier descends from a similarly shaped tray ceiling.
The chef’s array of 10 first courses ranges from raw to roasted, cured to curried, and show off influences from the Chesapeake to India. The crudo (i.e., raw) sea scallops were a marvel in their inherent unctuous flavor. But it’s not just the pieces of translucent, unadulterated scallop that made the dish extraordinary; it’s the confluence of rich, creamy frozen avocado layers defrosting on the plate, tangy wheels of pickled jalapeño that brought a penetrating heat, and coriander vinaigrette with citrus and cilantro top notes. It all came to together effortlessly and brought scallops into a new, delectably untouched light.
Conte’s first courses were one salacious culinary moment after the next. The pastrami-cured kampachi was another seafood awakening, and an intrepid inversion of a deli sandwich classic. The slices of yellowtail were imbued with a black peppery crust and had that telltale texture of cured meat — tender but with a slight chewiness. Conte evokes a pastrami on rye by topping the cured fish with a spoonful of hot mustard ice cream and tiny cubes of caraway-studded rye bread croutons. Pile your fork with a bit of each component, and it’s an exciting interplay of varying textures and spicy-sweet flavors.
The Maine Peekytoe Crab salad was yet another astute culinary expedition, laden with chunks of sweet crabmeat resting on a soft bed of gelled sweet lime juice and topped with a creamy foamed sauce with just a dash of Old Bay seasoning. Although the warm brioche toast served with the salad was negligible and slightly over-salted, it was a minor hiccup in an otherwise beautifully tasty dish.
Conte’s playful flavor combinations aren’t just reserved for underwater specimens (although he clearly has a penchant for them). A baby beet salad was paired with cubes of tart passion-fruit jelly, fine gratings of fresh horseradish and barely-there ice wine dressing. It was an adorably petite, whimsical landscape with the root ends reaching skyward and white flakes of horseradish clinging on like snow. The passion fruit could be overwhelming at times, but was also a refreshingly vibrant accent to the beets’ earthiness.
One first course that strayed a bit too far in one direction was the sautéed foie gras; the dish came off as cloying, with its accompanying pool of white chocolate, chunk of braised sweet pineapple and gingerbread croutons. It needed a bit of acidity to cut through all the rich flavors.
But buckle down for more excursions in flavor in the 10 main courses. Duck breast comes marinated in kasu (the solid remnants after sake is fermented and filtered — a Japanese culinary secret weapon), which creates an almost black, richly flavored crust on the skin and leaves the flesh tender and juicy. Set atop a bed of farro and edamame beans, the duck juices seeped into a tart cherry sauce. In what can only be described as a stroke of culinary genius, Conte also tossed a few duck confit tater tots in for crispy good measure. The blend of textures, breadth and depth of flavors, perfection in cooking, and handsome look made for an extraordinary dish.
For all the triumph of the duck, the venison fell short in many respects but one: creative vision. Venison isn’t your typical menu item, and have you ever seen smoked coconut anywhere? The dish was intriguing, but upon arrival it was lackluster, especially sitting across from the duck. The venison was tender and tasted smoky and iron-rich — definitely a game lover’s dish — but the sameness in texture, from the meat to the accompanying beets, quinoa grains and thick coconut puree, made the novelty of the ingredients wear off after a few bites.
In the seafood entree category, neither the sea scallops nor the crispy rockfish could lead you astray. The scallops were enormous, beautifully seared, and nesting in a bowl of Peekytoe Crab chowder delicately infused with licorice root and dotted with pancetta cubes. The dish was by all means creamy and lush, but not heavy — kept light by a drizzle of verdant parsley oil and a judicious amount of chowder. Similar in style, but traveling into Southeast Asian gustatory territory, the crispy rockfish with red curry lived up to its name in all manners. The fillet of fish, perched skin-side-up on the winter vegetables, was faultlessly crisp (you could hear the fork tines tap against the golden brown shell), and the cream-enriched red curry sauce had just the right spike of chile, ginger, lemongrass and fish sauce.
A half-dozen or so desserts tempt the sweet tooth to crusade into sugary domains. The popular brioche “French toast” soufflé makes it worth the trip. It’s served warm, and its slightly puffed and completely tender morsels of brioche aren’t overly sweet. It is wonderful when drenched in the orange-accented Grand Marnier ice cream. The chocolate-peanut cake with Concord Grape sorbet taps into the need for the dark stuff, but could have used a bit more acidity from the grape to balance out the richness of the dense, peanutty cake.
If you arrive hungry and with an appetite for some culinary adventure (which you should), you can easily make a four-course meal with two first courses, a main, and dessert. Attentive and knowledgeable servers can make your decisions easier and set your course for the evening. But don’t be afraid to take a risk on a dish; more likely than not you’ll stumble upon something spectacular. Even the misses and imbalances, which are few and far between, come off as innocuous turbulence, forgivable and forgettable for all the tantalizing edible journeys that Chef Conte creates in each dish.