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Reservations Recommended

Obelisk: Out of the Park!

Yes, that’s a baseball analogy, but everyday superlatives simply don’t cut it with Peter Pastan, chef/owner of Obelisk in Dupont Circle. In other words, his food is magnificent, and he cooks better than almost any other chef in DC. And that’s saying something.

What also makes him unusual — besides his cooking — is this: Pastan is a DC superstar, but he flies well under the radar. He’s probably the best chef you don’t hear much about — no media hype, no TV shows, no flashy ads. But when you do read about Peter Pastan, it’s likely you’ll hear about this cool guy who has long hair and wears sandals (with socks in the winter) and looks more Berkeley than Washington.

But the real cool about Pastan is the traditional Italian meals he produces, all based on the cooking techniques he culled during the time he has spent in Italy. While there, as Pastan has described it, he has seen how the food makes sense for the casual Italian mealtimes, with course flowing into course. At Obelisk, he takes his taste memories and puts them into traditional, though casual, five-course Italian meals. Note: no à la carte here, but you wouldn’t want that anyway.

But what you might want is the same roast lamb loin when you return for a reprise meal, and chances are you won’t find it. That, explains the waitress, is because the chef orders what inspires him and what is freshest in the marketplace. “Freshest” may be a modern-day mantra, but for Pastan, that has been the only way to cook.

Once inside and seated in this diminutive dining room — girded on one side by an in-wall wine rack — the waitress may offer a small bowl of toasted Marconi almonds, a skinless nut variety that is a Spanish native. Heated and lightly salted, the nuts make a prefect preamble to the antipasti choices, which on a recent night included a portion of burrata, a buttery, fresh cow’s milk cheese that’s a spreadable mozzarella, perfect for accompanying Pastan’s textured bread; a small ramekin of tomato aspic slightly firmer than soup; squid with squares of toasted croutons; smoked fish and pork rillettes.

Fortunately, Pastan allows patrons a slight breather between courses, which you need before tackling the primo course, which might include a small portion of palate-pleasing eggplant ravioli with walnuts and chives, a small portion of chittara pasta with shrimp — oh, so divine — or a bowl of an earthy cranberry bean soup. The parade continues with the main, or secondi, where the evening’s recent entrées included a roasted sockeye salmon fillet, quail with chanterelle mushrooms, or the roasted lamb loin slice with roasted peppers.

Still, more bread with a scoop of unsalted butter, perfect choices for the cheese plate with four Italian cheeses and a prelude to tonight’s sweets: peach melba with yogurt or a chocolate hazelnut cake. In a lesser restaurant, you might describe the chocolate as one of the “volcano” cakes with a center that spouts warm (actually, under-baked) chocolate. But, Pastan’s cake while warm, moist, and extremely chocolatey, is more like a dense baked pudding, smooth and satisfyingly rich.

Even though you may not know of Peter Pastan, his Obelisk is clearly a popular destination for DC foodies; you need reservations and you may not get your choice of seating times, so popular is this place. What’s good to know is this: you may not get into Obelisk any time soon — and it is somewhat pricey (there’s a flat fee for dinner, no picking and choosing) — so if you need a shot of Pastan’s cooking, head to his other, more casual eatery for a slice of his pizza, 2 Amys (3715 Macomb Street, NW). [Ed. Note: the establishment was reviewed by Alexandra Greeley in our December 2001 issue.]

Obelisk / 2029 P St., NW; (202) 872-1180. Hours: Tue.-Sat., dinner only, 6-10pm. Entrée price range: $70-$75 per person.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.