You might expect DC’s best Italian restaurant to feel less initially innocuous. It’s just a brownstone, almost residential in aesthetic. Inside, tables are close and cozy, but an elegant informality dominates the scene; white walls and simple furnishings seem merely to convey that you’re in the townhouse of a tasteful friend. Of course, your tasteful friend couldn’t cook like this.
A lot of restaurants make bold claims about seasonal artisanality; “authentic” Italian menus and “locally sourced” ingredients are all the rage. But there are few restaurants that work within the genre as smoothly as Obelisk. Some ingredients simply speak for themselves, like burrata—the creamiest buffalo-milk mozzarella you can imagine, drizzled with an unusually grassy olive oil and sprinkled with a carefully calibrated number of salt flakes.
But rare is the kitchen that can so consistently pull off far more complex dishes with such seeming ease, amalgamating them into something that is so much more than the sum of its locally sourced parts. Rare is the chef that can so consistently elevate a marinated sardine, a fried squash blossom, or a raviolo barely larger than a fingernail into the realm of the sublime.
The meal will begin with a succession of small plates, followed by a series of larger courses with a few choices. The handwritten menu changes often enough that there’s no point in seeking out a particular dish, but pastas are a particular strength, as in delicate, diminutive duck raviolini that concentrate an enormous amount of flavor into a few square millimeters of pasta. Meat and fish mains—too often a weakness at the city’s upmarket Italian restaurants—have been no less impressive: roast suckling pig with fava beans; sweet, firm branzino with Meyer lemon, roasted cherry tomatoes and artichokes.
Obelisk is prix-fixe-only, and it’s not cheap. Nor is it exorbitantly expensive, though, especially when compared against some of the lesser top-end District restaurants. The wine list isn’t cheap, either, but it’s also a real achievement: authentic, thoughtful, focused, and—unlike much of the upmarket competition—worth the money.
What might be most amazing of all, though, is the restaurant’s longevity. To consistently set the Italian pace for more than two decades—decades, at that, of dramatic culinary change in America—seems an almost incomprehensible feat.
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