By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, August 22, 2004
As part of its top-to-bottom makeover last year, the Madison Hotel rolled out a formal dining room its owners hoped would compete with the city's finest. An ever-changing collection of art on the walls would echo the creations of its chef on the tables, a theme neatly summed up in the restaurant's name, Palette.
Its unveiling, in January, got a chilly reception. Early vistors to the restaurant were baffled by a menu that tasted like a parody of fusion cooking. (Palette's caramelized tomato with black olive ice cream is my latest answer to a question I'm often asked: "What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?") Within a month, the opening chef was replaced by James Clark, a native of South Carolina plucked from Vidalia's in Myrtle Beach. A student of Louis Osteen, a pillar of cooking in Charleston, Clark quickly went to work rerouting the menu. His mandate: Make the food accessible.
The entrance at Palette reminds you that Washington restaurants aren't what they used to be. Anyone who still considers the city dowdy hasn't stepped into its many up-to-the-minute interiors, including this model. Palette opens to a seductive bar, cozy nooks with couches and a communal blond wood table flanked by elegant two-toned stools. This sleek watering hole has been busy every night I've dropped by, patronized by faces you might expect to see in ads for dating services but not in real life. As if nice profiles and whimsical cocktails weren't enough, there's also live jazz the first Thursday of every month, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
In contrast, the dining room has been hushed, a calm underscored by Palette's subtle color scheme. What's not pale maple or frosted glass is earth tones (or aubergine, in the case of a curved wall near the kitchen). The muted design is intentional: It throws the spotlight on whatever paintings happen to be on exhibit. A meal begins here with a waiter bearing three kinds of bread, two kinds of spreads (butter and a vegetable puree) and, minutes later, a gratis nibble from the chef.
Keep Clark's background in mind when you order. Meal after meal, I've been most impressed by his seafood preparations. A scorching summer night was tamed by the chef's lovely and restorative yellow tomato soup, poured with a little flourish into a white bowl holding a centerpiece of fresh crab. The bright liquid was at once tangy and creamy, a nice match to the sweet seafood. Also to begin, there are fresh oysters of good flavor and creamy crab cakes, seared to a fine crunch and set off with red and yellow roasted peppers. As you peruse the menu, your server may steer you toward the shrimp and grits, an entree based on "the chef's grandmother's recipe." The portion is certainly big enough to have been dished up by a generous relative. The textures and flavors are reassuring, too: a soft bed of cream-enriched grits bolstered by bits of salty ham, and topped by big, juicy, Madeira-glazed shrimp.
Duty calls me to explore the full range of any menu, though, and duty requires me to be frank about what I've encountered. Palette's risotto looks like something that ran into the back of a vegetable truck; and, buried under a bushel of tomato, eggplant, yellow squash, carrot and more, the ordinary grains of rice yield very little flavor. A $36 veal chop garnished with rum-glazed onions -- and damp fennel slaw -- was cooked minutes past the medium-rare I'd asked for, and the most memorable part of a pork loin entree was its rich mash of sweet potatoes and plantains and crown of green beans tempura. Barbecued chicken, a lunch entree, is a slick city version, barely tangy but rounded out with a pleasant toss of warm fingerling potatoes, mushrooms and sauteed garlic. Like much of the food, it sounds nice, and it tastes fine, but it's not something you are likely to talk up back at the office.
An unfortunate sweetness surfaces in some savory courses: Spinach salad shows up with a slice of onion tart, heavy and pielike, while an appetizer of foie gras shares its plate with a fruit compote (peach, most recently) and a "french toast" brioche that is all too aptly named: The combination of buttery but bland liver, sugary fruit and soft, sweet bread smacks too much of breakfast.
The kitchen cuts loose come dessert. The kid in me couldn't resist "milk and cookies," a concept that goes back to the future with a glass of silken white custard and equally fancy macaroons, palmiers and pecan-laced chocolate chip cookies. Warm blackberry cobbler has the right idea, fashioned from big juicy fruit and just enough batter. On the other hand, lemon mousse, fluffy as marshmallow, appeared to be missing its citrus the day I encountered it. The clinker in the collection looks like a day at the circus: Just seeing this combination platter of cotton candy, a cookie cone filled with ice cream and a pink candied apple land on the table is enough to induce sugar shock. Ask for a hammer with that apple; its glassy shell is just about impossible to penetrate with your teeth.
The revised Palette has sufficient charms to recommend it -- coolly elegant environs, a staff that knows how to spoil its guests, a way with seafood -- but I wish it performed as consistently well on the tongue as it does on the eyes and ears.
Seeing Green At Palette
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, April 16, 2004
An avocado daiquiri sounds like one of those really nasty concoctions you make your friends drink when they lose a game of Truth or Dare or the latest wheat-germ-and-rare-fruit smoothie being pushed at the "health bar" at your local gym, not a beverage you enjoy on a night out with friends. So when I saw an avocado daiquiri on the otherwise-impressive cocktail menu at Palette, the Madison Hotel's airy new lounge and restaurant, I did what most people would do: I shuddered, averted my eyes and ordered something else. Anything else.
It's not the oddest cocktail in Washington -- that honor goes to Ten Penh's vodka-and-sake saketini, garnished with a (whole) pickled baby octopus -- but avocado? All I could think about was drinking guacamole, which frankly isn't that appealing. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me. I swallowed hard and ordered the daiquiri.
The bartender takes a pint glass and fills it with ice and vanilla-flavored Stoli Vanil vodka, adds a few scoops of fresh avocado puree, and a couple of squirts of lime juice from a plastic bottle. Then he shakes it. And shakes. And shakes. "They're tough to make when we're busy, because you have to shake it for so long [to get the avocado to mix]," he explains.
When it's finally ready, the concoction is poured into a martini glass dusted with salt and sugar. Avocado daiquiri flows from the cocktail shaker like gloppy pea soup or maybe a warm mint chocolate chip milkshake. And you know what? It's not bad at all. Vanilla vodka goes well with the avocado's creamy, slightly nutty taste, and the citrus and salt provide some depth. It might just grow on you, especially if you settle into one of the butterscotch leather barstools and sip slowly.
"This is a spring and summer drink," says General Manager Corey Nyman. "It's supposed to be refreshing, a patio drink."
Nyman was the driving force behind getting the avocado daiquiri on the menu, although he didn't invent it -- he sampled one at a friend's bar in Portland, Ore., a few years ago and decided to re-create it. Palette's bar staff tried mixing the fruit with a variety of rums and vodkas before hitting on the Stolichnaya, and I'm not sure anything would go as well.
Since opening in January, Palette has been luring bustling happy hour and early evening crowds into its lounge with an excellent selection of drinks (including a smart list of 16 to 20 wines by the glass) and convivial atmosphere at the frosted glass bar and around the long communal dining table.
Some of that may be due to the dazzling drink menu, which offers exotic cocktails such as the Tate Modern (made with Hangar 1's kaffir-lime-infused vodka and blackberry puree, topped with fragrant kaffir leaves), the Corcoran (Charbay Blood Orange vodka, Cointreau and fruit juices) and the Dark & Stormy, which may be the best warm-weather libation in town. This is an old Bermuda favorite, mixing Gosling's dark, caramel-rich Black Seal Rum with bracing ginger beer. At Palette, though, they infuse the rum with ginger root for about a week, giving the cocktail a sweet flavor without the expected bite. The glass is topped with lime juice and a large hunk of pineapple. Everything on the menu costs $10, which is becoming normal in this town for a well-made drink.
Though many new lounges are opting for sleek white interiors or color-changing lights, Palette has opted for a neutral color scheme that's more mid-'90s retro: blond wood, muted slate tile floors, track lighting. Bowls of smooth stones serve as table centerpieces. It's a pleasant, inoffensive look, if a bit boring. I just wish there were more places to sit -- most seating comes in the form of wide, boxy settees that face each other across four-foot-wide tables. This leaves plenty of room for plates if you're dining, but at peak times, you have to shout to the people across from you. At one point, my friends and I were on the verge of text messaging each other. Instead, try to grab the round booth seemingly hewn from the wall. The colorful tiles behind it are one of the bright spots in the room -- well, besides those luminous green cocktails.