Le Palais

$$$$ ($25-$34)

Editorial Review

Le Palais: Merci for the Memories

Nancy Lewis
Thursday, December 22, 2005

Main Street is deserted. Lights twinkle in the townhouses across the way. It's a cold, blustery winter night. But at Le Palais, in Gaithersburg's ersatz town of Kentlands, the welcome is warm, the food is superb and the guests congratulate themselves for knowing about this jewel box of a French restaurant.

Le Palais overlooks the pavilion, which is the center of Kentlands, but in spirit it's the heart of a small French hamlet. Owners Joseph and Christine Zaka came to the United States six years ago from Brittany, where he had been the chef and padrone of two restaurants and she worked for the region's largest newspaper, preparing advertisements on a computer.

When they arrived here, opening their own restaurant was financially out of reach, Joseph Zaka said. He spent five years working in Washington restaurants, but never as a chef, saving for his own place. "He had never worked for anyone else in the kitchen, and he didn't here," Christine Zaka said.

They opened Le Palais a year ago. He presides over the kitchen, she over the dining room. Son David, an engineering student at the University of Maryland at College Park, helps his mother wait on guests.

The restaurant is as elegant as its name, which means "the palace" in French, and is a surprise among the big-box stores and chain restaurants that dominate much of Kentlands.

The living room-size space is bathed in a salmon hue, and antique prints of boats accent two walls. The storefront window overlooks Main Street; wine racks, sparkling with crystal decanters and wineglasses, surround the entrance to the kitchen. Twenty-eight upholstered chairs are pulled up to tables covered in crisp, white linen. It's almost like dining in someone's home, with all the graceful touches of France's best restaurants.

There are Laguiole knives, which have been handcrafted in the Auvergne region of France for nearly two centuries, graceful porcelain and bottles of wines sitting in large silver coolers. The bread -- flown in frozen from Brittany -- is crusty and chewy and a perfect complement to the sweet Irish butter.

There is a small, well-chosen wine list of all-French selections, reasonably priced, and a few choices by the glass.

From some tables, you can watch Joseph Zaka's one-man show in the kitchen. His having no helpers there doesn't seem to be a problem, though I didn't visit when the restaurant was full.

If you want something other than the fixed-price two-, three- or six-course menus, Zaka will tailor a meal just for you. He'll even open for lunch for groups of six or more.

The printed menu is limited, generally about eight starters and eight main courses that change often, sometimes daily. Many items are rooted in France's great traditional bistro dishes, such as beef bourguignon and leg of lamb, but with a haute cuisine approach.

Dinner begins with a small palate teaser, which on a recent visit was a slice of salmon mousse roulade, with bright accents of dill and lemon.

The appetizers are all dazzlers. Briny oysters topped with caviar come from Canada and have a taste and texture similar to that of Brittany's kingly belon. A tiny vial of mignonette sauce accompanies them. Onion soup isn't the usual gloppy mess of melted cheese but a fine, creamy puree of onions.

Snails are sauteed and spill onto the plate from a fine pastry cornet. Duck liver mousse is served warm, with a decadently rich sauce of foie gras. Small nests of velvety avocado salad are topped with shrimp. Ribbons of the softest calamari I have ever eaten mingle with a rich garlic and black-olive sauce.

Brittany is known for its seafood, and Zaka shows a sure hand with fish courses. Scallops and shrimp gratins are served in a deep bowl in a creamy sauce, which includes fish broth and wine. They are almost too rich to eat and too wonderful to stop eating. There are also salmon and rockfish dishes.

Zaka shows the same deftness with meat. In his hands, the classic beef bourguignon is not just a stew but nice chunks of beef adorned with batons of turnips and carrots and sauteed disks of potatoes in a rich wine sauce.

His leg of lamb is not the typical gray slices but nuggets of lean meat, sauteed and presented with Brussels sprouts. The beef tenderloin was perfectly medium rare, as ordered, and graced with light-as-air scalloped potatoes.

Desserts are French classics, including creme brulee and chocolate fondant. A trio of mousses -- chocolate, raspberry and apricot -- was arrayed in a three-part dish, each accented with a different sauce. If you are lucky, Zaka will have baked a fine tarte Tatin, warm from the oven.

The finale is another graceful note from the kitchen: a thimble-size chocolate cup filled with a fruit mousse. It's hard to remember you're not in France.