Chalk It Up to an Inspired Owner
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Word that Pesce had changed chefs this spring sent a merry band of us to the long-lived seafood restaurant in Dupont Circle, where we knocked back some very nice food -- lobster risotto, scallop "bolognese" -- and learned that our beguiling waitress was no less than Verveine Palladin, the 23-year-old offspring of owner Regine Palladin.
Yet another surprise: We were a week or so too early to taste the work of the fresh face in the kitchen. The guy behind our meal, the immediate kitchen replacement for Bernard Marchive, was Pesce's sous-chef, Benjamin Clerici. But Clerici was merely helping out his boss while she found the official new chef, Arnaud Perreau, 29, whose work Palladin had admired when he served as executive chef at Montmartre on the Hill.
Like Marchive, who left in February to take a brief break from cooking, Perreau is a French native. Brittany is where the young chef grew up, and fish was one of his early loves. "My grandfather was a fisherman," Perreau says. "My uncle is an oyster farmer." Palladin's only mandate for her new hire was that he write a menu that was "less creamy, less buttery" than what Pesce had been serving. She also envisions a return to the nearly 15-year-old restaurant's more Mediterranean roots. Thus last week, patrons found on the restaurant's roving chalkboard roasted monkfish rounded out with apples, endive and a lemon vinaigrette, but also sauteed tuna served with a hot salad of snow peas, peanuts and wasabi vinaigrette.
Will Verveine, a 2007 graduate of West Virginia University and a student of French literature, follow in the footsteps of her mother and her father, the late, great chef Jean-Louis Palladin? "She needs something more glamorous," maybe a position in New York or Paris, answers the matter-of-fact Regine Palladin -- who hints that she herself is likely to leave the business in a few years. "I'll be 60 next year. I need to think about my exit." But, she adds, "As long as I'm having fun, I'll stay."
Here's hoping Perreau keeps his boss amused.
Making Old New Again
Pesce adds a French accent
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007
Foie gras pate? Apple tarte tatin? Those dishes would look at home on the menu of a French bistro but come as a bit of a surprise at Pesce, the long-lived seafood restaurant in Dupont Circle that takes its name from the Italian word for fish. Unless, of course, you already know that owner Regine Palladin invited Bernard Marchive, the former sous chef at Le Paradou, to take over the kitchen last fall.
Marchive is the ninth or 10th chef, and the first Frenchman, to work at Pesce since it opened in 1993. ("We have a saying in France: 'When we're in love, we don't count,'" explains his boss.) Ask Palladin, a native of Gascony and an elegant mistress of ceremonies, what her new hire brings to the restaurant, and she half-jokes that "communication is better." But Marchive's arrival also means a soupcon more finesse on the plate; his stint at Le Paradou, the contemporary temple of haute cuisine in Washington's Penn Quarter, is evident in expert saucing, and his background in pastry (the soon-to-be 53-year-old made desserts at the late Lespinasse) is revealed in a broader selection of endings at Pesce.
As always, the choices unfold in beautiful handwriting on several big chalkboards that are trotted out to customers as they settle in. Pesce is not the place you want to be if you're a die-hard vegetarian or meat eater; on my last visit, there wasn't a single dish that didn't involve a protein from the deep blue sea. But for those who appreciate surf, this restaurant is a gem. Sweet and tender steamed clams gather in a broth of coconut milk and red curry. The bowl is listed as a starter but morphs into something bigger when you dip bread in the liquid to mop up every luscious drop of heat and sweet. Another impressive introduction comes by way of broiled bay scallops, nestled with pinches of garlicky spinach, gilded with escargot butter sauce and presented in pretty, flat scallop shells.
The chef is French, but he can make a diner think otherwise. Sauteed whole prawns scattered with slivers of bronzed garlic and fresh parsley are the simple sort of pleasure you might find in a neighborhood tapas bar in Barcelona, while risotto dotted with rich bites of lobster would taste at home at a fine Italian restaurant. Still, playing to Marchive's training has its rewards. Puff pastry serves as a light frame for mussels, scallops and shrimp, whose natural charms are enhanced with lobster sauce. And the aforementioned duck liver pt is an indulgent square dressed up with toasted brioche, crushed pistachios and brandy-marinated apricots that are also ignited with juniper berries.
Pesce looks beyond salmon and tuna to serve the likes of dorade and pompano. The former, succulent and rich, might be sauteed to a gentle crisp and stuffed with lobster mousse; the latter, meaty and sweet, has been served whole atop a warm salad of julienned vegetables and alongside a lovely sorrel sauce. Lesser lights occasionally break up the party. One day's ginger-carrot soup included a pink scoop of a ginger-carrot sorbet that was so sweet it could have passed for dessert. And, as much as I admired the tang of a lemon tart, I missed its promised cardamom. But the flaws are relatively few. (And that tarte tatin is a winner.)
Aside from a new bamboo floor and a (fish) net of lights strung along one wall, the casual, clattery dining room looks much as it always has. Colorful carvings of fish still brighten the place, and lunch is apt to be punctuated by deliveries of seafood. I like Pesce best at night, when the lights are low and the cozy factor goes up. But anytime, the fishing is fine.