"I will ask the chef to create for you," Jean Pierre promised me in his voluptuous French accent silky as a mousse, "a birthday dinner that is"-here he paused for full effect- "extraordinaire ."
I have always known that I would celebrate my thirtieth birthday in grand style.
"If you can do only one more thing in your lifetime," a friend, a food writer, told me a few weeks ago when I was still seeking the proper arena for The Event, "You must go to Le Pavillon."
I called Jean Pierre, the maitre d'hotel and principal owner, "I would like to order-a Dinner Gourmand Pour Deux."
"Tres bien," Jean Pierre told me, "the Dinners Gourmand begin at $40 each. How much would you wish to spend?"
"Whatever you think it takes," I said, "to send me into my 30s in unbelievable style. If five or 10 dollars make the difference between something great and something amazing I wouldn't want to quibble."
"Then rest assured, monsieur," Jean Pierre told me with the calm assurance of a man who has been to paradise, "we will make for you something that is fantastique . Something truly incredible. I will discuss your Gourmand menu with the chef," Jean Pierre said, "and we will call you back tomorrow."
I used to envy those who knew how to order special dinners, wondering how they did it. But Jean Pierre made it seem so easy. Anybody can do it, if they are willing to trust the restaurant, or know exactly what they want. It helps if price is irrelevant. Any number of Washington restaurants are more than happy to make the same arrangements even if not all of them produce trumpets along with the food.
Jean Pierre called back with this proposal, at $50 each plus wine and tips:
"First the chef would like to make for you a Compote de Lapereau en Gelee aux Pruneaux Confits -this is a pate, a terrine, of baby rabbit, encased in its own jelly, and stuffed with a whole prune. Truly superb. Next a petite Salad de Feuilles de Chenne a l'Estragon . This is a special kind of wild lettuce, grown specially for us by just a vert small farmer.
"And next the chef wishes to make for you Oeuf Poule au Caviar , cock eggs with black caviar replaced in their shells. Extraordinary. Ensuite a marvelous stew of Belon oysters flown to us from Maine . . ."
As the courses rolled off his tongue, I felt transported. In three days I would be spending an entire evening in decadence.
" . . .in a cream of scallop essence with black truffles. And now the chef proposes something you will not believe." Jean Pierre said. I had been counting and this was the fifth course so far. "The chef will take for you some fresh salmon, and cook it ever so lightly, and then he will puree it into no, not a mousse, but something so light, so-o-o delicate, so-o-o marvelous"-I closed my eyes and saw salmon pink clouds tufting overhead-"and then he will stuff this with tiny crayfish flown to us from Louisiana, in a sauce of cream and wine and leaves of leek. We call this Mousseline de Saumon Rose aux Queues d'Ecrivesses de Riviere et Filaments de Poireaux ."
"Won't we be terribly full?" I asked.
"No, because we will serve you rather small portions so you will not eat too much. And if I may continue: the chef will serve you with a Sorbet Leger d'Avocat et Pamplemousse aux Essences de Gingembre , a delicate sherbet of grapefruit and avocado with the perfume of fresh ginger."
"Well, thank you very much," I said, my heart pounding at the prospect of six courses prepared to order, "it sounds like just what I wanted."
"And now," Jean Pierre interrupted, sounding a bit puzzled, "for the entrees. First lobster taken from its shell. The chef cooks it very lightly, and serves it in a sauce of creme fraiche and Meursault wine, perfumed with the lobster essence from the lobster head and the tiny lobster head and the tiny lobster corals, and served with baby asparagus tips followed by baby lamb, sauteed only in salt and pepper, sliced very thin, and served to you not quite rare, in its own juices, with only the slightest hint of garlic, with special little macaronis sprinkled with julienne of artichoke hearts.
"And next," Jean Pierre continued, but I lost him at the something of mango encrusted with pastry. I sank into my chair, drunk with the prospect of turning 30.
Le Pavillon, like so many other restaurants, is located in the hideous glass-and-concrete canyon of K Street. As we descended the red carpeted stairway-I kept checking in the mirror to make sure my new Levi courduroys were holding their crease.
"Monsieur Zwerdling," Jean Pierre cried, when we had been announced, approaching us with graciously opened arms. "But I pictured you completely different," he exclaimed with surprise. "From the phone I pictured you as tall and blond (I'm short, bald). But no matter." He led us to my birthday throne-a special corner table, a perch where we would gaze out over the rest of the diners.
On top of each plate was a printed menu with the date and our names. Jacques, the head waiter, lit our tall special birthday candles and poured the first round of champagne.
"And now, Mademoiselle et Monsieur," Jean Pierre told us with flourish, "allow me to amaze you tonight."
How did Pope Julius the Second feel when he first saw his Sistine Chapel? Surely no more elated that I when Jean Pierre brought my first commissioned masterpiece. Around the outer circumference of the plate were leaves of dark green watercress, painted around a wisp of tomato peel unfolding like rose petals in the dawn. There were three of these food-flowers, roses overhanging a forest pool, separated by shimmering pools of rabbit jelly-perfectly clear, with just a hint of brown like amber. In the center of the plate, encased in the fragile jelly, was the chef's cream-colored treasure-the terrine of baby rabbit, shaped like a round jewel-box.
"Look at it," Jean Pierre commanded like a Zen master. "Think about it. Enjoy it."
At precisely 9:30 p.m. I ended my post-college adolescence and became an adult, but I didn't even notice-for Jean Pierre appeared with the third masterpiece of our Dinner Gourmand, with new settings of plates and silver. Now, I have seen lots of eggs, and I've eaten lots of eggs, but I have never seen an egg like a goddess. The top of each shell had been carefully removed; and nesting inside was egg that had been not scrambled, but fluffed into clouds of pale yellow. Tiny black pearls of caviar floated on the billows. It was capped with the top of the shell tilted like a brown beret at a slightly rakish angle.
After the second glasses of champagne, the first full bottle of velvet Margaux, the second full bottle of flowered Vouvray, came the Belon oysters that erupted with oyster essence and then melted in a soft white perfume of scallop, wine and cream.
When the waiter mercifully brought our sherbets, I noticed that Barbara was tilting, propping herself with a glazed look against the red velour bench. "I'm fading," she said weakly. "I don't think I can eat anymore."
Chef Cam emerged from the kitchen and strolled straight to our table. "Why aren't you even sweating?" I asked him, sweating myself after four hours of making love to his food, "Part of the nouvelle cuisine," Cam smiled, looking as calm as if he had been meditating, "is that we do everything with purpose. Every movement, every action must be precise efficient."
Cam returned to his kitchen, his studio , and some time later the main courses arrived. Jean Pierre had fibbed about the portions-they were huge. Barbara poked helplessly at her plate. If we had seen one more masterpiece we would have exploded.
By 1:30 a.m., the candles were almost extinguished.We ate our charlotte of mango in a reverle-somehow this cream snow of pale orange, flecked with exquisitely bright feather of mango for contrast, revived us for the chocolate truffles dusted with bitterpowdered chocolates and a tiny cup of black espresso.
Ten courses, five and a half hours and $178 later, our dinner Gourmand and my thirtieth birthday were over, and I had the most expensive doggy bag I had ever carried home: remnants of a turning point, wrapped in aluminum foil in the shape of two fine swans. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, Photo by Tom Allen - The Washington Post