Our restaurant will offer the expertise of the Old World combined with the products of the New." Elizabeth Siber, general manager of the Watergate restaurants
PALLADIN!" The name sounded fine, even dramatic; but it wouldn't do. The Americans said it would remind everyone of the television series starring Richard Boone. Jean-Louis Palladin, the immigrant chef, already had a problem. In America his name was trumped even before he played a card.
They name the restaurant Jean-Louis at Watergate.
In France, no one would confuse this Palladin with the TV character, nor even the original "Palladins," the 12 knightly champions of the Charlemagne legends. He is a hero of the nouvelle cuisine, one of the most honored young chefs in a nation that turns out talented cooks in the volume we turn out promising professional athletes. Consider this: Palladin's La Table des Cordeliers in the small Gascony city of Condom was awarded two stars (of a possible three) in the Guide Michelin, 17 of a possible 20 points in the Guide Gault-Millau (by the critics who coined the term nouvelle cuisine) and was included in Nicholas de Rabaudy's "Guide to the 50 Best Restaurants in France."
All that was two years ago. Now, for the past six weeks, Palladin has been working at the Watergate. There has been no publicity buildup, no official opening. But after a series of private parties and test dinners, a small "open" sign now hangs in the doorway leading to Jean-Louis at Watergate at dinner-time Monday through Saturday. At lunch, the restaurant, located below the Watergate Terrace, is a private club.
As low-key as it may seem, this restaurant represents a major gastronomic coup. Never before -- in the memory of contemporary observers -- has a French chef of such stature come to the United States to direct a restaurant.Chefs with good credentials, such as Andre Soltner of New York's Lutece, have made their marks and giants such as Bocuse, Guerard and Troisgros have made token appearances for cooking classes or promotional events.
Unlike the, Palladin is not stuck off in a corner improvising a meal for 100 or more with smuggled truffles in his pockets and lyon sausages hung around his neck. He is in a kitchen designed and equipped to his specifications, aided by a hand-picked team of young French cooks. The dining room, once the site of the Democratic Club, was rebuilt for him, too. It is a unusual, barrel-shaped room now decorated in strikingly modern fashion with stylish table appointments. It seats only 40 persons.
French chefs working in this country argue that they must produce many more meals daily, with much less kitchen help, than do their counterparts in France. That's not the case at Jean-Louis.
Palladin will have the luxury of working as an artisan. He is not threatened with a need for mass production, nor a demand that he work at an unaccustomed pace.Each evening he will offer a six-course tasting menu (initially $40 per person) or a three-course dinner for $25 per person or $30 with two wines (good quality wines). "The prices are not cheap, but they are not outrageous," said a restaurant expert.
So, has Watergate executive Nicholas Salgo rubbed gastronomy's magic lamp and provided Washingtonians with the possibility of a great French restaurant experience without their having to spend the time and money it takes to travel to France and back again?
Not quite. At least, not yet.
Jean-Louis Palladin is 32 years old. A long, lean tennis enthusiast who wears a gold neck chain, thick glasses and a halo of curly brown hair, he neither looks nor acts the part of the stereotype chef. Out of the kitchen he is hesitant, even a bit awkward -- Ray Bolger as the Straw Man in "The Wizard of Oz." But the initial impression is misleading, caused partly by his lack of English and his manner. He's polite without being servile, introspective and intelligent about his craft.
In the kitchen, his manner changes. He prowls about, but not in the role of generalissimo. Sauce heating in a pan begins to bubble and the Straw Man becomes the Redskins' Joe (the Bird) Lavender taking to the air to deflect a pass: Palladin's body extends forward from the waist, absolutely parallel to the floor. The sputtering sauce is only inches below his nose. A stir. A sniff. His concentration is total. A finger flashes through the hot mixture. He tastes. A bit more watercress puree. A punch of salt. Another stir and -- without a break in the rhythm -- he spoons the sauce around two ovals of poached salmon mousseline. Seconds later the order is enroute to the dining room.
Such intensity can be engaged only in short spurts. He moves in and out of the work flow, but like most creative chefs I've observed he has a surfeit of nervous energy. Details absorb part of it. He rushes to the edge of the dining room to check the pace at which one group is eating. He moves in to portion out and arrange side plates of gratin potatoes. He allows himself an angry expletive.
Contrary to propaganda, nouvelle cuisine doesn't spring onto the plate at the touch of a magic wand. The cooks work hard. The stove area is hot. The ventilator is noisy. There is a sense of emergency, even combat, at the peak of the service. "Good fonds (stocks) are necessary to cook well," Palladin says. "Carefully preparation is essential to orderly execution." The speaker could be Escoffier, professor to an earlier era of French chefs.
The chef doesn't use flour to thicken sauces, nor does he rely on elaborate garnitures to impress the customers. He sculpts his food and arranges it as paintings. The design is more forceful, the colors often deeper and darker than the Japanese style that has deeply impressed him. There is a healthy hint of roughness, perhaps the influence of his native Gascony, a rustic province best known for having produced D'Artagnan of "The Three Musketeers" and Armagnac brandy. One quickly senses that his creations are meant to be eaten, not just looked at.
"I work with my heart," he says. "For me nouvelle cuisine is the cooking of liberty. It has given me freedom in the productions I choose and in the methods I use."
Away from the stove, Palladin's hesitancy returns. He is still testing the range of products available to him. This has caused some inconsistancies in seasoning and flavors, some dishes haven't met his -- or other's -- standards. Also, there is a gnawing uncertainty -- shared by Watergate's management -- as to how enthusiastically this city will embrace nouvelle cuisine and accept the price it commands. Despite considerable publicity, Le Pavillon, the only self-proclaimed new-style restaurant in the city, has failed to draw crowds. "It may be more difficult to succeed here," Palladin muses. "I think it would be easier in New York or Los Angeles."
He shrugs and immediately begins to talk about the food stuffs he is using.Superb raw materials are the essential building blocks of nouvelle cuisine because so little is done to them. But don't expect to order Palladin's pate de becasse (woodcock) with foie gras, his fricassee de turbot or the ragout Lucullus he prepared at la Table des Cordelieres. He will import foie gras (in season only) and on a shelf in the kitchen are half-a-dozen flavored vinegars (the kitchen Bouquet of nouvelle cuisine he brought from France. Otherwise, Palladin has gone American.
"It's a challenge," he said. "Since I began cooking, I used the products of my region. Now I'm here, and I will experiment. To some extent, the restaurant will be a laboratory to see if I can surpass what I've done before."
Once the chef went without sleep each Monday night in order to drive to Bordeaux and purchase fresh fish. Now he prowls the markets of Georgetown several mornings a week. He is determined to use locally available products. "It's necessary to see the merchandise to work well with it," he explains.
So far, he has found that some vegetables lack flavor but are fresh and handsome enough to be useful. The lamb and beef are good; so are lobster, scallops and red snapper. He's less pleased with chicken, still experimenting with ducks and is downright unhappy about cheese. Most surprising of all, he is perfectly satisfied to cook with ultra-pasteurized cream and comercial butter.
Is he optimistic or pessimistic that Palladin can co-exist with American products and American palates? He thinks for a moment and responds by turning his palm up and down in a classic gesture that needs no translation: maybe.
Jean Louis at Watergate is, according to international restaurant consultant George Lang, part of Nicholas Salgo's dream to put the mark of distinction on Watergate food. It is being launched in tandem with an effort to upgrade food preparation and service throughout the complex. Most of the responsibility falls on Elizabeth Siber, who recently was appointed as general manager of the Watergate restaurants. A Swiss who trained in her native country, Siber had worked in several ambitious New York City food operations. She was part of the team under Joseph Baum that launched the enormously successful World Trade Center food complex.
It was Salgo who found Palladin in France at what both confess was "a good moment." Due to shifts within the Watergate operational structure, Salgo was free to pursue his goal of mounting a showcase restaurant for Watergate. Palladin and his wife, despite their success, had come to a parting of the ways with the wife of his late partner.
I was fed up with problems," Palladin said. "I had spent 31 years in my region, in the same town.It was a grand experience, but very hard. I thought perhaps it was time to see something else, to take my work somewhere else. We agreed very quickly."
Palladin came to Washington in the spring and did some experimental cooking. On his return this fall he began working with Siber. He has been guided and coached -- willing, it seems to an outsider. He was urged to increase portion size and to reduce the number of kidneys, sweetbread and purees in his menus. "Americans like to chew things," Siber told him.
Is what has emerged an adjustment or a compromise? Palladin is tackful. "I see it as an experiment on both sides," he says.
George Lang calls nouvelle cuisine "an electric shock treatment" and likens the chief's experimentation to improvisational jazz. He acknowledges, however, that flaws -- even failures -- are to be expected; and that, for the money involved, some diners will object and opt for familiar foods and consistancy. Some are bound to see Jean-Louis at Watergate as a test of Washington's sophistication. If it fails, they will claim Washington still belongs in the camp of the yahoos. On the other hand, others may consider it a test of Michelin and of France and go to Jean-Louis eager to find fault.
Meanwhile the Americanization of Jean-Louis Palladin continues.Talking of local food, he praised hard-shell crabs he ate in Annapolis but complained that he has yet to taste an exellent hamburger. A few moments later he was asked if any of his cooking experiments have not worked out. He paused, then confessed:
He had tried to make the hamburger of his dreams and failed. Jean-Louis Palladin's Avocado Mousse (12 to 16 servings) 4 ripe California avocados 1 pint heavy cream 1-1/2 teaspoons gelatin Salt and fresh ground pepper 3 very ripe tomatoes 4 fresh mint leaves
Peel avocados, cut up and puree in food processor or blender. Pass mixture through a fine sieve to obtain a perfectly smooth texture. (You will need a total of 2 cups of puree).
Whip cream, reserving a 1/4-cup. Pour reserved cream into a saucepan. add gelatin and stir over low heat until dissolved. Gently fold whipped cream into avocado mixture and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add dissolved gelatin around rim of the bowl a drop at a time, stirring in as you work. Set aside.
Butter a 1-1/2-quart terrine or souffle mold and fill it with the mixture. Lightly oil the surface to prevent blackening, then seal molds tightly with aluminum foil. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
At least 30 minutes before serving, peel tomatoes after immersing in hot water. Cut in half crosswise and force out seeds. Chop tomatoes into a fine dice of about 1/4-inch. Season with salt and pepper to taste, add chopped mint and let rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
To serve, run a sharp knife around the rim of the mould, then set it in hot water for a few seconds. Invert onto a platter or carving board. Remove mold and slice the mousse into serving portions with a hot knife. Arrange on chilled plates or a platter and add tomato garniture. Jean-Louis Palladin's Scallop Brochettes With Tangerine Sauce (6 servings) 1-1/2 pounds fresh scallops 2 tablespoons olive oil Leaves from 1 rib of celery chopped 1/2 tablespoon finely chopped parsley Pinch of thyme Salt and freshly ground black pepper 4 large tangerines 2 ounces glace de homard* 1 ounce demi-glaze* 1/2 cup heavy cream Lemon juice 1-1/2 tablespoons salted butter, cut in small pieces *Available frozen in several specialty stores and markets.
Drain the scallops and marinate them for 2 to 3 hours in a mixture of oil, celery leaves, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. Squeeze the tangerines and strain the juice. You will need 1 cup.
In a non-aluminum pan boil down the tangerine juice to 1/3 cup. Add the glace de homard and demi-glace. Melt these over low heat, then stir in the cream and cook it down until it will coat the back of a spoon. Taste and correct seasoning by adding lemon juice if the sauce tastes too sweet. Keep hot and just before serving whisk in the butter.
Preheat the broiler. Thread the scallops on 6 skewers, place on a foil sheet about 4 inches from the heat and broil for 2 or 3 minutes on a side. Spoon sauce onto warm serving plates and place the brochettes on the sauce. Serve at once.