THE ONLY safe place to be a Replacement is in Minneapolis.
Take a Broadway hit: A couple of years on, the Tony Award-winning hotshot takes off for Hollywood, and a former sitcom star or theatrical has-been hoping for a new career comes in to face lukewarm reviews. Or baseball: Middle relievers get no respect, and "closers" teeter between heroism and the goat herd. (Managers get replaced all the time, but nobody loves a manager for long anyway.)
The same is true in restaurants: No matter how smooth the service or how knowledgeable the sommelier, the chef is pretty much the whole game. And whena highly touted chef moves on, replacing him or her is a high-risk move.
Of course, hiring another star is a good bet. When Troy Dupuy left the Washington branch of Lespinasse (16th and K St. NW; 202/879-6900), honoring the departure of his longtime mentor and founding chef Gray Kunz from the New York restaurant, he was replaced by Sandro Gamba, whose credentials included one Michelin star and stints with European megastars Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse -- enough to buy him a "honeymoon" period in which to establish his own elegant style.
But there's always a risk. When Jean-Louis Palladin finally exited his eponymous establishment at the Watergate Hotel, for instance, the restaurant was highly successful in the artistic sense but not in the customary one. His iconoclastic and admittedly expensive cooking was the stuff of food-mag dreams, and it gave the hotel an image, especially among first-class business travelers, that transcended any demeaning political jokes. But it was not something most Washingtonians could afford except on special occasions. So after his departure, the hotel management wanted to keep the quality high but make the restaurant more accessible in the everyday sense.
After an international search, the hotel settled on a local comer, Robert Wiedmaier, who had spent his sous-chef years under Yannick Cam at Le Pavilion and Doug McNeill at the Four Seasons before going solo (and briefly, critics' darling) at the Cafe on M. His cooking style was vigorous, earthy, musty, gamy -- a clean break from Palladin's meticulous, brilliant but almost esoteric creativity. The room was redone, the name changed to Aquarelle, but the ghost of Jean-Louis still spoiled the banquet.
"Replacing a `celebrity chef' was like putting my head in the guillotine," says Wiedmaier, who now runs his own restaurant, Marcel's (2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/296-1166). "I mean, he'd been there for 17 years. . . . A lot of people thought I was crazy, but I saw it as a challenge. I'd never worked for Jean-Louis, I don't cook like him; but it didn't matter. I kept being compared to him." It took about a year and a half or two years for customers and critics to judge him by his own standards.
The main choices replacement chefs have are to "Do what you do, be who you are," which was Wiedmaier's choice, and risk the fury of the unreconciled; or stick with the predecessor's style, which is safer as far as pleasing the clientele is concerned, but just as hard on the chef. One replacement who was ordered to stick to the previous menu, including his predecessor's signature dish, swore "If I have to make that [recipe] one more time I'll kill myself." Another chef who headed up the kitchen for a well-known chef who was frequently out of town, said that the celebrity got all the publicity, and he got all the complaints.
Other chefs complain of being asked, "When is so-and-so coming back?" or being addressed by the wrong name. Before Michel Richard moved to Washington, even his hand-trained chefs at Citronelle (3000 M Street NW; 202/625-2150) were vulnerable to carping comparisons to Richard's Los Angeles establishments. (Many of the chefs have since left town.) There is even the case of a popular chef who became interested in a new style of cooking and tried to bring his old customers along into his new enthusiasm, only to find that he was being compared -- also unflatteringly -- to himself.
The other risk of imitation is that it doesn't play to a chef's individual strengths. Jacques Van Staden, who has in turn replaced Wiedmaier at Aquarelle (2650 Virginia Ave. NW; 202/298-4455), did once work under Jean-Louis and has chosen to move back toward his mentor's style of reconstructing classic elements -- putting together little gems of sea urchin with oysters and prosciutto, topping it with a dot of caviar and serving it as a gratin, for instance -- and recasting traditionally bourgeoise dishes (osso bucco, pot au feu, daube of beef). But some of the dishes seem less reconstructed than deconstructed. A lamb pot au feu, instead of being a long-simmered pot roast, was presented as a shallow bowl of clarified lamb broth, really a bouillon, with a couple of root vegetables; a traditionally inspired marrow bone cupping the mustard; and a perfectly rare lamb filet sliced across the bone. Similarly, the "shellfish bisque" is a fine collection of shellfish and seafood, but cooked independently (great grilled squid, seared scallops, sauteed shrimp, steamed mussels) and then ladled onto a cushion of sea-salty bisque. The flavors stay distinct, rather than mellowing.
On the other hand, the huge bowl of parsnip "cappuccino" -- a cinnamon and nutmeg-studded cream shivered to life with spicy shreds of duck confit and an almost secret dollop of foie gras mousse floating like the ice cream in a punch -- is absolutely stunning, and seems to exude Van Staden's own pleasure in its creation.
Chefs at Georgetown's Tahoga (2815 M St. NW; 202/338-5380) have also gotten good reviews; but again, sticking to the established menu seems to be hobbling the new chef, James Reppuhn. Despite spending the last several years at the Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, he has stepped back on the seasonings, rather than up; the crusted tuna is merely ordinary in a town full of fine steaks, the foie gras overbearingly seared. And a dish of roast duck breast is disappointingly bland, the otherwise fine, tender legs covered in still-pale skin and fat that wants a quick skillet sizzle. He needs to cut loose and take more chances.
The lowest-key transition in town has been the evolution of Lafayette at the Hay-Adams Hotel (16th and H streets NW; 202/638-2570). When widely admired chef Patrick Clark first left for New York's Tavern on the Green, his sous-chef Martin Saylor not only stayed with Clark's style, but gave it real respect and made it work. After Clark's untimely death, it was even harder to break step. So the hotel waited until a settling period had passed and then hired Frederic Lange to move the menu into a more modern, eclectic style. He's still having some irregular results, but the spirit is willing.
THE FEED BAG
Chef Jean Pierre Goyenvalle and his wife Colette, whose classic French restaurant Le Lion D'Or was a Washington icon for more than 20 years, are returning to France. They will be honored by his former peers at a suitably epicurean bon voyage dinner Nov. 17 at Seasons in the Four Seasons Hotel (2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/944-2000). The $175 five-course meal (wine included) will be prepared by Seasons chef McNeill, Wiedmaier of Marcel's, Robert Kinkead of Kinkead's, Richard of Citronelle, Robert Greault of La Colline and Francois Haeringer of L'Auberge Chez Francois.
And fans of the late, great Mrs. Simpson's restaurant in Woodley Park (2915 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/332-8700) will be delighted to hear that reports of her demise, though not exaggerated, have been revised: The restaurant has been resurrected under new ownership and management, notably longtime Jockey Club maitre d' and diplomat to the diplomats Martin Garbisu. (An executive chef has not yet been named.) The theme and general menu will stay the same. But instead of the old Mrs. Simpson's -- which, like its muse, Wallis Warfield Simpson and her Prince-cum-Duke, was tea-time elegant but with a touch of that aristocratic intentional fraying at the lace elbows -- this will be a Mrs. Simpson's 2000: a little upscaled, a little airier, with more emphasis on clean, bright flavors and tony presentation. After all, it was Wallis (among others) who admonished that one could never be too rich or too thin.
POSTSCRIPT: Thanks to a little confusion at the restaurant, Courses last week engaged D.C. Coast's Simone Rathle to the "wrong" David: She's actually marrying pastry chef David Guas. Sorry, guys. (Are we still invited?)