AQUARELLE is the Macbeth of Washington restaurants, and Jean-Louis Palladin is the ghost of Banquo.
It may well be impossible to try to erase the memory of Jean-Louis, whose eponymous restaurant, in the riverfront alcove where Aquarelle now sits, was for two decades not merely the best in the city but one of the most innovative in America. It is surely a thankless position for any chef, although in Aquarelle's time, several have made honorable attempts, notably Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's (who once compared taking the position to putting his neck on the guillotine) and South African-born Jacques van Staden, now in Las Vegas and on the Internet.
But Aquarelle's current chef, Christophe Poteaux, who came to the restaurant two years ago from Tahoga, seems to be laboring under a second burden as well: ennui. When he's good -- that is, when he's intrigued -- he's very good. But when he's bored, he's baffling.
Poteaux cannot help the fact that Aquarelle is in part the house restaurant for the Watergate Hotel and condos, so that he has to contend with erratic numbers and tourists and older regulars, and undoubtedly he has to restrict the menu to some degree to a middling Continental style. (His bio says the Paris-born chef's strongest influences are French, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Thai.) However, some of his specialties, which have been on the menu for a while now, have lost their balance. Escabeche of diver scallops had little tang or taste, and the texture of the shellfish was oddly harsh. (The waiter described the Banyuls reduction as balsamic vinegar instead of wine.) Grilled foie gras over a well-intentioned cornbread croustade had crossed over (or rather, under) the line between pink and raw, and the cornbread collapsed from dehydration, although the pomegranate jam and cinnamon-scented cider vinegar glaze were intriguing. A Thai-inspired pairing of shrimp in coconut curry and a spicy crab cake had a sort of Goldilocks problem: The shrimp and sauce were too bland, the crab cake seemingly all spiced filling.
Far more galling was the salt cod etouffee, which would have pleased neither its Portuguese ancestors nor its Creole cousins. Bacalao, or salt cod, is a mainstay of Iberian and Scandinavian fare, developed for long preservation. It must be soaked thoroughly not only to desalinate but to soften the flesh. This should be as obvious as saying that sauerkraut from a can is supposed to be rinsed of its brine, but in an age when too few people inherit kitchen knowledge, sauerkraut is often served as if it were vinegar pickle, ruining its reputation. In fact, the cod that emerged from Aquarelle's oven was almost inedibly salty and still somewhat stiff. The waiter's gentle warning, which appeared at first to be merely the normal caution about salty food, would have been better phrased as a prohibition. The fact that it was accompanied by a sort of rice pot with andouille, itself fairly salty, made it even more puckering.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Poteaux plays well with other ingredients. Duck magret was perfectly cooked, accompanied by pan-crisped potato gnocchi that instantly lay down softly on the tongue like obedient pets. Parsnip bisque with crabmeat had a middleweight texture appropriate for the early fall (although one cannot help remembering the exquisite parsnip "cappuccino" with duck confit and foie gras mousse that van Staden created there).
A second foie gras offering, this a torchon, was much better, although it begged for a little seasoning to play off its richness. However, the housemade duck prosciutto that partnered it was exceedingly good, its flavor intensified but not twisted in the curing and just a curl of natural fat to offset it.
Like many chefs on a regular diet, so to speak, Poteaux clearly enjoys a chance to play with the daily specials. One recent presentation of fresh lobster was a far better testimonial to Poteaux's imagination: The claw and tail meat of a 11/2-pound lobster, tenderly cooked (perhaps even butter-braised), was divided between two ramekin-size constructions, one curled on a bed of parsnip puree and "peppered" with radish sprouts. The other base was a painstaking toss of sundered and buttered Brussels sprout leaves and fine portabello dice -- one of those combinations that is as gratifying for its intuitive leap as for its balance of sweetness, meatiness and mustiness. In fact, Goldilocks, it was just right.
Aquarelle offers a pair of chef's menus for $49 and $59, and a three-course pre-dinner menu for $32. However, you may have to ask, as all menus are not always automatically proffered.
Aside from the cooking, there are a few things to note about Aquarelle's current incarnation. The room is attractive enough, albeit a little generic; on the other hand, its pale severity does serve to play up the sweep of windows overlooking the Potomac River toward Theodore Roosevelt Island. The Villeroy & Boch china is informally elegant, although its yellow floral design seems left over from an earlier color scheme. The flatware is not ingratiating; even where it is silver, it's too light and institutional to look like it. And the wines recommended for various entrees are not always available by the glass, which implies that either the entire table is expected to order the same dish or that the customer has to drink (or waste) a whole bottle. Since the wines by the glass are not so extensive as to make ideal substitutions, it's particularly annoying.
One thing that has not changed, however, is the quality of service. Aquarelle's wait staff has an old-fashioned formality that is not clouded by condescension, and that comes as a welcome change from the often pushy familiarity of (especially younger) waiters elsewhere.