California got a taste of Capital Cuisine recently, when chef Jean-Louis Palladin, of the Watergate restaurant Jean-Louis, packed up his Maryland blue crabs and pigeon, New York foie gras and New Orleans crayfish to cook them in Los Angeles and San Francisco. When he couldn't get California abalone in Los Angeles he also had that shipped by Federal Express from Washington, where it had been imported from Santa Barbara.
Chefs and foods are crisscrossing the country to show their stuff. While Palladin was in San Francisco, Seppi Renggli of New York's Four Seasons restaurant was cooking in Los Angeles. Last week Brad Ogden of San Francisco's Campton Place and Jeremiah Tower of Stars in San Francisco, and Wolfgang Puck of Spago in Los Angeles, were doing a dinner at the Pierre in Manhattan. Paul Prudhomme, who has cooked all over the country, is now contemplating Paris.
What they are showing is how to work under stress. "I worked 19 hours a day," declared Palladin after his trip, during which he prepared six meals in four days in two cities. "It is difficult to find the pans, no materials, nothing," he sputtered. "And the journalists are judging you on what you are doing that day . . . It doesn't matter whether you don't have any pan or any whisk, you need to do well." He was also cooking in unionized hotels, and was unfamiliar with all those rules.
Californians learned a thing or two about the East at Jean-Louis' table. I had calls from journalists in both cities who were mightily impressed by the meals. "People were stunned by the beautiful produce," crowed Palladin. "They never believe it was Maryland crab for the crab cake," he continued in his Franglais. He took corn, belon oysters, goose breast ham, quail eggs, fresh hearts of palm, venison, sweetbreads, live scallops and "my capon from my guy in the Eastern Market" in Washington. He did use California bread -- and declared it good -- but only because he didn't have time to prepare his own.
If cooking six meals for 180 people doesn't sound too arduous, one must consider the nature of those meals. Palladin took one assistant with him, and pastry chef Michel Richard of Los Angeles joined the team. They cooked three different menus. The first started with tiny canapes of brioche with quail eggs fried in the center, topped with caviar. It went on to bowls of mousseline of lobster with red pepper soup on one side and yellow on the other. Next, a noodle terrine with foie gras and ce pes, then sweetbreads breaded with finely minced truffles -- one of Palladin's most hauntingly delicious dishes. Scallops were served in their shells with enoki mushroom butter, capon breast was accompanied by artichokes and Virginia ham, and dessert was peach ravioli with cranberry sauce.
Ravioli appears these days from appetizer to dessert and filled with anything that can be cut so small. But Palladin came up with a new twist: mozzarella ravioli. While it looks like routine ravioli, the dough wrapper is thin slices of mozzarella, pinched together to enclose a diced raw tomato and basil filling for a startlingly delightful combination.
That menu continued to celery root soup with Maine lobster and noodles made black from squid ink. The salad included fresh hearts of palm and sandwiches of lightly grilled tuna stuffed with caviar. Venison was sliced and layered with turnips and truffles, then steamed in the mold, served with a custard of shallots. And while ravioli switched from dessert to appetizer for this dinner, one of Palladin's most extraordinary appetizers became dessert.
It had started as an oyster encased in truffle butter, breaded and fried, to be popped into the mouth for one oozing bite. The dessert version -- called cromsequis of fruits -- was finely minced apples encased in passion fruit butter, breaded with brioche crumbs and fried. Palladin has also done diced pear with raspberry butter, breaded with almonds; and diced pineapple with coconut butter.
The soup for the third menu was corn soup with belon oysters, and this time the ravioli were made with squid-ink dough, with stuffings of different colors (yellow saffron, green parsley, pink beets), piled into a terrine with aspic, served sliced with a sweet pepper sauce. The meal went on to cabbage stuffed with foie gras, crab cakes with sun-dried tomato butter, and baby squab with diced vegetables and soy sauce. Dessert was thin rounds of three kinds of chocolate, sandwiched with three different creams, served with a maple syrup sauce.
And of course Palladin took his signature anchovy butter (one pound of butter beaten with half a pound of anchovies and some pepper, strained through a drum sieve), which he always serves with his tall, light, buttery brioche.
All that added up to about $4,500 worth of food -- only $25 a person, which is hardly extravagant. And if Palladin's estimate of $15,000 for the entire trip is right, it cost less than the typical $100-plus-per-person dinners at Jean-Louis restaurant itself, though that cost does not reflect profit, rent, utilities and such, of course. And it showed California that Americans can eat exceedingly well in between visits to the West Coast. Tabletalk
I've never eaten at The Hilltop Steak House in Saugus, Mass., but 2.3 million other people did last year, to make it the independent restaurant with the largest dollar volume in the country. All this is according to Restaurants & Institutions magazine, which adds that eight of the top-grossing 100 independent restaurants serve more than a million people each per year. Sixteen of the top are in New York City, 12 have dinner-check averages of $10 a person or less, and five opened in 1984 but made the top 100 by 1985. Also finishing in the top three: Tavern on the Green in Manhattan and Phillips Harborplace in Baltimore.
Much as I love olives, I can understand American Airlines removing the olive from the salad when it was discovered that could save $100,000 a year. I wonder how much could be saved by removing the sugar from the peanuts that are served with drinks?
Hearing of the redfish shortage created by the popularity of blackened redfish, a reader writes that it's too bad Paul Prudhomme didn't invent blackened chicken. Frank Perdue would have known how to meet that crisis. JEAN-LOUIS' MOZZARELLA RAVIOLI (Makes about 14 1 1/2-inch-square ravioli)
1/4 pound mozzarella, preferably buffalo mozzarella, sliced thinly
FOR THE STUFFING:
1 tomato, diced, plus 1/2 tomato, diced for garnish
4 small anchovy fillets, chopped
Pepper to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh basil
14 leaves of basil, approximately, for garnish
Crackers or toasted french bread for serving
Flatten each slice of mozzarella between waxed paper. Cut with knife into squares or rounds, or use a cookie cutter.
Mix 1 diced tomato, anchovy, pepper, olive oil and 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons basil in a bowl. Mound tomato stuffing on half the mozzarella pieces, leaving an edge. Moisten edge with water and place another piece on top. Before sealing, stuff a small leaf of basil in between layers so it sticks out. Then pinch slices together to seal. Put each ravioli on a cracker or slice of toasted french bread cut to size. Garnish with a dice of tomato.