Dominique's, a Washington French restaurant known almost as much for the controversy stewed by its menus as for its cuisine, is in hot water again.
This time the restaurant, and its owner Dominique D'Ermo, are taking heat over the selling last year of a dozen or so succulent, roasted, white-winged doves. Attorneys with the Justice Department's Lands and Water Division charged in a federal court suit early last month that the restaurant violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by roasting the birds and sellig them to its customers. The case is pending.
It's okay to eat white-winged doves, however, as well as shoot them, during specific open seasons in the Southweatern states where they are commonly found. "You just can't sell them," according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Al Levitt.
"I didn't know it was wrong when I served it," said D'Ermo, the indomitable restaurateur, fisherman and hunter who proffers such culinary adventures as hippopotamus, mountain goat, buffalo and rattlesnake.
It was the rattlesnake that got him into trouble the last time.
A year ago, D'Ermo's restaurant was embroiled in a controversy over the firming of an Interior Department herpetologist, C. Kenneth Dodd, after the Pennsylvania timber rattlesnake that Dodd said was in danger of extinction.Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus personally apologized to D'Eromo for Dodd's action. Dominique's it turned out is one of Andrus' favorite restaurants.
Coalitions of enviornmental groups, congressmen and the public voiced outrage over the firing and Dodd was reinstated. D'Ermo, who was never cited because he had not broken the law, switched snakes, selling the Texas variety, which he said was not endangered.
"It was during the rattlesnake incident, a lady from (the Interior Department) came to investigate and I asked her then about the doves," D'Ermo said.
"She took note of the doves and said she didn't know if it was illegal to sell them." It was much later that D'Ermo said he learned that selling the white-winged doves, which resemble mourning doves, was illegal.
"I got the doves last summer in Mexico while I was hunting, and I got a license from the Mexican government to shoot them," he said. "Nowhere on the license did it say it was illegal to sell the birds and (U.S.) Customs said nothing about it. The Mexican government was happy to have someone shoot them because they eat the sunflowers in the fields. I brought back about 50 of them, some for me and I had some left over, so I decided to put them on the menu, for $9.95 for two birds. We sold maybe a dozen and haven't had them on the menu since. With the $200 hunting license, the plane fare, the hotel bills, I guess it cost me about $50 a bird."
D'Ermo said the Interior Department knew about the doves last fall during its investigation of the sale of Pennsylvania rattlesnakes. He said he doesn't know why it has taken Interior so long to present a case against him.
"I never denied anything," D'Ermo said. "I told the truth. We are pleading guilty, we're not fighting the case."
Selling birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act carries a maximum penalty of up to two years in jail and a $2,000 fine.But such cases are often settled out of court.
D'Ermo said that after the incident last fall, he now checks with the Wildlife Service whenever a supplier offers to sell him exotic meats. Two weeks ago, a supplier offered him camel meat.
"I got a crocodile here from Louisiana," D'Ermo said in his thick French accent. "I found out that it's not legal to sell now, but it will be shortly. aRight now, we are testing recipes -- crocodile tastes like veal. When it's legal, we will sell it."
"I buy these things to please my customers. People come here to try unusual things," he said. "Today at lunch someone asked me to get some wild geese. I'm going to put in a call today to see if I can get some."