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Birthday bash for Julia Child is diners' delight


Washington -- It was a party for Julia Child's 80th birthday. There was exceptional food, outstanding wine and the remarkable Julia. It was Bon Appetit, with a big "B."

Monday night a half-dozen big shot chefs from Washington crowded into the kitchen of the Hay-Adams Hotel and churned out the cuisine for the dinner party, a benefit for the American Institute of Wine and Food, a non-profit educational organization Julia helped start in 1981.

A big fancy food show and a chefs' convention were also in lTC town, so that meant at Julia's shindig you couldn't reach for an hors d'oeuvre without bumping into the gifted and talented culinary crew.

For example, I was on the trail of some Pennsylvania mussels with hot tomato relish, appetizers made by Jim Sands, chef of Sutton Place Gourmet, when I ran into Peter Kump, who presides over the James Beard Foundation in New York. We got all wound up in conversation about sides of beef, and somehow I missed the passing of the hors d'oeuvres.

Then I bumped into Marcel Desaulniers, chef of the Trellis Restaurant in Williamsburg, Va. Desaulniers was eating, not chefing. He has a book coming out called "Death by Chocolate," but instead of truffles he talked about tires. Desaulniers told how after driving away from an oyster-tasting at which he had downed about three dozen raw oysters, his car hit a pothole, blowing two tires and bending two wheel rims. Moral of story: Don't mix mollusks and Michelins.

A few minutes later I recovered when I got a glimpse of some shrimp, grilled and marinated by Will Greenwood, chef of the Jefferson Hotel. When the shrimp got within range, I snagged one, along with a glass of 1989 Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc.

The television lights came on, heralding the arrival of Julia. She looked tall, even though her shoulders are somewhat stooped. She moved around the room under the bright white light, saying little for the cameras.

By happenstance, I had spent about half an hour with Julia the previous night. It happened at a Washington reception for Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma kitchen supply stores. The reception was held in an old F Street home, now a private club, and I had wandered out of the reception onto a porch, and Julia wandered out there as well. Leaning against a porch railing for support, she talked easily about her early days in Washington. These, she said, were days when she and her husband, Paul, lived in Georgetown "before air conditioning, when the sweat just rolled off you." She traded notes with the curator of the Bacon House, the site of the reception, about the Bacon family, ** an old-time Washington family -- "cliff dwellers," Julia called them -- with a history of government service. She questioned a professor doing research on elderly women. And being in Washington, she couldn't resist offering an opinion on the coming presidential election. This fall, Julia predicted, the Democrats are going to win the White House. She didn't pontificate. She conversed, with zest.

I heard more about this spirit at the birthday party, when I sat next to Stephanie Hersh, an assistant to Julia. When traveling with Julia in Memphis, Ms. Hersh said, Julia cut a scheduled tour of an art museum to visit Graceland, the home of Elvis. Upon arriving at Graceland, Ms. Hersh recounted, Julia told a nervous tour guide to relax and show them "all the tacky stuff." And when Julia bought souvenir T-shirts, Elvis fans surrounded her, asking her to sign their copies of the Graceland cookbook, which, according to Ms. Hersh, Julia did.

I heard this story as I ate. The first course of the dinner was a magnificent bowl of risotto with porcini mushrooms, cooked by Roberto Donna, chef of Galileo restaurant. Risotto is upscale, creamy Italian rice. I had eaten it before, but never before did it have such delightful, deep flavor. I ate every kernel, sipping an Italian red wine -- 1986 Barbaresco Gallina Bruno Giacosa -- as I ate.

Next came a pleasing roasted halibut with clams, garlic and chorizo sausage, made by Robert Kinkead, chef of Twenty-One Federal, and served with a magnum of 1985 Chalone Vineyard Chardonnay. Then came Jean-Louis Palladin's dish of chicken grilled over oak wood accompanied by hearts of artichokes with fennel, and served with a 1983 Chateau Lynch-Bages poured from double magnums.

It was much better than my usual Monday night dinner at home.

And it wasn't over yet. There was birthday cake made by Washington pastry chef Ann Amernick, some bubbling 1985 Iron Horse Vineyard Blanc de Blancs, some chocolate truffles made by Dominique Leborgne of Le Palais du Chocolat, and a round of Gentlemen Jack Tennessee Whiskey.

Later all the chefs emerged from the kitchen to applause from the diners. The night ended with everyone sated and smiling.

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