Diners feast and reflect on the verve of Palladin


AN HOUR OR so after Eric Myers bid adieu to the eight-course, 12-wine feast at Abacrombie restaurant in Mount Vernon, he assumed his post as bartender at the Mount Royal Tavern a few blocks away.

There, in between pouring glasses of Rolling Rock and Yuengling, Myers assessed his fine dining experience: "Man, I didn't even know people ate this way."

He enjoyed it, he said, even if he was not able to identify much of what had been on his plate. "I recognized the rice," he said referring to the sweet-pea risotto of the third course.

He was taken with the "lollipop of poussin," but he wasn't certain what it was until he got back to the tavern and a friend there translated the description, telling him that it was a fancy way to say chicken leg.

As for the flights of wines, almost two for each course, Myers was astonished. According to Peter Wood of the Wine Source, the wines were selected to put a classic style, for instance, a 2004 Domaine de la Rectorie Collioure rose, against a contemporary offering, say, a 2004 Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Carneros.

Having witnessed much sniffing and sipping, Myers said, "I have never seen people drink that much wine with food." Saying that, he chugged a Miller Lite.

This instance of a bartender's encountering haute cuisine would have delighted Jean- Louis Palladin. Palladin was a high-energy, fun-loving French chef who in the 1980s and '90s ran the restaurant Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington and mentored chefs throughout America. He died of cancer in November 2001 at the age of 55.

The Jean-Louis Palladin Foundation continues his legacy, offering scholarships to young chefs, encouraging artisan craftsmen and holding dinners in various cities such as the one in Baltimore last week.

Many of the 30 diners had some connection to Palladin. I had known him and am a nonvoting member of the foundation.

Myers, the bartender, told me that ordinarily he did not attend $175-a-plate affairs, but was given a ticket by a friend.

Three chefs at Baltimore restaurants, Sonny Sweetman of Abacrombie, Ravi Narayanan of the Brewer's Art and Jerry Pellegrino of Corks, put the menu together. The chefs said Palladin encouraged them early in their cooking careers.

"He taught me it is not OK to be a mediocre chef, that what you want to reach for is pure excellence," said Narayanan. He credited Palladin with landing him a job during a crucial point in his career at the Old Anglers Inn in Potomac.

Sweetman, 32, dined at the Watergate restaurant when he was 16 and said he was affected by the enthusiasm and verve Palladin brought to his work. "He embraced food, from the raw product to the quality of the food on the plate. He got more people interested in what American food had to offer."

Two items on the evening's menu, the house-cured salmon and anchovy butter terrine, and the main course, pigs trotter (pigs feet) stuffed with morel and black truffle, were variations or "plays" on Palladin's cooking, Sweetman said.

Palladin's wife, Regine, and daughter, Verveine, 20, had traveled from Washington for the event. The sight of the black-pepper shortbread and foie gras parfait served with toasted almond wafers and a rhubarb jam triggered stories of Palladin's fondness for goose and duck liver.

Verveine said her father fed her fois gras at a very young age and now it "is the one food I could live off of for the rest of my life." He also championed sea salt, now common in fine restaurants but a novelty in America 20 years ago. Palladin came from a family of salt lovers, his wife reported. She said his sister still keeps a salt dispenser in her car in Paris just in case she might encounter a morsel that needs proper seasoning.

Earlier, during the course of scallops wrapped in pastry accompanied with sea urchin cream, stories were told of Palladin's passion and his risky recreational habits.

Tales of his sky-diving in rural Virginia, hang-gliding in Brazil and bungee jumping in Las Vegas continued as the rosewater sorbet was served, the salad of braised endive, arugula, goat-cheese fondue and pear chips was polished off and the flourless chocolate cake with lavender ice cream appeared, accompanied by a glass of 1995 Broadbent Colheita Madeira.

"He screamed all the way down," said Verveine, recalling the bungee jump made with her father. "Then afterward, he was filled with exhilaration."

After the meal, I was filled with a sense of satisfaction as I walked toward the Mount Royal Tavern. Myers left before the dinner was finished. He had to go to work.

Saying goodbye to Ann Brody Cove, the executive director of the foundation, he thanked her for the evening and invited the diners to join him at the tavern for a nightcap.

I was the only one of the dinner group who took him up on the offer. In honor of Palladin's spirit of culinary adventure, I had a "flight" of beers, one Yuengling, one Rolling Rock.

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