Fine dining reaches new heights in mountains of Va.

HAPPY EATER

March 02, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Not a bad week on the knife-and-fork circuit.

One night at Baltimore's Brass Elephant there was roasted sturgeon cooked by Washington's Jean-Louis Palladin, the James Beard American Chef of the Year for 1993. A few days earlier in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, there was sauteed rockfish in killer red wine sauce, part of a seven-course lunch whipped up by a three-star French chef, Bernard Loiseau, and Patrick O'Connell whose Inn at Little Washington, Va. -- the site of the feasting -- was recently voted the best restaurant in the United States.

Before coming to America to open his flagship restaurant Jean-Louis in Washington's Watergate Hotel, Palladin's restaurant in France was given two stars by the Michelin guide. I figured eating Palladin's two-star cuisine and Loiseau's three-star creations, made it a five-star week.

Monday night the Brass Elephant was packed to the chandeliers for the Palladin dinner, a $175-a-plate affair that ended up raising $40,000 for the Child Abuse Prevention Center of Maryland. As women in glittering dresses and men in dark suits sipped cocktails in a tent adjoining the restaurant, Palladin and Brass Elephant executive chef Randy Stahl readied the five-course meal. Like a child examining a new food, Palladin picked up a piece of sturgeon, smelled it, held it close to his eyes, then quickly popped the raw fish into his mouth. Only after tasting it, did he declare that the sturgeon, shipped in from Maine, was fit to be cooked.

The first course was a smooth curried celery root soup, with pleasantly surprising lumps of lobster and pear floating in it. Then came the sturgeon resting on a bed of sauerkraut. Palladin said he chose the fish because of its flavor and its texture. "It is so close-knit, so tight, everything stays together." When you are serving 200, as he was that night, you want a fish that won't fall apart, he said.

I liked the roasted Guinea hen with shallot sauce, and surprised myself by liking the cardoon (a relative of the artichoke) and bone marrow. The good thing about cooking with bone marrow, Palladin said, was that it "was very moist, it stays soft without falling apart." Next salad frisee, the punk rock of salads. The ingredients were finely shredded, which meant you could enjoy the bits of chicken gizzard sprinkled on the salad, without being aware they were gizzards.

My favorite course was the dessert, which was a base of caramelized phyllo dough, then topped with layers of creme brulee, mandarins and huckleberry sauce. At the end of the evening Palladin received words of congratulations from pleased eaters. When Palladin said he thought the dessert needed "refining," I offered my services as a refinery worker.

It is not everyday that I drive 225 miles for lunch. But last Thursday's lunch at the Inn at Little Washington was worth the trip. Loiseau had left his three-star restaurant, La Cote d'Or in Saulieu for a few days just to cook in this tiny Virginia town. He was one of about 30 French chefs who traveled to America to cook grand meals celebrating the 40th anniversary of Relais & Chateaux, an international chain of luxury hotels and restaurants.

Lunch, for a roomful of food writers, was a warm-up for the evening's $190-a-plate public dinner. There were barbecued rabbit turnovers, and potato sandwiches in which the "bread" was a thin strip of baked potato and the stuffing was caviar. There were the roasted fresh-water prawns with pistachio crust, cups of oxtail consomme with black truffles, and elaborately seasoned cubes of venison, veal and lamb served with a lingonberry salsa. These were the work of O'Connell, a chef with a talented touch for American ingredients and a sense of humor. At the end of the meal, for instance, as O'Connell watched his staff roll out a teetering 10-foot-tall cake, he quipped "take the pictures now before it falls."

The main attraction was Loiseau, the French chef who, according to his wife Dominique, spends most of his waking hours cooking and thinking of ways to keep his three-star reputation. He did not disappoint. His small fillets of rockfish, which had been cooked skin side down in a nonstick skillet, came with a red wine sauce that made my toes curl. The sauce, Loiseau's wife explained, was made by reducing five bottles of Cote du Rhone red wine to about 10 percent of their volume, then adding pureed carrots. Never mind that the wine probably cost enough to buy a chair, the sauce was bliss.

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