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Have Menu, Will Travel

May 31, 1987|RUTH REICHL

He comes from a town called Condom, works at the Watergate and shares the name of an old-time television hero. These clues are enough to make any Foodie sigh and reverently whisper the words "Jean-Louis."

Jean-Louis Palladin, not quite 40 years of age, is already something of a legend among food lovers. His brilliantly eccentric food has gained a large international following, and when the Regency Club announced that Palladin would be doing a stint as guest chef for two nights last week, eager eaters got in line.

If eccentricity and flashes of brilliance were what they were after, they were not disappointed. For this was surely one of the most unusual meals I have ever been served.

Palladin started out safely enough with one of his signature dishes, a sort of terrine alternating layers of pasta with foie gras and truffles. It looked like a geological cut-away and it tasted like heaven. On this occasion he served it with a matching terrine made of pasta and provencale vegetables with a distinctly smoky edge. The two terrines were almost mirror opposites, one strong and earthy, the other rich and delicate; this single plate set the tone for the evening's meal, each succeeding course providing a contrast to the one that had gone before.

The next course was no more than an intermezzo, a tiny taste of razor clams in a thick but mild basil sauce that brought forward the extraordinary sweetness of the flesh. It was followed by a Maryland crab soup that made every other version of this soup pale into obscurity. The soup offered two different versions of crab cakes: in the first were little haystacks of crab meat flakes that seemed bound together by nothing more substantial than magnetism. The second was a larger cake, flat and round, a soft mousse that dissolved on the tongue. They were all suspended in a soft pink puddle of seductive richness.

Next, the waiter appeared with a mysterious dish that seemed as dense as a black hole. The bowls he set on the table contained the darkest substance I have ever been served. Sitting in this black sludge were two long cylindrical objects. One turned out to be a leek, the other lamprey, an eel-like creature much prized in Bordeaux that lacks the rich oiliness of eels and has a surprisingly attractive crunch to its flesh. But how, I asked Palladin later, did the dish become so black? Was there squid ink in it? No, he replied, he had merely braised the creature in wine, reduced it until it reached that incredible density and then added the blood. After the yin of the sweet pink soup, the yang of this heavy black dish was even more shocking than it would ordinarily have been.

And then we were back to sweetness, if not quite light. The waiter reappeared bearing a veritable slab of foie gras on a bed of pureed rhubarb. I loved the flavors of the two together, although I could feel my body starting to chug into cholesterol overload.

The dish that followed did not do much to reverse the process; the slices of lobster in a baked potato were surrounded by a deep coral sauce made of the lobster roe. It was every bit as rich as what had preceded it. From the black eel, Palladin was working his way through the coral lobster and up to red meat. But the entree, rosy slices of lamb, was accented with more touches of black. There were pureed black olives on top of the meat, which sat on a bed of fava beans. And scattered across the salad that shared the plate with the meat were generous handfuls of whole black morels. The meal had come full circle.

Dessert, of course, was another pair of contrasts. A flaky pear croustade, the fruit sweet and rich against the lightness of the pastry, was served with a cold dense prune ice cream topped with a swirl of caramel. Pears and prunes, light and dense, hot and cold. It was a tour de force.

Would I want to eat this meal again? I'm not sure--but it's probably a moot point; Palladin is such a restless chef, he's unlikely to duplicate it. One thing I do know is that food like this leaves you filled with curiosity, anxious to find out what new tricks this amazing chef has up his sleeve. The next time Palladin comes to town, I'll be the first in line.

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