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RESTAURANTS : At Colette, a New Chef Steps Out of the Kitchen

February 07, 1988|RUTH REICHL

There is no groan quite like the groan of an audience that gets bad news just before the curtain goes up. "Ladies and gentlemen," says the character who slips onto the stage, "appearing in the leading role tonight. . . ." There is a gasp of disappointment; the star is sick and the audience is stuck with the understudy.

At restaurants, of course, nobody bothers to ruin your dinner by announcing that the star of the stove has taken the evening off. But when the chef leaves the cast and moves on to the next show, the response is generally pretty swift; the audience follows the star.

Which is pretty much what happened when Patrick Healy left Colette to open his own Champagne. His fans went with him. Or so it seems; on my recent visits to Colette, the room has been half-empty. And friends invited to join me for dinner have all had the same reaction: "Why can't we go to Champagne?"

Eating at Colette is not totally unlike eating at Champagne. The new chef, Christopher Blobaum (he came here from Le Montage at the Filmland Center, and La Reserve in Houston), offers a menu that bears a striking resemblance to Healy's. Like the one at Champagne, it is a menu of many options. In addition to the regular offerings there is a rustic special of the day (dishes like coq au vin or blanquette de veau), a low sodium and low-fat cuisine legere, even a gala gastronomique of six courses at $55 a person. And if you're hungry for Healy's food, some of his dishes--like crispy salmon--remain behind.

But there are striking differences as well. Blobaum, according to the press release that the restaurant sent out on his arrival, was born and reared on an Iowa farm. He then studied at the Culinary Institute of America. "Blobaum's stamp," it says here, "can be seen in the restaurant's turn toward lighter American dishes."

I wouldn't say that the dishes here are particularly lighter or more American than they were before. Unless, of course, you want to talk about soup. And if you're going to eat at Colette, you should talk about soup, for they are the best things on the menu.

In the course of four meals I tried soups of all sorts, and each one was better than the next. "It's made entirely without cream," said the waiter proudly of a bright green spinach soup; he did not mention, however, the vast amounts of butter that had gone into the bowl. Gumbo was thick and satisfying, filled with chunks of rabbit sausage and little grains of rice. One night there was a sleek mussel and saffron soup that seemed to be about half cream, another night a smooth soup of broccoli and ginger that was a joy to eat.

But it's hard to be as enthusiastic about the other dishes. When Blobaum attacks Healy's dishes--like the salad of mache with shiitake croutons--he doesn't seem to quite understand the point. His salad was tasty and generous, but the shiitake, which are supposed to be turned into crispy croutons, were just limp mushrooms on the salad. The crispy salmon, never one of my favorite dishes, was merely dry.

What Blobaum calls "lamb tart" is a pretty dish--but a tart only in its roundness. Slices of lamb were carefully arranged atop a large circle of vegetables, which included a layer of buttery spinach, mushrooms and a very garlicky tomato coulis. Everything tasted good, but all the elements remained separate and the flavors never quite married.

I felt much the same about a roast veal chop topped with a scattering of diced zucchini, carrots and turnips. The vegetables looked pretty, but had as little relationship to the piece of meat as did the watery Madeira sauce in which it sat.

Blobaum's sauces all tend to be a bit weak. One night there was a special of squab with cabbage; it arrived sitting in a thin, not particularly flavorful puddle. Tough slices of duck were served with a poached pear in a sauce made of port and vinegar; it's hard to see how such a sauce could pack so little punch.

Whenever Blobaum tries to get too inventive, he seems to be over his head. Spring rolls made of rabbit, for instance, were not a good idea, and the soggy sesame-dressed salad with which they were served didn't help. But a simple ceviche of small sweet scallops with avocado, onions, peppers, lime and cilantro was perfectly realized. And while I haven't been crazy about most of the special pasta dishes I've tried, a simple New York strip steak was a treat. It was good meat, well-grilled and served with candied shallots and a red wine sauce. On the side were a perfect little round of pommes anna; I thought the dish, at $18, was a bargain.

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