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RESTAURANTS : POST-CHAMPAGNE : Patrick Healy Has Never Cooked So Well. At Xiomara, the Food Is Rustic, Yet Refined

April 04, 1993|Ruth Reichl

Of all the speeches given at all the parties honoring Julia Child on her 80th birthday, none was more eloquent than Patrick Healy's. Healy, whose grandmother is a close friend of Child, spoke of the enormous influence Julia has had on his career.

He talked about leaving America to apprentice in the great restaurants of France. He talked about his first day at the three-star Michel Guerard, when he was put in charge of smoking the lobsters. Guerard instructed the waiters to sell as many lobsters as possible, and as the orders came flooding in, the young American began running frantically about, wrapped in a blanket of smoke. The entire kitchen found this highly entertaining. "I consoled myself," Healy said, "by thinking of my lunches with Paul and Julia Child."

The applause was long and heartfelt. Some of it was for Julia, but much of it was for Healy himself, one of the few American chefs who has had classic French restaurant training.

Healy began cooking at his grandmother Harriet Healy's cooking school in Palm Beach, Fla. He went to college but left after a year: He wanted a career in the kitchen. By the time he was 19, he was in France. "I thought in a year and a half you could learn everything you need to know and then come back and make millions. But after a year, I didn't want to come back. I loved it there."

Healy started by working with a butcher in a small village. He ended up working with Ducasse, Triosgros, Guerard. When he came back to the United States, five years later, he had no trouble finding work--Le St. Germain and Colette in Los Angeles. By 1987, when he and his wife, Sophie, opened Champagne, he had a solid reputation as one of Southern California's finest French chefs. Healy's cooking is grounded in the tradition of French haute cuisine , but he has an honest respect for solid peasant cooking and an uncanny ability to reduce fat without removing flavor. Champagne was a hit.

But late last year, the Healys separated. While Sophie reopened the restaurant (now called Champagne Bis), Patrick began looking for work. Everyone expected him to open his own place, and his fans were surprised when he went to work at Pasadena's Xiomara as consulting chef. Why would he want to work for someone else? The answer can be found in the food now coming out of Healy's kitchen: He may finally have found the perfect place to display his talents.

Xiomara Ardolina is a beautiful bundle of outgoing energy. She knows how to run a restaurant (she ran the Epicurean in La Canada for 12 years), and when she opened her place in Pasadena in 1991, her old customers came down from the hills. Ardolina has a knack for putting people at ease, and there are few restaurants more soothing than Xiomara, with its comfortable chairs and muted colors. The waiters are as gracious as the proprietress: Even when too many customers walk in the door without reservations, the too-few waiters welcome them with what seems like sincerity. They bring menus, bread and wine without seeming to be harried.

The kitchen, you think, will never be able to handle the unexpected volume, but somehow the food arrives without a hitch. One minute there is no food on the tables; the next minute everybody in the room is eating.

And eating with gusto: Healy has never cooked so well. At Champagne, his menu divided his various talents into separate sections, one devoted to spa cuisine, another to rustic dishes, a third to haute cuisine . Here he has tried to marry his interests into a unified whole. You do find rustic food ( cassoulet, daube of lamb) and spa food (a slimmed down poule au pot ), but the best of his dishes are a bit of both, and elegant as well. Consider his extraordinary bouillabaisse broth filled with penne and seafood. It manages to be both rustic and refined plus low in fat, an appetizer so wonderful you're inclined to skip your entree and just ask for seconds. Or his oxtail cannelloni, made with little French lentils, bacon, potatoes and carrots, an innovative melding of the rustic and the recherche.

There is always a bistro special. One night it is a chicken fricassee far too refined for any bistro. Beautifully cooked chicken, covered in an elegant white wine sauce (with no cream), luxuriated on a bed of silken mashed potatoes.

Healy knows how to exalt inexpensive cuts of meat. He is fond of shanks. He slices veal shank off the bone and serves it with tomato confit and olives. He layers lamb shank with eggplant until it is a lovely, tall stack, a little cake surrounded by an intense tomato broth. The flavors are forceful, the presentation as elegant as any in France.

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