- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Palette is a beautiful restaurant. It’s part of, yet separate from, the newly renovated Madison Hotel on the corner of 15th and M streets NW, open since January.

The new executive chef, James Clark, is a native of South Carolina; he worked in New Orleans with Jeff Tunks, now of DC Coast, TenPenh and Ceiba. Chef Clark has a sure touch and incorporates his knowledge of Carolina low-country cuisine into classic French dishes. What comes to the table at Palette is elegant and delicious.

The surroundings are sleek and stylish, very contemporary, with muted beige tones predominating. Alcoves make perfect secluded spaces for quiet conversations.

The restaurant serves as a gallery showcase primarily for Latin American artists. The initial exhibits have been organized by Latin American Cultural Space; the current show highlights the work of Walterio Iraheta, Jose Ruiz and Berta Kolteniuk from El Salvador, Peru and Mexico, respectively. Miss Kolteniuk’s oils are particularly beautiful and well-displayed.

The gallerylike frosted glass wall along the M Street side of the restaurant has narrow vertical and horizontal windows; passers-by on the street appear as part of a moving painting.

A large bar at the front has become a downtown hot spot on weekend nights. Unfortunately, the bar and dining room are divided only by a partial glass wall, permitting tobacco smoke to drift across the tables. Alas, one cigar can poison the air in the dining room for hours.

It’s the food that counts, however, and chef Clark and his team do not disappoint. Dinner begins with a treat from the kitchen. On one recent rainy night, the treat was a spoonful of English pea puree, topped with a single perfect bay scallop and a whisper of truffle oil, presented in a clam shell. Just a mouthful, but a delicious one. The assorted little truffles and fruit-jelly square that come with coffee at the end of the meal are equally excellent.

Palette has a fine selection of breads, especially at lunchtime, when we were served a wonderful, chewy fig-and-pine-nut bread. Along with butter, diners receive a tapenade for the bread, sometimes of sun-dried tomatoes, at other times of goat cheese and cilantro.

The dinner menu is not long, offering six appetizers and seven entrees, but it is varied and interesting. The appetizers include a Peruvian seviche and braised veal sweetbreads with sweet-onion jam, as well as oysters and a salad of greens and grilled mushrooms.

The crab cakes are outstanding: Two small mounds of sweet lump crabmeat, topped with a spoonful of sauteed green, yellow and red pepper strips, sit on a bed of creamy, delicate roasted corn puree. It’s a sophisticated and subtle combination of flavors that enhance the crab.

Soups are splendid, too. A caramelized fennel bisque is a creamy, delicate wonder. Enhanced with a few drops of chive oil, the fennel serves almost as a subtext to the richness of the soup. The tiny mound of smoked salmon in the center of the dish seems almost superfluous.

Equally excellent, although in a completely different vein, is a tomato-and-okra soup whispering of the Deep South, topped with two pieces of delectable fried okra. There’s nothing slippery on the tongue, just an earthy combination of onions, tomatoes and okra in a rich broth.

As a main course, the rack of veal — actually a single veal chop — is first-rate. The veal is tender and flavorful, glazed with a fine brown sauce. The meat is served with a warm fennel-and-carrot slaw and two lovely rum-glazed cipollini onions.

Fish is represented by a seared rockfish, sturgeon from the Columbia River and a fricassee of lobster with a Portuguese sausage and fava beans. The main courses are rounded out by a roasted rabbit, combined with grits, foie gras and caramelized vegetables, and a New York strip steak.

The only dish to disappoint was the vegetarian offering of tomato risotto with roasted vegetables. The vegetables — baby carrots, eggplant, squash, zucchini and some asparagus — were excellent, roasted with a touch of olive oil to just beyond crispness. The risotto, unfortunately, had none of the creamy delicacy of a genuine Italian risotto. The rice properly is arborio, but it was mushy. The tomatoes did not find the rice an amiable companion, and the dish tasted as though it had been prepared well in advance. Cheese slices on top, rather than in the risotto itself, added a bit of complexity, but for $23, a plate of rice and vegetables should be perfect.

The lunch menu disguises several fine main courses as sandwiches. Pulled duck is piled on toasted dark bread with a slender slice of cheese. The duck, served with a dish of onion jus, is moist and delicious. The accompanying sweet-potato fries, although they could be hotter, were terrific.

Ahi tuna bruschetta is a generous portion of sliced tuna, cooked to order and served at room temperature on excellent toasted country bread. The tuna rests on a bed of lettuce topped with fried green tomatoes and crisp wild boar bacon and is drizzled with a red-pepper mayonnaise. The bacon is much like pork bacon, except slightly tougher. The bruschetta is a unique tuna BLT. Lunch entrees also include a bison burger, flatiron steak, roasted baby chicken and a seviche salad.

Desserts, like the rest of the menu, are unusual. The pineapple carpaccio consists of paper-thin slices of ripe pineapple in a sweet syrup, topped with a small piece of rich, dark chocolate cake and a small scoop of pineapple-coconut ice cream. Palette presents an excellent wine list, an interesting assortment of wines from all over the world. It’s an expensive list, with nothing less than about $36. Wines by the glass, ranging from $7 to $14, are varied and, as expected, very good. Specialty drinks named for artists and art museums also are available.

The service at Palette is outstanding. Our waitress went to considerable trouble to get information on the artists currently showing at the restaurant; she also took care in describing dishes and making sure everything that came to the table was satisfactory. At Palette, almost everything is beautiful to look at, and certainly good enough to eat.

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