You Could Try Palladin-for-Hire, or Wait for the Real Thing

For a while now, it has been rumored that Jean-Louis Palladin was about to open a restaurant in New York. Mr. Palladin, who is from Gascony, was the youngest chef ever to receive two Michelin stars and was in the kitchen at Jean-Louis at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C., for 19 years. Then–as seems to be de rigueur for any celebrity chef on this continent today–he set off for Las Vegas, establishing a restaurant in the Rio Hotel and Casino. Now he’s finally surfaced in Manhattan, opening Palladin at the Time, a new boutique hotel in the theater district.

Perhaps it’s because I watched Mon Oncle on video recently, but I couldn’t help thinking that Jacques Tati would have had a field day with this place. The hotel is in a rather plain old brown building (and it still is brown from the second floor up) that has been redesigned by Adam Tihany. It now sports an explosion of chrome and glass at the entrance that is manned by a doorman of the Ian Schrager school, complete with a shaved head and all-black Star Trek uniform.

You enter into a sparkly white marble lobby, to the right of which is a giant glass box with thick metal cables lopping off the bottom. At first, I thought it was some newfangled microbrewery system, but then a glass elevator descended, revealing a Japanese tourist in a bright blue anorak, his nose in a guidebook, unaware he was center stage. Passing the sleek, modern bar (where matchbooks in the ashtrays add a quaint old-fashioned note), I arrived at the front desk, where a tall lean man in chef’s whites with frizzy mop of hair and round spectacles was chatting to the hostess. It was Mr. Palladin, who, I learned recently, regularly consults a psychic–as do French chefs Eric Ripert and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

The hostess led me to the dining room, which has soft lighting and a minimalist décor: stainless steel pillars, peach-colored walls and light panels in yellow, blue or red, with an open kitchen in the back. The bare black tables are set with purple suede chairs and lit by votive candles. Pots of chives are placed on beige runners in the center. The chives had all recently been given a cool Astor Place barber’s style of brush cut (the sort of neat, clean, straight line that deer make overnight on your favorite plants in the garden).

“Do you use the chives you cut on the food?” I asked the hostess.

“Everyone asks the same question!” she replied with a bright smile. “No, we don’t.”

It was Mr. Palladin who first taught me that chives didn’t necessarily have to be chopped and that carpaccio was more than a mere painter. He came to New York in the early 80’s, when I once watched him prepare some dishes in a test kitchen. He cut salmon into paper-thin slices and squeezed lime juice not on the fish but the plate, which he also sprinkled with salt and pepper before arranging the slices on top. He then sprinkled the fish with olive oil and decorated each plate with two long strips of chives in a V shape. That was it. So simple.

I wish he’d do that dish at Palladin instead of the salmon “four ways,” all of which, from pastrami to gravlax, tasted virtually the same. Carpaccio, on this occasion made with ahi tuna and hamachi with seaweed gelée, was too oily. But other dishes were wonderful, like the garlicky baby eels ($25 for a special first course). A ceviche made with paper-thin slices of octopus marinated in grapefruit juice with chilies was also delicious, as was Louisiana crayfish served in a creamy lobster-coral sauce with soft pillows of gnocchi. But over all, the food was uneven.

Despite his presence at the door, Mr. Palladin is not the owner. (He is apparently still looking for another space all his own.) He was hired by the Chatwal family, which owns the Hampshire hotel chain, and he brought the chef, Timothy Dean, from Jean-Louis, as well as an excellent sommelier, Dawn Lamendola, from Montrachet, who put together the interesting wine list. The kitchen is not well served by the wait staff, who are certainly affable and Ian Schrager-hip, but also erratic. Since many of their customers will probably be headed for the theater, it would help if they could get it through their heads what it means to make a curtain. Despite the fact that there seemed to be vast numbers of people milling about (carefully avoiding my eye), we had to ask for the bill three times one afternoon.

Jacques Tati would have had a field day with the enormous plates the food is served on, giant bowls and oversize curved dishes into which your knife and fork keep sliding helplessly because you can’t balance them on the side. I would have liked to see what he would have made of the foie gras and scallops, wrapped in cabbage, looking like a tennis ball sliced in half and served with pretty red and green sauces made from beets and spinach. It was so rich, no one could finish it.

“Fashion people,” said our waiter, who was not impressed.

One of the best dishes was the juicy, glazed roasted veal chop with baby vegetables. Also good was the stuffed and roasted suckling pig scented with thyme. It arrived with a side dish of mashed sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows that were so hot they burned the roof of your mouth. So did the asparagus and the rather greasy french fries.

I liked the turbot with a delicate black truffle bouillabaisse–heady with the scent of truffle oil–but the fresh sardines with ramps, a special at lunch one day, were a bit too fishy.

Desserts included a spectacular gianduja (hazelnut-chocolate cream) feuilleté with milk chocolate ice cream, and a crusty pear tart with green apple sorbet. The hot mango charlotte was a disappointment with its dried-out bread crust. The winner was a chocolate mousse cake with chocolate sauce and hazelnut cream topped with curls of shaved chocolate that made it look like an entry at the 1939 World’s Fair.

“This place is like a parody of SoHo,” said one of my companions as we headed for the lobby after dinner one night. At that moment the glass elevator came down, revealing yet another Japanese tourist reading his guide book.

Palladin

* 1/2

224 West 49th Street

320-2929

Dress: Black

Noise level: High

Wine list: Excellent

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Lunch main courses $18 to $24; dinner main courses $22 to $28

Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 P.M.

Dinner: Sunday 5:30 P.M. to 10 P.M., Monday to Saturday to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor You Could Try Palladin-for-Hire, or Wait for the Real Thing