Have Whisk, Will Travel

Those of us obsessed by the quality of life our mouths experience have been waiting for Jean-Louis Palladin to brave the prickly canyons of our town. And for years, the celebrated chef has lusted to feed us. It’s a Pyramus and Thisbe tale. Liberated after seventeen years in the kitchen of Jean Louis at the Watergate, the gravel-voiced Gascon knew it was time to work for himself. He started sniffing out vacancies three and a half years ago. Then canny Las Vegans lured him to be the class act at their Rio hotel, promising to back his Gotham itch. Early on, there were rumors Palladin would move into the old Restaurant Bouley on Duane. Next came cuisinary bulletins that he had his eye on the former Le Cirque site. After that, it was East 49th Street, and later Bombay Palace. So a pride of crocodiles spitting bullets in the shape of Tums were waiting to storm designer Adam Tihany’s slickly handsome ebony-and-glass Time hotel for a taste of Palladin.

These dishes are powerful exclamations – Palladin signatures, foie gras-riddled memories of Gascony – but also testimony to great American product. They stand almost alone on monster-size plates, looking unlike anyone else’s food. Not quite what I expected of the youngest chef ever to score two Michelin stars, but then it’s a long way to Times Square from Condom (the small southwestern town 95 kilometers from Toulouse, France, where Palladin was born). This is the casual Palladin, he suggests, and the Time is advertised as a hotel for the millennium.

So, of course, the bar has a spaceship feel and a view of the trendy all-glass elevator rising nakedly to the lobby proper as we home in on the night-sky jewel-box dining room all gleaming dark wood and steel frame. So dim, so sexy. Color-field prints that aren’t even pretending to be Rothkos (I want to hope) float in light boxes. No help at all in reading the menu, they cast a sensuous glow on the testosterone-ticking black-clad quintet, music-world honchos, I suppose. Small pots of herbs sit on the polyester-and-cotton runners that form crosses on bare black tables, a touch of humility in all this swank: The heavy silverware. Classic sauce spoons and doll-size marrow scoops. The exaggerated plates, big and bigger, up to the sixteen-inch oval that frames six inches of splendid rib eye and twelve fries beatified in melted foie gras.

But the luxe is sabotaged by the relentless din and the annoying jostle at tables packed closely – like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle – that challenge the amiable if somewhat undercoached crew. I’m stuck facing the fluorescent excrescence from the garage across the street so brilliantly but (surely) unexpectedly reflected on the farthest wall of the back room where it vies with a view of the kitchen.

An olive roll with anchovy butter later, we’re somehow inured to the bruises and excitedly focused on clams and tiny truffle dumplings populating creamy pea soup and the voluptuous bits of oxtail, foie gras, and sweetbreads wrapped in Palladin’s traditional crepinette (France’s glorious version of a meatball) alongside marrow flan baked in the bone. Veal shank sliced from the bone is moist and meaty, rich but not as fatty as the luscious veal cheeks a few nights later. And the rib eye makes up in character for what it lacks in brute size. But I can barely cut the potato pancake under the salmon four ways, none of them impressive. All the elements of a sweetbread, foie gras, and wild mushroom terrine – like an exquisite work of marquetry – have the same too-firm texture. And the second batch of fries is soft and wimpy, though still oversalted.

And so it goes at a second dinner and then again at lunch. Tiny rings of tenderest Japanese squid enliven asparagus salad. Lime and wonderful seaweed gelée add luster to thick slices of ahi and hamachi carpaccio. Garlicky baby eels are a wondrous and expensive ($22) special starter. A clever ravigote of sweetbreads, chopped egg, and capers surrounds polenta-crusted skate cooked exactly as requested. The suckling pig stuffing is all texture thrills. (And don’t think Betty Crocker invented the marshmallow that glazes the sweet potatoes. It’s called guimauve in early French pastry books.)

The unorthodox crab cake – a baseball of luscious crab chunks just lightly bound and roasted, not fried – is disappointing. As my mate, the Road Food Warrior, observes, “Exactly the way you’d like a crab cake to be … until you taste it.” Capon is dry and boring. Cardboard chicken breast on a baguette is a poor excuse for a sandwich at lunch. A heavy hand on the salt shaker that might not faze fellow French expats like Jacques Pepin and Alain Sailhac at the next table is jarring to me in the fine duck confit and even in an exquisite lobster-coral emulsion with floats of Louisiana crayfish and soft ribbons of potato gnocchi.

Pastry chef Sam Mason’s mango charlotte, the gianduja (hazelnut-chocolate) feuilleté, and the citrus panna cotta are all better than plain-Jane flavorless pear tart. And though I’ve sworn to scorn any riff on tonight’s creme brulee, I surrender to sensational bittersweet chocolate.

The truth is, this is not the home Palladin has been seeking. He’s not even an owner here. He’s a hired gun like the Paladin of our video childhood – signed up by the Chatwal family-run Hampshire hotel chain. Palladin, almost ingenuously enthusiastic, seems content to have given his name away for a percentage here, and he’s confident entrusting Timothy Dean, a seven-year Watergate veteran, not to tarnish it. That’s because he’s still hunting a home for Jean Louis and feels closer than ever. So surely he’s rushed back to his Las Vegas kitchen too quickly. Not yet a month old, the restaurant beyond the naked elevator definitely needs more than fine-tuning. No one can object to a chef splintering. Jean-Georges Vongerichten has seedlings across the globe, and Wolfgang Puck is a major conglomerate.

But Palladin left an infant behind, still in the incubator. He had a Bon Appetit magazine dinner for 2,000 back in Las Vegas, he says, and besides, it was his birthday. Someone should have warned him how this city gobbles up overconfident carpetbaggers, even modest charmers like himself who paid their dues in the farm leagues. Well, he promises to be back this week and vows to spend three weeks a month here once he signs that elusive lease. Then I expect we will catch Jean-Louis skateboarding around Manhattan, silencing our sputters with generous applications of foie gras.

Palladin at the Time, 224 West 49th Street (320-2929). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Sunday 5:30 to 11 p.m. A.E., M.C., V.

Have Whisk, Will Travel