Palette adds Southern color

After a stumbling start, Palette, the graceful new restaurant that opened at the newly refurbished Madison Hotel in January, seems to have regained its footing, thanks to a talented young chef whose culinary style was shaped in the low country of his native South Carolina.

One dish alone illustrates the approach that Executive Chef James Clark has taken since replacing Charlie Hansji on March 15. It’s that humble but classic staple of Southern cuisine, hominy grits.

Palette Chef James Clark

But this isn’t your ordinary, everyday stone-milled dried corn cooked up as a gritty white mush that every true Southerner swears by. Instead, it’s cooked with a touch of cream and rabbit stock with foie-gras butter folded in and served as a dinner side dish ($9).

A delicious combination of flavors and textures that Clark calls “uptown grits,” it’s only one of the many dishes that trace their origins to Clark’s boyhood in Orangeburg, S.C., where he watched his mother and grandmother prepare meals in the family kitchen, and to apprenticeships with D.C. Coast’s Jeff Tunks in New Orleans and at other restaurants in Atlanta and Charleston.

Hansji abruptly departed because of “creative differences,” according to General Manager Corey Nyman. Diners were overwhelmed — or perhaps underwhelmed — by Hansji’s too-complex cooking, which featured dishes such as a club sandwich composed of foie gras, Ahi tuna, portobello mushroom and blood-orange mayonnaise, or grilled swordfish with tangerine lobster sauce or lobster doughnuts with cilantro.

The 33-year-old Clark seems almost preordained to rescue Palette. For one thing, Clark and his wife, Marcey, a pastry chef he met while refining his low-country style at the New England Culinary Institute, have a 3-year-old daughter named Madison. For another, his uncle is a close friend and political ally of South Carolina’s senior Democratic senator, Fritz Hollings.

Finally, when Hansji, a New Zealand native of Indian descent who was hired with great fanfare, didn’t work out, Nyman turned to Clark, whom he had helped recruit in 2002 to take over the kitchen at Vidalia’s in Myrtle Beach, S.C. — no relation to Jeff Bubin’s Vidalia in D.C.

15th and M Streets N.W.
(202) 587-2700
Hours: Lunch, noon-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner, 6-10:30 p.m. Mon-Thurs., 6-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Sun. Valet parking available.
Prices: Expensive. Luncheon appetizers $6-$12, entrees $12-$19; dinner appetizers $8-$13, entrees $16-$39. Full dinner with glass of wine, tax and tip, $65-$75 per person.

Rating: 3 1/2 Domes

Food: 8 Ambiance: 8
Service: 7 Price/Value: 7

Ratings: Based on one-to-10 scale for food, service, ambiance and price/value; up to five domes based on reviewer’s judgment.

“I knew we needed someone who could combine an American culinary sensibility with ingredients that reflect Palette’s exploration of the three regions known as the Americas,” Nyman said. “I felt he fit the bill. His food is creative, yet understandable and accessible.”

That doesn’t mean Clark’s cooking isn’t sophisticated. Take, for example, his luncheon version of the aforementioned club sandwich, which Clark has reinvented as an open-face sandwich of Ahi tuna with fried green tomatoes, lettuce, wild-boar bacon and roasted red peppers ($12), served with sweet-potato fries.

Or his offering of seared rockfish served with a ragout of spring ramps and morel mushrooms, spiked with Smithfield ham ($23), which I had at dinner recently. My guest, Werner Peters, a German political scientist and Expressionist art aficionado who owns the Chelsea Hotel in Cologne, was impressed with his roasted saddle of spring rabbit, accompanied by the uptown grits and caramelized baby vegetables ($28).

All three of the dishes exemplify Clark’s approach of focusing on a half-dozen fresh seasonal ingredients prepared so as to enrich their flavors, not unlike the approach of his mother and grandmother, who, when they made shrimp Creole, were careful not to deviate from the traditional recipe. “They didn’t use spicy tomato sauce but enriched tomato sauce that paired nicely with the sweet shrimp,” he explained.

Clark, whose hefty frame signals his love of food, said he tries to replicate food “that people grew up eating at home but with a white tablecloth, food that doesn’t look like their mother or grandmother fixed but doesn’t taste like it either.”

Clark demonstrated his talent for using fresh seasonal ingredients last week, when he showed The Hill’s photographer Patrick Ryan and me how he prepares Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crabs. Working over a stove in his superheated kitchen, he cooked a pair of newly molted crabs in a pan with olive oil and butter, then set them aside while he cooked morel mushrooms, smoked tomatoes and fava beans, which he topped with the crustaceans and presented for our tasting. Delicious.

Clark said he hasn’t had time to invent a signature dish but is working on several.

One is a rack of veal from Virginia’s Summerfield Farms, served with rum-glazed onions and warm chayote fennel slaw ($38). The latter is a type of squash that has the texture and sweetness of a pear or apple. Because the veal is from free-range calves instead of milk-fed, it is red rather than white.

Another is even more ambitious. It’s roasted Columbia River sturgeon served with braised ox tail and fried Savoy cabbage ($28), and even though Clark admits it’s not selling well, he’s confident it soon will.

More power to him. He and his kitchen staff of 15, including pastry chef Jean Louis Brocardi, a native of Marseille, are turning out truly impressive food, but the service needs a tune-up. Still, it’s better than in February, when The Hill’s associate publisher, Fran Chervek, and I waited 10 minutes at lunch for our order to be taken, even though there were fewer than a half-dozen other diners, and 20 minutes longer for our orders to arrive.

But I’m impressed with Clark’s intelligent and imaginative effort to appeal to the tastes of Washingtonians, who tend to be less adventurous than their New York or Los Angeles counterparts. I’m also impressed with Palette’s sleek avant-garde d