I wonder if he suspected we weren't Brown Palace regulars.
But it turned out it didn't matter, because the century-old Brown and its restaurants--the Mobil Travel Guide's four-star-rated Palace Arms, the classically casual Ship Tavern and the breakfast-lunch-and-blowout-Sunday-brunch Ellyngton's--treats everyone with the utmost snooty-free respect. And after three straight weeks of wanting to karate-chop fellow Christmas shoppers and clinging salespeople, it was wonderful to be ushered into the welcoming Palace Arms.
Against the backdrop of Napoleonic knick-knacks, booths of red leather (real--I smelled it when the waiter wasn't looking), and a crowd made up of old-money types and Asian businessmen, our holiday stress melted away like a cheap bayberry candle. The lighting--twinkling from seasonal decorations--was dim enough to hide wrinkles, and the staff was doing its best Jeeves impression, albeit an updated Jeeves impression. Even the time-honored tradition of bringing a phone to the table with a "Call for you, sir," has evolved: Rather than an elegant, old-fashioned model, we were confronted by a streamlined cordless with nasty blinking eyes.
With the help of Swiss transplant Rene H. Weder, the kitchen has also rung out the old, Escoffier-heavy menu and rung in the new, "fusion" style of mixing and matching international cuisines and lighter ingredients. Although we still found some of the classics (most dubbed "Memories of Menus Past") and even ordered a few, relics such as beef Wellington are now keeping company with seared pheasant breast with an achiote crust and basmati rice cake. This is the Palace Arms, though, so nothing too shocking surfaced, and even the more adventurous compositions erred on the side of good taste.
And they tasted good, too. The escargot phyllo purse ($7.75) looked more like a miniature suitcase that someone had to sit on in order to squeeze in all those steamy snails; pooled around the package was a fennel-scented, goat-cheese-thickened cream sauce studded with--here's the fun part--bits of fried horseradish root and horseradish sprouts for a wicked bite. As a counterpoint to that risky little appetizer, we'd ordered the more traditional smoked duck and goose liver terrine ($7.50), our third choice behind the Petrossian Beluga caviar with cornmeal and chive blinis (the current market value is $36 for about a tablespoon of fish eggs). The terrine was more filling, anyway, and came with a wonderful sweet-and-sour swirl of cherry chutney thinned at the edges by a character-filled port-wine syrup.
At a meal like this it's easy to get carried away, so we exhibited some moderation and split a hearts of romaine "California" salad ($5.75). The romaine leaves were so pristine that a diamond necklace draped across them would not have looked out of place; instead, they had been adorned with sliced melon and brushed with a roasted balsamic vinaigrette. We thought we were squelching further excess by ordering two of the consommes rather than a bisque. But the shellfish consomme ($4.75) housed heavenly lobster medallions and salmon roe (along with capers that had all the life rinsed and squeezed out of them); the smoked duck version ($4.75) came packed with venison sweetbreads and concentrated flavor. Both soups were served with plenty of pomp and circumstance, with the broth poured from silver boats into garnished bowls.
The soups were so good we could forget the Melba toast that had been waiting on the table. Although Melba toast was created by Escoffier--who was so inspired by an opera singer named Melba that he also invented that cornstarchy raspberry-currant jelly sauce for peaches--that doesn't mean the Brown has to serve the stuff. Intended as an accompaniment to soups and salads, melba toast is novel on first bite but quickly fades into why-on-earth-would-anyone-who's-not-teething-want-to-eat-this? territory. The Melba toast was a stodgy disappointment, and so was the fact that we had to pay $1.75 for a scoop of sorbet--you'd think that when a couple shells out $200 for dinner the palate-cleansers would be complimentary. But the peach concoction spiked with champagne was almost too tasty to be considered a real palate-cleanser, and the presentation was worth the additional price: The sorbet was served on a marvel of an ice ring in which several leaves had been frozen, and all that was served on a large piece of fern.
We would have been better off eating that greenery than the shellfish risotto ($25). The main problem with this preparation was that the kitchen had failed to use arborio rice. Actually, no one would admit to what kind of rice had been used, but it certainly wasn't a very good rice. It had the consistency of Uncle Ben's, and the bland lobster hunks and lackluster tiger shrimp didn't help raise the standards any. Strangely, the scallops were perfect: silky, perfumy, cooked to the millisecond before doneness and soaked with the essence of sauteed red bell peppers. But they weren't enough to save the risotto.
Fortunately, our other entree was a winner--but then, the Brown has had a century to get the recipe right. The kitchen has been making the duck a l'orange ($20) since 1892--and it should never, ever stop, because the dish was magnificent. Half a duck had been lovingly roasted, then blanketed by the richest of sauces and sparked by Grand Marnier for a taste that was part entree and part dessert. The sauce was so good we found ourselves eating carrots a l'orange, lima beans a l'orange, Melba toast a l'orange, fingers a l'orange--anything that would enable us to get every drop of that elixir. I couldn't finish all the duck meat and asked the waiter if I could take it home--but only on the condition that he scrape all of the sauce residue into the container. When he returned with the take-home package, he informed us that the chef had found it in his heart to add more sauce. I almost kissed him.
After the duck, we didn't really need dessert. Which was lucky, because the desserts we ordered weren't anything special. The lemon curd cheesecake ($5.50), which had been described as "light," had the flavor of lemon pudding and the texture of bubble gum. And while the soup portion of the warm chocolate soup ($7.50) was better than the best hot chocolate, the Grand Marnier flan mired in the center was a water-logged sponge that didn't taste of Grand Marnier and was too droopy and liquidy to be a decent flan. A plate of the Brown's gooey, warm macaroons came alongside our bill, though, and provided a nice finish to a mostly marvelous meal.
Of course, we'd been smitten all along with the flattering service and the soothing atmosphere, carefully orchestrated to make us feel like we weren't the weary parents of a child who rarely lets us eat a sandwich without interruption, let alone a six-course meal. This restaurant is one of those rare places that lets you transcend toddlers--and we appreciated being treated royally.
Alas. When we left the Palace and stepped out into the cold air to retrieve our coach, we found that it had turned back into a Toyota.