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Chef Joe Palma

Palma D'or

by David Hagedorn | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | January 22, 2015

When celebrity chef Michael Mina opened Bourbon Steak six years ago, he managed to bring a fresh idea to the steakhouse concept. Rather than stick to the formula that teamed slabs of meat with gigantic shrimp cocktails and cauldrons of creamed spinach large enough to feed four, he served refinement.

The setting, in Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, commands it. Instead of the English library look, Bourbon Steak is quietly elegant. Subdued lighting, cozy booths, C&O Canal views, and servers in crisp white shirts and vests with black-and-white-striped Repp-style ties all whisper money where other places scream it.

So does the fare. If you strip away the steaks, the menu reads like an up-to-date, chef-driven American restaurant serving serious food. And that’s what it is. Instead of lobster bisque loaded with cream and gooped with roux, you’ll find dishes like a Chesapeake chowder of finely cooked house-smoked oysters, fingerling potato halves, lumps of Maryland blue crab and bits of bacon resting in a stock-rich, creamy potage thickened by brioche.

Mina doesn’t put forth the idea that he’s the chef at Bourbon Steak. Rather, he hires talented chefs and puts them center stage, promoting them as their own entities and giving them creative freedom. The result has been a stream of notables (David Varley, Adam Sobel, John Critchley) whose work garnered new attention.

Enter chef Joe Palma, 34, whose mentors include Michel Richard, Yannick Cam and Eric Ripert. In 2012, Palma left a stint as chef de cuisine of West End Bistro after more than three years for a job in South Carolina, but returned to Washington for the Bourbon Steak gig when Critchley left last summer.

What I appreciate about Palma’s cooking is that it eschews modernist gimmicks for good ole (mostly classical French) technique. A mound of fresh scallop, hand-cut into a crudo tasting purely of the ocean, bolsters a quenelle-shaped portion of glistening gray-black caviar. Cauliflower puree adds a bite of the earth as it mingles with the sea. It’s clean, bright and lovely.

A warm vegetable salad is a stunning, flavorful semicircle of batons, cubes or halves of roasted baby carrots, turnips and rutabagas interspersed with spiced cashew granola. Celery-root puree acts as a sauce, heightening the seasonality of the dish. A square of tender chopped steak—seasoned with sesame oil and soy, and garnished with pickled coddled quail-egg halves, togarashi-sprinkled shrimp chips and peanuts—is a winning nontraditional tartare that plays with textures. Rectangular pillows of agnolotti filled with chestnut puree threaten to be overly sweet until brought into balance by the beefiness of roasted maitakes and rich red wine demi-glace. The dish may be replaced with bucatini (made with ground smoked corn added to the semolina dough) with littleneck clams and silken uni butter sauce Palma was trying out during one of my visits. If so, order it. A dish I could eat daily is a mushroom salad of roasted king trumpets and matsutakes, pickled beech mushrooms and lightly dressed shaved shiitakes. The yolk of a poached egg blends with the mushrooms and seeps into chunky garlic croutons, making each forkful a new pleasure.

Entrees also appeal. Of course, there’s the impressive selection of steaks, many butter-poached then wood-fired in the signature Mina fashion. A 40-ounce, 35-day dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye Tomahawk steak ($125) practically takes over the table—it’s enough for three to share. For wagyu aficionados, there’s A5 Japanese wagyu New York strip or rib cap, Australian wagyu flat-iron and American Strube ranch wagyu. The 12-ounce rib cap of the last ($92) has a nice tang and distinct richness. My advice: Share it—with an accompaniment. (Foie gras, anyone?) Speaking of foie gras, Palma’s pièce-de-résistance is his riff on tournedos rossini: tournedos of big-eye tuna poached in A5 wagyu fat and served with perigourdine sauce. He stands them next to Dauphine potatoes flecked with truffles.

Seared yellow grouper is perfectly cooked and doesn’t cower in the presence of cauliflower puree, red curry sauce and an apple salad. Roasted Muscovy duck breast with a tartlet of confit leg meat, toasted farro risotto and huckleberry sauce is a sound cold-weather offering.

Don’t overlook side dishes at Bourbon Steak: lush, roasted eggplant flavored with harissa and candied almonds, or the pile of hush puppies topped with jalapeno slices, corn and crabmeat. I also love the duck-fat fries (with lemon yogurt and smoked paprika aioli); the warm spiraled dinner rolls drenched in truffle butter; the afterdinner mignardises (truffles, coconut macaroons and passion-fruit macarons).

The restaurant features a premier wine-by-the-glass program. Outstanding options include Castelo de Medina Verdejo, Steele Cabernet Franc Writer’s Block and the smashing Hidden Ridge cabernet sauvignon.

For dessert, the quivering orange-scented creamsicle panna cotta—garnished with thin shards of cranberry caramel, spiced ginger crumble, piped dollops of toasted meringue and pomegranate seed—is the way to go. If you think you may not be able to rationalize it, forgo the foie gras on your steak.

Bourbon Steak
Four Seasons Hotel
2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Appetizers, $16-$35; entrees, $29-$125; desserts, $11

Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2:30pm; Sun.-Thu., 6-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30pm

Now Sea This
You have to love a place that lists Hudson Valley foie gras and bone marrow as steak accompaniments. But the real stars of that category are large prawns sauteed with garlic and red chili pepper, and half a broiled lobster thermidor stuffed with chunks of claw and knuckle meat. Add that to your steak, and you have the best surf and turf in town.

Sumptuous Sauce
I’m not usually a saucy kind of guy, but I make an exception at Bourbon Steak because the resto offers some top-notch condiments for its righteous cuts of meat. Don’t pass up the aji verde (a pureed chimichurri of cilantro, parsley, lime juice and jalapeno); bagna cauda of chopped ember-roasted beets, onions and peppers in vinaigrette; and kimchee butter made with whipped rendered A5 wagyu fat and butter.