Poor Blake Joyal. The Palace Hotel chef wasn't in the kitchen on my third and final visit, during which the staff apparently figured out my reason for being there. When he learned about it, he took the news hard: The next day, he dispatched a messenger to The Post and Courier newsroom with a helping of short rib rendang tucked into a gift basket. Then he tried to arrange a private meal for me.
I don't accept free food, so I didn't taste the short rib. And submitting to a meal meant to impress, especially when a chef under review is doing the cooking, is ethically all kinds of wrong. But, boy, it wasn't easy saying no. I was floored by the quality of Joyal's work on previous visits, and would have loved to have sampled his A-game. Even if I was a rule bender, though, another eating session wasn't necessary. I was already sold.
Still, Joyal's energetic efforts weren't entirely in vain. His attempts to spark a repeat rendezvous provides a pretty good example of the kind of urgency and resolve you should apply toward getting yourself to the Palace Hotel. The food is great.
As for everything else, that probably requires a little more explanation. The Palace Hotel, which is neither a hotel nor palatial, comes with a wagonload of caveats. Despite the superlative plates, the venue's owners keep emphasizing its inbred divey nature. Listen closely when they speak. If you're the least bit put off by un-polished surroundings or the notion of canned beer and snacks for supper, you might find The Palace Hotel problematic.
To start, the Palace Hotel is located on Hanover Street. It's a residential area, as I was reminded when I encountered small clusters of churchgoers walking home from a Greater Beard Chapel social with slices of cake. But Hanover also has an entrepreneurial streak: Of the 22 arrests recorded on the street in May, nearly one-quarter of them were associated with drug dealing. I always felt safe, but a surprising number of people I invited to the Palace Hotel, including a man twice my size, expressed wariness about the neighborhood when I mentioned it.
Also in the worth-knowing column: The Palace Hotel is intentionally scruffy. The mismatched decor has an Austin-style charm, but the plastic chairs, peeling paint and clashing patterns would probably drive a certain kind of diner nuts. Let's just say that folks who don't feel the stirrings of nostalgia upon passing the Ms. Pac-Man machine on their way to the back deck might not love it.
The stark contrast between the casual atmosphere and serious food reminds me of Asheville's The Admiral in its first year or two, before it became another trophy for restaurant experience hunters to capture. On a Saturday afternoon in June, two men who'd spent the day drinking (and had the wristbands to prove it) ambled up to the bar for booze and juice. The bartender quietly made their drinks with freshly squeezed OJ and cheerfully welcomed a pair of sun-beaten, halfway-sloshed patrons who didn't come hungry. Plenty of folks show up solely for the Miller High Life ponies.
Really, those guys should have eaten. The hot dogs that formed the core of The Palace Hotel's menu before Joyal was recruited to run the kitchen are still around, and they're a fine choice. While I wouldn't stand between anybody and the Get-Low Country Dog, a whopping bundle of rich beef chili and tangy pimiento cheese, scattered with broken-up potato sticks, my heart's with the modestly named Chicago-Style Dog.
Here, the snappy-cased hot dog somehow seems smaller, its fattiness veiled by a kinetic patchwork of diced hot peppers and sliced young pickles, crisp and clean as laundered sheets. But what makes the dog is a torrent of vinegar-soaked mustard seeds. Although the crunchy, swollen seeds aren't a traditional condiment, Chicago's aldermen may want to see what they can do about updating the standard recipe before the James Beard Awards ceremony rides into town next year.
Late at night, hot dogs and tacos are the only menu items available. The cauliflower taco, bedded on a griddled corn tortilla, is a plucky blend of spicy salsa borracha and smooth tahini edged with malt vinegar. The salsa borracha (which could well be the excuse for the fresh orange juice) is just terrific. It has an old-time, fruity flavor, with a murmur of bitterness; the latter, not-unattractive quality probably comes from the alcohol needed for "drunken" salsa.
For the full range of the kitchen's capabilities, it's best to show up earlier, when you can order the garlicky, brittle-skinned potatoes, tossed with smoky chorizo and seated in a fragrant salsa verde. Or the overwhelmingly excellent rice cakes, dressed in an umami bonanza of soy sauce and oyster sauce. (These are rice cakes in the Asian sense, meaning chewy discs of glutinous rice flour, not the Styrofoam-like American diet staple.) One of my dining companions was so taken with the cakes that when her colleagues recently repaired to a bar to wash away a stressful meeting, she headed straight to The Palace Hotel for another serving.
With so many distinctly Asian and Mexican flavors at play, Joyal's cooking has a West Coast feel. But his resume is dominated by New York City, where he served as executive chef of Country and sous chef at Craft, among other gigs. He was most recently chef de cuisine of Wong, which explains the rice cakes and the brilliant-sounding dishes that have lately been popping up on the specials menu, including a Malaysian fried chicken and the rendang I missed.
The menu is still mostly a small-plate scene, though. The one outlier - ribs smoked on a Big Green Egg - was the only dish that failed to thrill, perhaps because the contraption did more work than the chef.
Joyal's talent is key. On the night he was away, the dishes lacked their usual presence and verve. A grilled watermelon salad sort of sagged in his absence. Yet when Joyal's in charge, the most basic ingredients are transmogrified. That salad, featuring slightly gelled watermelon segments, shredded ricotta salata and a huge dose of pepper, was spectacular. So was a pile of wrinkly shishito peppers, blistered and brushed with oil warmed by cayenne pepper. The peppers are intermittently hot, so Joyal doesn't stint on the crumbled queso fresco.
I believe I will be going back.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.