Michel Richard gets around
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011
Even weeks before it opened in early November, everybody was talking about Meatballs in Penn Quarter - everybody save for the parties said to be responsible for bringing the fast-food establishment to life. Those would be Mark Bucher, the founder of BGR: The Burger Joint and of Medium Rare, the steak frites pit stop in Cleveland Park; and Michel Richard, the French chef whose name and fame are linked to Citronelle in Georgetown and Central downtown.
According to the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, neither one is listed on the paperwork. But Richard's name is trumpeted on the menu. In published interviews, both men have said their ties to the concept - in which customers line up at a counter to choose from five types of "rounded meat," assorted starches and sauces - are a matter of friends helping friends, nothing more.
When I reached out to Bucher for a comment, it was Jonathan Theriault, the general manager at Meatballs, who returned the call. "It's all Michel Richard," he replied when I asked about Bucher's role. But what about Bucher's signature on the records? "Michel is too busy to do all that himself."
Richard was not too busy to chat with me before press time. "I love meatballs!" said the James Beard Award winner. The top toque has fond childhood memories of eating his mother's pork meatballs poached in potato broth. But it sounds as though the ideas he's providing Meatballs, a light-filled storefront painted red and paved in concrete, are getting lost in translation.
"We try to make it better every day," Richard says of the orbs flavored not only with beef but also with lamb, chicken, crab and lentils and transferred to a choice of long rolls, pasta, salad greens or polenta. "We are going to make them better, moister."
This patron sure hopes so. I've visited Meatballs twice, and as clever as the concept sounds, the execution leaves an unfortunate taste in my mouth. If a business is going to specialize, it has to do that one thing right. The meatballs I've tried have been inconsistent: sometimes dense, sometimes pasty in the center, sometimes mute. They miss the texture that develops when meat is seared or caramelized. (Vegetarians might be as disappointed as carnivores here, judging from the slick center of the heavy lentil balls.) The best of the middling has been ground lamb hinting of the Middle East with its spicing. Try it as a grinder, with hot peppers.
Reinforcing the self-service restaurant's theme is a display of spheres below the food counter: ping-pong balls, marbles, jawbreakers, tennis balls and holiday decorations. The visual provides a nice distraction from some central problems, one of which is customers driven to the joint because of the involvement, however serious, of a famous chef. "Do I want meatballs that taste like Citronelle food?" Richard wondered aloud during our conversation. "I don't know."
According to Theriault, the restaurant's headliners are made "somewhere in Maryland" by a company called Prime Food and warmed up at Meatballs, which apparently lacks much of a kitchen. Some of the sauces and vegetables, on the other hand, come from Cuisine Solutions in Alexandria, a producer of sous-vide dishes. The marinara sauce reveals a bright tang, and the morel sauce is true to the woodsy mushroom, but a side dish of collard greens lacked any hint of vinegar in its seasoning.
Listening to the details, one gets the sense that the subject is airline catering rather than a prototype for more Meatballs.
A friend passing by the front window spotted me and stopped in to offer a tip: "You'll need Febreze later." He was right. The food on my table - dense beef meatballs, mixed greens you might find at 30,000 feet, crab balls that tasted a day away from the shore - remained largely uneaten; the dirty tables around me remained in that condition too long. For such a new business, Meatballs felt unsupervised and less than fresh. Still hungry, my partner in crime and I made a beeline for the finest Indian food I know, just around the corner.
"The best thing about lunch at Meatballs," he said an hour later, "is going to lunch afterward at Rasika."