The best news to come out of a recent dinner at Villard Michel Richard, the sumptuous collection of dining rooms inspired by Michel Richard and ensconced in the Palace hotel, is this: The French chef who dazzled us at the late Citronelle in Georgetown is mulling over another run in Washington.
And now, for the less-enticing dispatch:
Early last month, I called Villard and made a reservation for what I thought was Richard’s 50-seat Gallery, which the chef likened in a pre-launch interview to “Citronelle, but lighter.” Where I actually land — after a welcome at the coat check that is as frosty as the winter air — is a nook in Siberia in Villard’s casual bistro, where a menu of salads, burgers and fried chicken channels the list at Richard’s breezy Central in the District.
I didn’t come to New York to eat what I already know, however; the tasting menu at the more sophisticated Gallery had always been my aim. When I tell a manager in the bistro that there has been a mistake, that no one on the phone had suggested there might be a choice of venues when I reserved, he tells me that the Gallery is fully booked for the night, but that he’ll see what he can do. For the next 30 minutes, he avoids eye contact with me, and it is only when I am recognized as a critic that Gallery manager and former Citronelle host Jean-Jacques Retourné comes to our rescue. The restaurant, Retourné says, is working on its glitches, including its reservation system.
Whereas the bistro is big, brash and loud, the Gallery is intimate, dim and hushed. Leaning against its wood-paneled walls are outsize black-and-white photographs of Hollywood stars (Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn) in gold-leafed white frames. Très luxe.
Bad timing, Retourné announces as we settled in. Richard is out of town for a charity function. Stepping away from the stove less than two months after launch and before the Gray Lady weighs in with a critique? The chef is a brave man. Or maybe he’s confident in the skill set of his executive chef, Romuald Jung, a French native who last worked as a corporate chef at the New York-based Bagatelle and was among 10 contenders for the job.
Richard didn’t just write the script; he helped dress the restaurant. I have to disagree with his decision to illuminate the tables from beneath. Not only does the ghostly lighting conjure a seance, the detail prevents Gallery patrons from clearly seeing their food while magnifying any spot on the linen (and, oui, there was a stain).
But even in brighter surroundings, this is not especially beautiful or memorable cooking. A mosaic of surf and turf — shavings of raw lobster, sirloin, tuna and more — lacks both the artful design and the contrasting flavors of the original I recall so fondly from Citronelle. Rosy Colorado lamb set against aromatic white beans and a pool of jalapeño sauce is pretty and pleasant, but no more than that. As at Citronelle, desserts at the Gallery can make you smile, if a little less than in the city where they were dreamed up. Even the bread, from Paris baker Eric Kayser, tastes less fresh than in other restaurants that offer it, including the four-star seafood temple Le Bernardin, also in Manhattan.
In brief: Fans of the four-star Citronelle are likely to be disappointed by what they find in the Gallery, which lacks the whimsy that’s long been a signature of Richard’s cooking. The chef suggests as much when I ask him in a follow-up conversation about the, ahem, straightforward presentations in what was meant to be a tour de force. “I don’t have the same employees,” he says, referring to his team in Washington.
It’s not just the food; waiters go through the motions of taking orders and depositing dishes in joyless fashion. As for the “fully booked” Gallery, several tables go wanting for patrons throughout my Saturday evening dinner.
The check, for a four-course tasting menu for two with drinks and wine, stings. Six hundred dollars is a lot to pay for copies of originals.
The mood brightens when Retourné drops by to say Richard is actively looking for real estate in Washington, where he hopes to return full time in a year or so, a disclosure the chef confirms later.
But tonight, in snowy Manhattan, the Palace is performing unevenly, everywhere. Somehow, I’m not surprised when two coat checkers meet my male dining companion and me at the podium bearing two women’s wraps.
“Citronelle, but lighter,” indeed.
455 Madison Ave., New York. 212-891-8100. villardmichelrichard.com. Four courses in the Gallery $150, eight-course tasting menu $185.