Michel Richard's Mass Appeal
*** Central Michel Richard
1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Monday through Friday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sundays. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: Metro Center. Valet parking at dinner.
Dinner prices: appetizers $6 to $18, entrees $16 to $30. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $80 per person.
No chef likes a culinary joke more than Michel Richard. And no chef knows how to stage one more deftly than he does. Until recently, however, you had to reserve well in advance -- and shell out a considerable sum of money -- for the privilege of one of his performances at Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown, where his bag of tricks includes such four-star amusements as Israeli couscous masquerading as caviar and "breakfast" for dessert. (The "toast" is made from poundcake, and the "egg" features a yolk of pureed papaya and a white coaxed from almond custard.)
The recent debut of Central Michel Richard downtown opens up the field for more than the rich and the famous. The newcomer also signals a welcome trendlette: top chefs opening informal places to eat. (Coming up next: Brasserie Beck on K Street NW from Robert Wiedmaier of the buttoned-up Marcel's and a yet-to-be-named casual restaurant from the esteemed New York chef Eric Ripert in the West End.)
Central (pronounced sen-TRAHL) is the warmhearted bistro Richard says he has long wanted to launch and the restaurant that so many of us crave nowadays. From the hostess comes a greeting that feels genuine, and not a whiff of attitude. From the sommelier we get a delicious deal. And from the kitchen, led by Richard's protege, Cedric Maupillier, the former executive sous-chef at Citronelle, we find fetching still lifes that often taste as good as they look, at prices that have us pinching ourselves: Did I really just buy a Richard creation that rocked my world and that cost a single digit?
That's been my experience with the Ping-Pong-ball-size gougeres, served piping hot in a wire vase and as good as cheese puffs get, as well as with the onion tart, as rich and thin as Paris Hilton (thanks to creme fraiche in the topping) and offered as two crackling half-moons on a wooden board. Slightly more expensive and just as compelling is asparagus vinaigrette. If any green vegetable has the power to set a heart aflutter, it's this first course. The slightly curved, brilliant-green stalks are arranged like perfect commas on their long white plate; with the help of a scattering of chervil and a sauceboat of pitch-perfect vinaigrette, the asparagus sing.
Ready for some fun? Request an appetizer of duck rillettes and "faux gras" terrine. It's a rich assembly of shredded duck, thin toasted bread for spreading and a terrine that pretends to contain fancy duck liver (foie gras) but substitutes a puree of chicken liver and butter, instead -- the "faux" foie, in other words. The maestro's sense of humor extends to the list of beers, which mixes Bud in with the more artisanal suds, and even to the decor: To the side of the host stand rises a leaning tower of $175 dinner plates, to which Richard is considering adding giant forks, just to make people smile when they stroll in.
The kitchen sends out bistro classics that taste as if they had been FedExed from one of the Michelin Guide's bib gourmand (good value) picks in Paris. Hanger steak is pleasantly chewy and juicy, seasoned with not much more than sea salt and escorted by crisp golden french fries that are some of the best in town (frying them in canola oil and clarified butter lends the snack a nice nutty note); dressing up the dish are glistening greens and the only "ketchup" you'll need: mayonnaise. Salmon is cooked to near-melting and comes with a bed of lentils infused with balsamic vinegar and what tastes like cream but turns out to be the water left over from cooking white beans. The enhancers allow the legumes to deliver a bravura performance. French onion soup is perfectly proper, and while there's no shame in that, the bowl of chicken broth and melted cheese is not as exciting as some of its menu mates.
Richard was born in Brittany, France, but he has lived more than 30 years in the United States and clearly loves waving the American flag. How else to explain the inclusion of fried chicken, a hamburger and a banana split on Central's menu? That chicken, by the way, is dynamite, its flesh luxurious, its coat of bread crumbs light and airy. This being Washington, there's a crab cake on the menu, and it's very good, perched on a nest of shredded leeks bound with mayonnaise and vinegar.