By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 19, 2010; W31
Even some of his friends suggested that Tysons Corner was a poor location for Michel Richard's chic third area restaurant.
No one will want to fight the suburb's notorious traffic, they told the acclaimed French chef. Fellow boldface culinary names -- Bob Kinkead, Jonathan Krinn -- had already tried and failed in Tysons Corner, the skeptics reminded him. And didn't the intended site, the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, home to the great, late Maestro, run counter to the way so many diners prefer to eat these days?
I was a doubting Thomas myself. But that was before I drove from downtown Washington to McLean on a rainy Wednesday in November in just 32 minutes and before I tasted the escargot tart at Michel, which, after several years of speculation, finally made its debut in late October. Chef de cuisine Levi Mezick, 34, whose talent was lost on the Jockey Club in the Fairfax Hotel, serves as the able executor of Richard's latest project.
About that aforementioned tart: Like so much of what Richard creates at his other restaurants, the refined Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown and the bistro-style Michel Richard Central downtown, the first course is described on the menu in just a few words, almost as if Richard hopes to keep secret its construction until it arrives. Those snails are served in thin slices rather than whole morsels, and they line a delicate pizza crust spread with a vibrant pesto and decorated with flossy greens. The dish is a luscious step toward delivering "a good American restaurant with a small French accent," as Richard put it earlier this year.
That tart is one of multiple dishes that can make a diner's heart race with excitement (spoiler alert: Desserts are divine), but it keeps company with a few plates suggestive of a less significant restaurant. One of the detractors is a school of shrimp whose spiky coats of shredded phyllo explain their "porcupine" billing. The seafood is fine, and the sound effects (a Richard hallmark; he loves to insert snaps and crackles in his food) are fun. But why does the show sit on mute white flageolets? Similarly, an entree of rockfish is bonded to a sliver of brioche, a clever technique marred by muddy-tasting fish and a crust that oozes grease with each bite. There's a riff on Vietnamese pho fashioned from soba noodles and sablefish that is more elegant than delicious. Slurping the soup, which is heavy on soy sauce, makes me wish for one of the bowls served in dozens of humbler restaurants around Washington.
Richard is one of the country's finest chefs, but in these early months, not everything on the menu at Michel, the restaurant, upholds Michel, the artist. For better or for worse, the guy is a perfectionist, constantly tinkering with his recipes and presentations. Add the stress of a hotel restaurant obligated to serve three meals a day, six days a week, and it's a small wonder Mezick and his colleagues perform as well as they do.
Clearly, adjustments are in order. In some cases, accompaniments are more impressive than the centers of the plate. The rib-eye is fine, for instance, but I'd rather make a meal of the crisp haricots verts and house-made tater tots the beef arrives with. Duck is similarly upstaged by root vegetables and crisp ribbons of parsnip floating across the plate.
That still leaves lots to laud, especially among appetizers. Smoked salmon alternating with lemony herbed cream cheese in a terrine of dozens of thin, pink-on-white layers is elegant and delicious. ("Where's my bagel?" cracked a dining companion.) Sauteed scallops put you right on Nantucket Bay with their ocean sweetness. Interlocking bracelets of fried onion atop the seafood give it the chef's stamp, and the appetizer's shallot jus justifies eating more bread to sop up the goodness. The most novel start to dinner looks just like spaghetti carbonara -- tastes like it, too -- save for one detail: What you think is pasta is actually long, white ribbons of onion, cooked al dente. But the most fetching introduction is a vivid green cake of soft, sweet leeks shot through with red wine vinegar and a hint of hazelnut oil, served with a lacy pane of bread freckled with garlic and Parmesan. The eye, and the tongue, register brilliance.
When Richard and crew are firing on all cylinders, there's no more joyful food to be found.
The interior of the restaurant, which opens with a glassed-in wine locker and fits in a snug bar, radiates playfulness, too. Michel retains the coffered ceiling and the open kitchen of its predecessor; overhead mood lights that glow from green to blue to red and a plummy palette and bare tabletops signal a brand-new look for the staid old Ritz-Carlton. The acoustics aren't great, alas. One night, I'm forced to eavesdrop on a couple of business types sitting yards away; another evening, the roar of the crowd approximates the annoying buzz of the vuvuzela horns heard at the World Cup. Someone might want to adjust the lights in the kitchen, too; their harsh illumination is better suited to an OR.
No matter which of his restaurants you order them in, Richard's desserts tend to create a hush as they're presented. Some confections even find diners whipping out cellphones to capture them for posterity. At Michel, where Mark Courseille serves as pastry chef, the most dramatic ending is the aptly titled Celebration Cake created from Grand Marnier-spiked ladyfingers, whipped cream, fruit and a sparkler that lights up the recipient's table like the Fourth of July. But I'm equally impressed with the style and substance of the many-layered chocolate cake; the floating island dotted with buttons of chocolate and served on creme anglaise made with fresh banana; and, especially this time of year, the Snowman. The jolly miniature, garbed in a hat of chocolate and a scarf of almond paste, is three balls of crisp meringue. Crack open the sculpture with a fork, and you discover a rich vein of velvety vanilla ice cream.
Richard took a gamble moving to Tysons Corner. Patrons of his new restaurant sometimes take their chances, too. At first bite, Michel is both exciting and uneven, dazzling and -- not so much. Am I expecting too much of something that's meant to bridge his other concepts? Not when the creator is Washington's best.
During a recent out-of-town dinner, a participant in my online food discussion described service in the restaurant as "overly attentive except on one issue: They kept calling my girlfriend 'Sir.' " To be fair, he added, "she does have short hair and she was wearing a long-sleeve button-down shirt. But she certainly doesn't look like a man by any stretch. My girlfriend was pretty mortified by it. I didn't think it was worth further embarrassment to correct the staff or the manager in front of her. How would you have dealt with this?"
I told the chatter I would have excused myself from the table after hearing "sir" a second time, sought out the manager, explained the problem and let the supervisor share the reality with the staff attending the couple's table. But I actually prefer the advice provided later in the discussion by another online follower, who dismissed the indirect approach in favor of this strategy, suggested for the female: "Look the server in the eye and say, 'I should be addressed as ma'am.' Done."
Two and a half stars (Good/Excellent)
Michel, In the Ritz-Carlton, 1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean. 703-744-3999. michelrichardva.com
Open: Breakfast 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. weekdays, 7 to 11 a.m. weekends; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Parking lots and valet.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $8 to $16, entrees $15 to $27; dinner appetizers $12 to $32, entrees $26 to $40.
Sound check: 89 decibels/Extremely loud.