The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
Central Michel Richard
I never eat at the last link to the late Michel Richard without thinking how proud the master would be of his protege (and now managing partner). David Deshaies still serves the dishes — fried chicken, vanilla Napoleon — that made the French-American bistro a hit when it opened a decade ago. But the chef continues to put fresh ideas in front of us. A cushion of toasted bread topped with sweet crab, peach slaw and a fan of avocado has California written all over it, and spiced lentils supporting a jumble of fried diced tofu and purple and green cauliflower florets find the carnivore stealing bites when the vegetarian isn’t looking. The long bar with the tall mirrors overlooking the clattery dining room is my preferred landing pad. I also applaud how accessible Central makes itself, with express lunch ($24.50) and pre- and post-theater deals ($37.50).
2 1/2 stars
Central Michel Richard: 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-626-0015. centralmichelrichard.com.
Prices: Mains $17-$41.
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published Nov. 2, 2016.
A protege keeps his master’s magic alive
Central Michel Richard is a downtown restaurant that looks much like it did when it opened almost a decade ago (think drum lights and warm wood) and serves some of the same dishes, including a tuna burger and sky-scraping Napoleon.
Nostalgia recently drew me back. The restaurant’s guiding light, the legendary chef Michel Richard, who first made a splash at the late Citronelle in Georgetown, died in August at 68. Was the French native’s sole surviving business still good? With the debut of a fall menu in October, I had fresh reason to return to the American bistro with a French sensibility, under the command of David Deshaies for the past three years.
My hopes were high. The boyish executive chef spent 15 years cooking with his mentor, at both establishments. In addition to kitchen duty, Deshaies, 38, is also general manager and a partner at Central (say sen-TRAL).
The chef had me at the Thai quinoa salad. Even if you’re not sold on the mild ancient grain, hear me out. Deshaies packs a little show in the animated first course, layering a glass jar with fluffy steamed quinoa, peppery arugula, julienned carrots slick with sesame oil and cubed pickled daikon. To this, a waiter adds a drizzle of coconut-peanut dressing, closes the lid and shakes the contents as if he were a bartender. Moistened, the ingredients are strewn on a plate to form a tantalizing tropical hedge.
When creating new dishes, Deshaies says, he relies on some time-tested lessons of his former boss: “Use lots of color.” “Not too much flavor.” Also, recipes shouldn’t be so complicated that they can’t be replicated by underlings.
Enter pumpkin soup, a first course that begins with a bowl cupping a fried egg decorated with minute croutons and even tinier prosciutto bits. Over this, a server pours a pale-orange, piping hot, curry-laced broth. As much as I’ve grown weary of seeing eggs as garnishes, the lacy fried egg makes delicious sense, and as common as pumpkin soup is this time of year, the version at Central feels novel.
Bread is one of my many weaknesses at Central. Not the bread that comes with a meal, which can taste warmed over, but the near-weightless cheese puffs (gougeres) that I pop too many of — and whatever pizza the kitchen might be baking. Bacon-onion tart is lovely, but it’s been around for ages. New to the party is crab pizza, its thin round of pastry spread with oniony creme fraiche and festooned with diced tomato, sweet-sassy peppadew peppers and sweet jumbo lump crab. White stripes of Hollandaise put a nice finish on the crackery base.
The singular main dish, lamb bisteeya, saves you a trip to Morocco. The best pot pie in town starts with a lamb shank that is brined for a day; braised with apricots, cumin, garlic and tomato paste; freed from its bone and combined with carrots, raisins, celery and turmeric in a ring mold. Once the ingredients have spent some time together, marrying flavors, they’re bundled in phyllo, baked to a crisp and finished with slivered almonds and a dusting of sugar and cinnamon. Cutting into the pie, you hear a gentle crackle; eating the rich meat — a little sweet, a little savory, plenty wonderful — you watch any willpower fly out the window.
All of which is not to slight some of the senior dishes on the menu, including a fabulous carbonara that swaps soft onions for the traditional pasta . Years after I first tasted it, “Michel’s” fried chicken still makes my mouth water in anticipation. Same for any of the tall and beautiful burgers, my pick of which is juicy chicken shot through with lemon confit. Come to think of it, Central might just as well become a spokesmodel for the poultry industry, because I’m equally enamored of the kitchen’s crisp, saucer-size chicken schnitzel beneath a carpet of capers.
Forced to choose one in the flock under threat of never eating at Central again, I’d stain my fingers with the fried chicken, delivered with mashed potatoes that taste like equal parts butter and spud. Part of what makes the brined breast and leg irresistible is a cushion of chicken mousse, seasoned with cayenne and curry, applied to the skin before the airy bread crumbs. The technique, says the chef, means fried chicken that never goes slack — even when he takes some home and stows it in the refrigerator overnight. (I can’t vouch for that, sincemy orders of it have never had the chance to become leftovers.)
Expect to drink well. Wine and beverage director Brian Zipin knows just the wine to bridge a meal that includes fish and fowl. It’s a sophisticated rosé from Domaine Brana in France, made mostly from cabernet franc grapes ($50). Expect to cup your ears a lot, too, especially in the back of the dining room. The volume at Central approaches 90 decibels — akin to being serenaded by a lawn mower.
Central’s dessert list is mostly a compilation of greatest hits: that towering Napoleon; Richard’s elegant riff on a Kit Kat candy bar; a celebration cake, filled with whipped cream and berries, whose fancy sparklers turn the whole dining room into a special event. The exception is a new release. Hot, fig-stuffed almond cakes are treats on their own but divine with the addition of cold, vanilla-scented coconut milk at the table. (There’s the master’s voice again: “Think contrast” and “Don’t overdo a dish.”)
Now, the bittersweet news: Deshaies plans to leave Central this winter to open a place of his own in the spring. Unconventional Diner, destined for the convention center (catch the joke?), will be a source of coffee, pastries and sandwiches by day and more elaborate fare by night. The idea, says Deshaies, who will continue as a consultant to Central, came from late-night meals he used to share with his boss after work, when only greasy spoons were open. Richard told him, “You should open a diner, David,” with comfort food done right.
Once again, he was smart enough to listen.