In August I visited Central Michel Richard in Washington D.C. Having eaten at Richard’s other restaurant Citronelle years ago, I was curious to see what his more casual Penn Quarter restaurant would be like, and I was not disappointed.
Central: The Best of Both French Worlds
Some restaurant experiences have the power to transcend mere dining. Finally eating in the restaurant of your culinary guru, tasting that first life-changing sip of Vosne-Romanee, or enjoying the rare kind of impeccable service that elevates the entire evening—for me, these “firsts” have often marked restaurant milestones.
Food lovers can probably recall their first truly memorable meal, the one that set the standard, ruining all other restaurants for the near future.
As I write this, however, I am not conjuring memories of a romantic night out, or remembering an elegant, twelve-course meal eaten in a spare, upholstered midtown dining room. Neither am I surrounded in this recollection by modern art, celebrities, or members of the “power elite.”
Instead, I am recalling a recent meal shared with friends, and eaten at a crowded bar, during Restaurant Week in Washington D.C.
My experience at Penn Quarter restaurant Central was among my most memorable, and I attribute this to several things. The company of my longtime friend Lydia and her husband Peter of course (who I can thank for choosing Central), the outstanding food, and perhaps most of all, the restaurant’s unmistakable joie de vivre that night.
Unlike Michel Richard’s somber—though exquisite—Georgetown restaurant, Citronelle, Central embodied the two things that I most appreciate about French dining, or more specifically, the way of dining in France.
First, I derive great enjoyment from eating elbow to elbow with other people who really love their food. For this reason, I often eat at restaurant bars. The enthusiasm and the energy of many converging, animated conversations can transform a meal from the stuffy type of affair that many Americans associate with French restaurants in the United States, into something wholly different.
This casual approach to enjoying good, and even sophisticated food, encourages a different type of experience altogether. We tend to eat several dishes at once when we are more relaxed, sharing food, passing plates back and forth, ordering wines by the glass in quick succession, and generally having a good time eating outside of the typical sequence (cocktails, wine, appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert). When we are not sitting across from one another and reaching across a white tablecloth, in my observation, we tend to enjoy a new level of involvement in the meal.
And second, though not second in importance, is the pleasure of tasting this food, food that exemplifies an evolving, traditional French cuisine, and one that continues over the years to surprise and entertain diners.
Best quality produce, meats, and aged cheeses are the mainstay of this cuisine. As in the cherished tradition of wine making in France, where bottles are labeled according to region and not grape varietal, the importance of region and terroir spills into every aspect of French culinary life. The cuisine in each area reflects what is grown and raised in the region, and what is in season at the time. Meanwhile, the French devotion to technique ties all of these regional cuisines together, and is the underpinning of modern French cooking.
This modern approach to basic French food defines Richard’s cuisine. His style is at once traditional and of the moment, both masterful, and playful. While Richard may not necessarily follow food trends, he dwells in the culinary geist as world-class chefs tend to do. When food everywhere was suddenly “deconstructed,” and espumas began appearing on every restaurant plate, Citronelle’s tasting menu managed a nod to these innovations. However, and significantly, it was just a nod.
The existence of Central, which has been open for two years, is itself a sign of the times. In recent years, celebrity chefs around the country have scrambled to open more casual restaurants as Americans’ interest in food and restaurants exploded. Seemingly overnight the Food Network’s popularity soared, and shows like Iron Chef became major household events. Well known chefs including Todd English, Wolfgang Puck, Alain Ducasse, and even Thomas Keller have launched more casual restaurants, showcasing the name and notoriety of the well-known proprietor at a lower (and more recession-friendly) price tag, typically with a more relaxed, fun, drinks after work type of atmosphere.
And while its interior is sleek and minimalist in décor, Central also feels informal. Richard describes the restaurant as “a joyful refuge with a warmhearted vibe,” and the mood is distinctly different from the more buttoned up atmosphere typical of Downtown D.C. Paneled with golden colored wood, the dining room glows with warm light and soft, neutral colors. Touches like a glass wine cellar and a glass enclosed room housing the “Chef’s Table” break up the simple lines of the single large room, and introduce a sense of openness. Meanwhile, the bar backs up to the dining room with little separation, so that bar guests and more formal diners are essentially eating together.
In this convivial spirit, the menu includes both American favorites (a hamburger, fried chicken) and French versions of comfort food. We ordered dishes from both categories, partly to compare, and partly on the bartender’s recommendation. And when a basket of gougeres was set in front of me, an appetizer I would normally have passed over, (cheese puffs, by Michel Richard?) I had to bite. I enjoyed the odd little creations, a happy marriage between Tater Tots and “Cheez-Its,” more than I would like to admit.
But while the cheese puffs smacked of Richard’s playfulness, and his ability to create fun dishes that are also delectable, it is the memory of the tomato and goat cheese torte, a seemingly tame, innocuous offering, that crystallized my food experience at Central.
This torte was no flimsy substitute for pastry, spread with mediocre chèvre, and then burdened with under-ripe tomatoes—a version too often encountered. This creation, a round of delicate, rich puff pastry that any baker who has attempted to make puff pastry will covet (and curse), holding a mousse of goat cheese, tomato, and basil, actually distracted my dining companions from their cheese puffs. Within seconds, my exclamations drew a flurry of forks to my plate, and the three of us hovered over the torte discussing the flavors and the consistency, and how we might recreate it. It was easily the star of the night’s show.
Given that Richard was first trained as a pastry chef, the success of items like the torte is unsurprising. His mastery of the art shows itself throughout the menu where deceptively simple choices like the cheese puffs and torte, and notably, desserts, are elevated by their thoughtful preparation. At Central, seemingly basic appetizers are given the same painstaking attention to detail lavished on more complex dishes, like the seafood entrée that I ordered next.
In retrospect, it was the best possible compliment to my appetizer. The light, yet ripe and savory flavors of the goat cheese and tomato and the comforting puff pastry beneath it welcomed the plate of three perfect, giant diver scallops with sweet corn and mushrooms that I chose. The bright, toasty broth of roasted end-of-summer corn, with just the slightest, salty hint of cream was a perfect match for the earthy quality of wild mushrooms—a contrast that nicely tied the other ingredients together.
My companions ordered the “fried” chicken, a version that is actually oven-baked, yet was crisp and flavorful, and the hamburger. The chicken received raves, though in fairness it was the side of macaroni and cheese ordered with it that monopolized our attention. The combination of aged cheddar and a hearty, creamy texture made it a standout, even though its richness made it difficult to eat more than a few bites. The verdict on the hamburger was “a little over-cooked,” which was somewhat surprising, and disappointing.
Meanwhile, a Bourgogne Blanc that I had high hopes for (and Michel Richard’s namesake wine) fell flat, the only disappointment of my own meal. It lacked the complexity and acidity to stand up to the sweetness of the tomatoes, corn, and scallops.
Here, a rich, buttery Meursault would have offered a more substantial match for the scallops, helped out by some more structure, and a bit of French oak.
But I quickly moved on to a Grüner Veltlener that pleasantly surprised me. It was medium bodied, yet refreshing and crisp, with mineral qualities that worked well with both the sweet and savory notes in my entrée.
And once the famed “Michel’s Chocolate Bar” arrived, wine was all but forgotten.
I have seen many plays on this concept in other restaurants over the years, but I still remember tasting the original “Michel’s Chocolate Bar” at Citronelle nearly ten years ago—which speaks volumes not only for my love of chocolate, but for Richard’s deftness with pastry. Richard’s take on a Kit Kat Bar, the only restaurant version I’ve had that actually trumps a real candy bar, is a trademark dish.
The bread and butter pudding that Lydia ordered was also delectable, custard-like, but not too eggy; however I have to say the flashier (and much more fun) chocolate bar was the obvious winner—more original, better executed, and just plate-scraping kind of good.
Chocolate, and dessert in general, can be and often is disappointing. Fortunately, this was not the case at Central. We fought over the last of our desserts, and I think we all left feeling oddly pleased with ourselves, almost as though we deserved some credit for the outrageously good food that night.
Copyright © 2010 Sara Daly