Monday, July 07, 2008

James Beard Best New Restaurant-Central Michel Richard

There is something very special about a restaurant that compels you to make a mad dash from the airport to eat there. Washington, DC's Central (pronounced cen-TRAHL), Michel Richard's reasonably-priced bistro at Pennsylvania Avenue and 11th St is just such a place. And by reasonably-priced, I mean a boatload less than his flagship Citronelle, and surprisingly less than many other swanky downtown DC spots. And although there are the usual DC-types here, if you are casually dressed, as many people were when I was there for lunch last week, you are still treated like you took the time to dress up. Arriving at National Airport at 9:30 AM, the constant companion and I took a leisurely Metro ride up to 11th and G, just a few blocks away, and then dropped into a Starbucks to read The Onion (yes, it's available free in news boxes here), and kill some time (see below). (Notice the opened newspaper across the chest-helps to keep you warm and cozy.)

I've gushed about Chef Richard before, and his staff, and on my return visit we were again served by the super-efficient Raquel, and manager Jennifer Lucy was a teriffic hostess who spent some time chatting with us, especially about the amazing 'Happy In The Kitchen', Chef Richard's cookbook. Speaking of hostesses, as we arrived with our bags in tow, they graciously found an out of the way spot for them, with smiles all around. After the beatings we're used to in some Miami spots, we were almost overcome with gratitude, for what was really a simple, yet thoughtful gesture.

The food-I've already described and photographed the Faux Gras and the Duck Rillettes. They are still sublime, as are the pickled onions, cornichons, and bread that comes with them. Quick point-it is not enough to bake your own bread in a restaurant (hello some Miami joints), it also has to be good-this is the good stuff. Great touch of adding the big sprig of fresh rosemary to the serving board-its aroma wafts up to your nose (or you can pick it up and inhale), and gives you an unexpected frisson of the country.

Tuna Burger-What a cliche you are thinking! How '80's! Wrong. This is like a tuna tartare that has been seasoned well, then quickly pan-fried to a hamburger-like crunch on the outside. Home made bun? Yes. Homemade mayonnaise? Yes. Fresh tomato? Uh-huh. Crunchy potato tuiles to put on top with perfectly cooked fries? Yes, yes, and Ahi freakin tuna, by the way. A full meal at lunch for $19. The recipe calls for anchovies, basil, fresh garlic, and soy sauce for the burger, and fresh ginger in the mayo-Chef Richard was influenced by the sushi restaurants of L.A. when he first arrived in California, and his classic tuna burger seems timeless.

Fried chicken. This is unlike any fried chicken you are likely to have. The boneless breast and thigh meat are poached, then covered in a chicken puree/egg white mixture, before being rolled in coarse, fresh bread crumbs. They are deep-fried just until the coating is crisp, maybe two minutes, and they are served immediately-when you cut into this chicken, the juices, my friend, do run. And the service at Central is superb-when food this good is coming out of the kitchen, everyone wants to ensure that it gets to your table hot and fast. And since the bread crumbs are left coarse, there are big crunchy bits all over the place. Served with the legendary mashed potatoes and a simple mustard sauce. And of course, the perfect little salad. Four-star cooking for $21.

Drank a nice $6 rosé or two, and admired the enormous open kitchen for a while-an entire city seemed to be working back there. And getting it right.

I guess what I'm saying is, the next time you are in DC, get off the plane and head straight to Central. Business, family, and all other obligations can wait. If they live there, and they've been here, they'll understand.


  1. Not one, but two references to Central in your blog. And guess where I'm going this weekend? And guess what the first place I'll be eating at when I arrive? Thanks for the write up.

  2. lucky you! Definitely try the pig foot. And anything else you can get your hands on, esp. the kit kat bar. Please let me know how it went. Have a great time.