Everyone put their hands together for Matt, our new food reviewer. After Becca left for higher education pastures at Northwestern, the BYTE me column was dormant for a bit but no more…Matt has worked as a chef everywhere from St. EX to Four Seasons and if you can find anyone more qualified or funnier to guide you through the epicurean joys of DC, well, do that. We plan to keep him.
We kick off with Michel Richard’s latest baby “Central”
Last Holiday season, I received a gift from my friend Jesse and his wife Kate (of ‘The Alphabetical Order fame). It was a simple book, a happy book. In fact, the title was “Happy in the Kitchen” by none other than DC’s own Beard Award winning hero Michel Richard. As I flipped though the pages my mouth began watering. The pictures, the stories and the playfulness of his food all looked so damn good. Unfortunately like many of us, dropping upwards of $400 on a night of wine flights and tasting menus at Citronelle was not an option.
Alas, like many of his great peers (Keller, Boulud, Donna & Andres) he gave us all the gift of his wonderful cuisine at a price a little more suited to my lifestyle by opening ‘Central’ right in the Penn Quarter this spring. So, what do I have to say about it? Here we go.
After catching the 7 something showing of ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ at the Landmark Theatre, my date and I decided to do something that I love; walk into a fancy restaurant on a Saturday night and demand a table (well, not really demand, but see if there are any available). This little gem of a restaurant we had considered dining at before, but were unable to obtain reservations. As we strolled in the door we got a half shocked – half confused look from the hostess (probably because she was in corduroys, and me in jeans and a wrinkled shirt), but a pleasant smile. Immediately, what appeared to be the Maitre D’ gave us his pretentious rant, “We don’t have any tables in the dining room, but if you’re lucky, we do serve the full menu at the bar.” I cracked a half-smile and made my way to the bar, where there were a surprising amount of empty seats for a Saturday. We were pleasantly greeted by the bartender and given a wine list and two menus.
From this point on, I don’t really have better words to describe is except “The shit was off the hook”. (God bless my fucking horrible literary education)
Since we were still working off of a budget, we opted to go the multiple appetizer route. This I find is great to do at higher-priced restaurants. It gives you the freedom of tasting the plates that are meant to grab and hold your attention, all while being kind to your wallet.
My date ordered a glass of Chandon Rose, and I had a glass of the Frogs Leap Sauvignon Blanc, both pretty standard wines that can be picked up at the local shop.
Then, suddenly, something hit me. I remembered back to when I first opened “Happy in the Kitchen” and there was this recipe for “Gougères”. Say it with me now, goo-jeer-eez. What it is, is the lightest, fluffiest fucking cheese puffs I’ve ever had. Served in a black wire cone, these little tastes of heavenly clouds left us swooning. Good thing the portion was rather large, because between the two of us, they went fast. Imagine a perfect puff-pastry consistency, with a light salty taste of gruyere. I would recommend these to anyone who walks through the door of this place.
For the second course, we chose two cold plates. First, the “Cherry Tomato and Burrata Mozzarella” came on a long plate. The tomatoes were ripened perfectly, peeled and salted. Dressed simply in Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVO for all you Rachel Ray fanatics, god I hate that bitch) and a light basil oil, biting into them was an intense late-summer flavor explosion. Accompanied by probably the tenderest mozz I’ve ever had, this plate gave us ear to ear smiles. The second cold plate was “Duck rillettes & faux gras terrine”. Not to be confused with foie gras, this is just one display of Richard’s playfulness with food. The “faux gras” was actually chicken liver, not to be confused with the prized duck liver. Served in a small dish topped with clear aspic, this was the perfect pâté for the price. It was smooth as butter and had the perfect amount of salt. Paired with it was the duck rillettes. A confit of duck topped with what appeared to be a molded cut of duck fat (can anyone say heart attack at 25?). This melt in your mouth concoction won me over, but was a bit too heavy for my date. Finished with a side of cornichons and pickled onions, this plate will stick in my mind, and make my stomach growl for a while.
Our last selection was “Mushroom Pearl Pasta Risotto”. Served in a small stainless steel dish, this pasta was cooked to perfection. A perfect al-dente then finished risotto style with butter and cheese. Crispy and chewy mushrooms on top gave us the best surprise of the night. While I am not particularly a fan of fungus, my date and I slurped this thing down quicker than you can say “whatthefuckareyoukiddingmethatshowsoldoutalready!?!?!”
Finish all of that with a wonderful Caramel Crème Brulee and some strong coffee, this meal was great. I guess I should talk about the ambiance or whatever too. It is a large open room. Toward the back of the restaurant are clear wine racks and an exhibition kitchen. Actually, I have to stop here. One of the coolest things about the place is that as you walk to the bathroom, there is a floor to ceiling glass wall that looks straight into the kitchen. For any fan of cooking, or any customer weary of sanitation practices, this is probably the best design idea the restaurant has to offer. Also, there is a projection screen to the side of the bar, showing rotating pictures of menu items and portraits of Michele. The people in there were what you would expect from a DC hot spot restaurant. Jeans seemed to be accepted, but there were plenty of suits as well. A small highlight of the night was watching the Fox 5 sports anchor constantly get up from his seat, napkin in hand, to catch the score of the soon to be Stanford-USC upset.
So, here’s the deal.
I’m no critic, I just love to eat.
I don’t believe in writing “bad reviews” or any of that shit. I’ve been in the industry for almost 9 years now, and I hate reading about petty shit that critics write. Therefore, my tolerance for sloppy donkey-dick service is very high, and I will not right anything negative unless that threshold is broken. I am here to give one person’s opinion and encourage you to try it for yourself. So save up a little bit, grab a date and a stool at the Central bar. I hope you have as great as an experience that I did. That’s all.
1001 Pennsylvania Avenue,
NW Washington, DC 20004