Since opening the renowned Citronelle on M Street, Chef Michel Richard has piled up awards like “Titanic” at the Oscars. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington named him Chef of the Year in 2002. AAA has given the restaurant four diamonds every year since 2001. Last year, Washingtonian named it D.C.'s top restaurant.
With credentials like those, you can understand the hype surrounding the opening of Richard's second D.C. restaurant, Central. With a twist on a number of traditional American dishes, a vibrant dining room and a location that makes it an attractive after-work stop for the downtown crowd, Central lives up to every bit of the lofty expectations that came along with Richard's sterling reputation.
To be sure, Central is a very different venue from the dress-to-the-nines Citronelle. Richard's newest restaurant, located on Pennsylvania Avenue, offers a more casual appeal. On two visits to the restaurant, patrons packed in — both around the bar and the modern dining room — and filled the air with a din that surely would have been shushed in most fine eateries. But while the fare, prepared deftly by Chef De Cuisine Cedric Maupillier, deserves your attention, the food is not the focus — a social atmosphere of happy diners is.
The menu offers a wide selection of American favorites (hamburger, rotisserie and fried chicken) presented with “a French flair.” Unlike its more expensive sibling, Citronelle, Central features a number of offerings that won't send you scurrying to the nearest lobbyist for help with the bill. The Hamburger is $16, while the Bangers and Mash, Tuna (or Shrimp) Burger, Fish and Chips, Pied de Cochon (foot of the pig), Mussels and Grilled Salmon all come in under $20. The dishes might be a tad more expensive than similar fare offered at, say, Ruby Tuesday, but consider too that you're only kicking in $5-8 extra to experience world-class cuisine. All in all, Central offers a touch of class for the working class, albeit a white-collar one.
The food itself is every bit as exceptional as you would expect from a restaurant bearing Richard's name. The nearly weightless Cheese Puffs are a smashing starter, and the Filet Mignon Tartare is highly recommended as an appetizer.
For your main course, the salmon — light and flaky and served with a cheese chip — is spot on, while the crab cake has no shortcomings to speak of.
As for sides, the cloud-like mashed potatoes are superb. The brussel sprouts even made me a fan, despite loathing them since my youth. Of course, covering the sprouts in a thick coat of crumbled bacon helped.
It should be noted that the portions are exceedingly ample, again catering to the after-work, group dynamic. Be prepared to split appetizers and side dishes, or at least bring them home with you.
The robust, and affordable, wine list is another plus. A bottle of wine, two or three appetizers and a group of five coworkers could enjoy an up-scale — and filling — happy hour for less than $15 per person.
The drawbacks I have found are few. Some of the dishes, notably the braised rabbit with spaetzle, are very heavy and may not sit well on a warm Washington summer night. And while delicious, the Lobster Burger — a patty of lobster served sandwich-style with a Remoulade sauce over a juicy tomato slice and two super-thin potato crackers — did not warrant its $33 price tag.
Conversation was sometimes challenging, as the restaurant was quite noisy on both a Friday and Saturday evening. Though to be honest, quiet meals are not what Central is serving.
With moderate prices, which are largely below the going rate for fine cuisine, and a vibrant atmosphere, Central is certainly worth a look … as soon as you can get reservations anyway.
Michel Richard's Central
1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, D.C.
Lunch: Mon. – Fri.: 11:45 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Mon. – Thurs.: 5 – 10:30 p.m.; Fri. – Sat.: 5 – 11 p.m.; Sun.: 5 – 10 p.m.