Central Michel Richard
1001 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington DC 20004
Chef Arthur Cavaliere
Last tried: August 2010
This was the second time in a month that a previously impressive place has sadly declined since my last visit. I also noticed for the first time how dated the restaurant appeared, reminiscent of a formerly attractive older woman stuck in the hairstyle, makeup, and outfit that were fashionable once upon a time. I toyed with the idea of ordering some of the more traditional French dishes such as frisee salad with lardons and egg or moules mariniere-- until I saw the digital photos of those dishes in a slide show playing on the large flat screen television next to the bar area, displaying overwrought, vertical incarnations of those French classics, all of which would have been perfectly at home in a Wolfgang Puck establishment during the Dynasty/Dallas era.
I still loved the layers of crispy potato tuiles in the Central burger, still cooked perfectly medium rare with the melting cheese and rendered bacon strips enhancing the flavor of the overall burger, but the bun was cold, leaving me to question its freshness. Although it did not taste stale, it had definitely seen better days. The accompanying salad, although properly dressed with a well-seasoned vinaigrette, was composed of unintentionally wilted greens, including overcooked green beans that seemed out of place, as though the kitchen wanted to use up leftovers from an unsuccessful nicoise salad offering.
Recalling a past interview of Michel Richard in which he fondly described his first memory of the crunchy texture of Kentucky Fried Chicken and how he fell in love with the possibilities of American cuisine, I ordered the fried chicken with mashed potatoes. For $21, I got two pieces of chicken, one boneless/skinless breast cutlet and a frenched thigh, on a gummy bed of mashed potatoes that had an odd microwaved flavor that mirrored its texture. The fried chicken pieces were definitely crispy, given that the kitchen cheated and used panko bread crumbs, but that is chicken katsu, not fried chicken. Even worse, both pieces were flavorless and dry inside the thick, although undeniably crunchy, crust of fried panko batter. I did, however, love the horseradish aioli accompanying the dish, which had more flavor and punch than anything else I had ordered. I did not need a full gravy boat of the aioli, but I certainly appreciated the generosity, especially since it was also quite good on the burger to counter some of the gaminess of the beef (not dry aged gaminess but older meat gaminess).
Consistent with the over-the-top theme, my favorite dessert, the "Kit Kat," a hazelnut-crusted chocolate wafer topped with chocolate ganache, came on a plate of hazelnut creme anglaise and accompanied by a scoop of hazelnut ice cream. Each of these components were beautiful. Stick them together the way they were presented, and they get lost in an overindulgent sugary mess. In addition, the coffee was nice and watery like old tea, which I could fully appreciate because the coffee was served ten minutes before dessert, notwithstanding my request that they be served together.
At least the wine list still had a number of interesting selections, dispersed among yawn-inducing choices like the Veuve Cliquot yellow label offered at $100/bottle, Grgich Hills Chardonnay at$82/bottle, and an unidentified Pauillac at $65/bottle (albeit it was at least the 2005 vintage). So the impressive wine towers decorating the dining room are not completely wasted.