Washington should not expect a new place from Michel Richard, at least within the year. The Central and former Citronelle toque hosted New York’s culinary glitterati at an opening fete on Wednesday for Pommes Palais and Villard Michel Richard, beaming for photographers with Martha Stewart, Daniel Boulud, and former New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton. With two concepts debuting in the New York Palace hotel, there’s reason to smile.
Richard says he was approached by a former business partner who also has ties to the Palace, which towers over a prime block of Madison Avenue near Rockefeller Center. The property, built by railroad financier Henry Villard in 1882, recently underwent a $140 million renovation that transformed the space from a historic (and slightly worn) time capsule to modern palatial grounds. Pomme Palais is characteristic of the new look: a sleek, counter-order cafe featuring well-known Richard dishes such as the goat cheese Caesar and the 72-hour braised short rib, here in sandwich form for easy takeaway. Richard’s more formal restaurant adopts the founder’s name and aesthetic, housed in the 19th-century Villard Mansion. While other parts of the hotel got full makeovers, the Italian Renaissance-style building is a preserved historic landmark. Like Richard himself, the restaurant projects an over-the-top, grand feel with playful twists thrown in from designer Jeffrey Beers—think oversize black-and-white portraits of actresses set in illuminated gold leaf frames that lean against the wood-paneled walls. Or, for that matter, a Champagne-fueled debut that pairs live violin music with Icona Pop and Rihanna over the sound system.
Villard itself is a restaurant divided: A larger, more casual French-American bistro will serve fare reminiscent of Central, including crossover signatures such as French onion soup, “faux gras,” and the lobster burger. Those longing for the Citronelle days will want to reserve a table in the 46-seat gallery, whose dinnertime prix-fixe tasting menus will mimic those of the erstwhile restaurant and even boast familiar dishes, like the mosaic surf-and-turf and creme brûlée napoleon. Asked whether he’d reopen Citronelle, one of Washington’s most iconic dining spots, Richard seemed doubtful. He says a concept as grand as the Villard wouldn’t work in DC, where fine dining is “not dead—diminished.” Still ever playful, the chef says he’ll be back in Washington after a year of ensuring things are running smoothly in Manhattan. “I will open a nice place in DC,” he says.
Much of the New York-based press around the opening mentions Richard’s 65 years, including three early ones in New York when he first arrived from France in 1974. There are admiring skeptics. Thomas Keller told the Times, “I don’t know why he’s doing this at 65 . . . I love Michel, but New York can be unkind.” Still the party was abuzz about the level of grandeur, the passed caviar, and Richard’s eggless “eggceptional” sweets. Richard was front and center, posing with guests and signing autographs, his enthusiasm infectious.
“At first I was worried about Michel coming up here, but this place is grand,” remarked Marcel’s chef/owner Robert Wiedmaier, who says he believes Richard will do well in the city.
He is, after all, the master of surprise.