We’re not saying he should hang up his toque and head back to Washington right away, but the early reviews Michel Richard is getting in New York might have him yearning for some DC culinary love. New York magazine on Tuesday gave Villard Michel Richard only two stars, and the review piled on the faint praise. Critic Adam Platt called the dishes “a collection of ye olde greatest hits,” adding, “If you have a fondness for first-rate culinary nostalgia, you could do worse than a trip down memory lane conducted by this genial chef.” He also referred to some of the dishes as having “hit-or-miss quality.”
Tom Sietsema, as the longtime reviewer for the Washington Post, is very familiar with Richard’s Washington restaurants, which most notably were Georgetown’s Citronelle, which closed last year, and Central, which still operates on Pennsylvania Avenue. Sietsema trekked to New York to give the new place a try, and just before New Year’s Eve published his review. The headline is telling: “Pleasant, but it’s unfortunately no Citronelle.”
Both Platt and Sietsema write about the separate rooms of Villard, which is in the luxurious midtown Palace hotel space that formerly housed Le Cirque before it relocated. In the Richard mode there is the Bistro and the Gallery.
It’s tough to say which critic is tougher on Richard. Call it a draw. Sietsema describes his welcome at the coat check as being “as frosty as the winter air” and of his table in the more casual Bistro, “a nook in Siberia.” He compares the Bistro menu to Central’s, but says “I didn’t come to New York to eat what I already know.” Because a longtime DC member of the staff recognizes him, he gets moved to the more formal Gallery, which he calls “intimate, dim, and hushed.” That’s kinder than Platt, who says the room, on a night when he dined there alone, made him feel “like you’re the only passenger onboard an ancient ocean liner.”
Sietsema points out that Richard did the menu and also helped with the restaurant design, but says, “I have to disagree with his decision to illuminate the tables from beneath. Not only does the ghostly lighting conjure a seance, the detail prevents Gallery patrons from clearly seeing their food.” And of the food? “Fans of the four-star Citronelle are likely to be disappointed . . . it’s not just the food; waiters go through the motions of taking orders and depositing dishes in joyless fashion.”
Platt does commend the “mock caviar,” saying it looks “uncannily like the real thing, and when you tweak it with your spoon, you will find a delicious layer of lobster underneath.” But he then goes on to describe a Dover sole presentation and an “elderly tasting ‘72-hour’ braised short rib” as reminiscent of the “somewhat dated Le Cirque style.”
Of the two rooms, Platt called the “sun-filled” Bistro “the most pleasant.”
Sietsema said the “best news” to come out of his visit to Villard Michel Richard is this: “The French chef who dazzled us [in Georgetown] is mulling over another run in Washington.”
Again, these are early reviews, and New York is a big town. The trajectory could swing upward—or further downward—depending on the New York Times review, which is still to come. UPDATE, 1/15: The review is in, and it's not good.