Central Michel Richard: An Early, Early Report (With Menus)

The Citronelle chef's new bistro opens (finally!) in Penn Quarter.

Central–the new bistro from Citronelle's Michel Richard–has barely been open a week, which means its way too soon to make any sweeping judgments about the place. But here are a few quick impressions from my dinner there last night.

At first, the honey-colored, carpeted space looks disappointingly blah–like the designers took their cues from any earth-toned power spot. But like most things Richard, the spareness is deceiving (this is, after all, the guy who lists his show-stopping, Kandinsky-like composition of tuna, beef, salmon, eel, venison, and daikon on the Citronelle menu simply as “Mosaic, surf & turf.”). The details sneak up and surprise you: the row of hams hanging in a glassed-in room near the kitchen, the hidden light fixtures etched with the word “Central,” the silver sheaths on each bottle of wine, the magenta sinks in the ladies’ room. In the back of the dining room, a floor-to-ceiling Warholian portrait of Richard’s laughing mug looms over the tables (incidentally, that’s as much of Richard as you’re likely to see–Cedric Maupiller is chef de cuisine).

Around 7, the bar area was hopping with post-workers kicking back over $11 mai tais and $12 clementine mimosas, but the dining room was only half-full. The back of the restaurant, where you’ll get a full view of the busy cooks in the open kitchen, is clearly the best place to sit. Up front, they’ve got a temperature control problem: Not even the thick red velvet curtains around the entryway, which blew up higher than Marilyn Monroe’s hem every time anybody opened the door, could keep out the blustery air. One shivering woman asked the waiter if earmuffs were on the menu.  

Though our server first pushed the $60 cote de boeuf for two, then offered to top it off with a couple lobster tails (what is this, the Cap Grille?),  the rest of Richard’s menu reads casual–there’s the tuna burger (deliciously flecked with ginger), the lobster burger (nearly as good), plus plates of fried chicken and corned beef and cabbage. My favorite dishes were a chowder packed with plump mussels and melted leeks, a buttery filet of salmon with rosemary-scented lentils, and a dessert of apple pan betty perfumed with candied orange. Then there's Richard's often copied chocolate bar, aka "Le Kit Kat." It might look plain enough, but–no surprise here–each bite is packed with layers of hazelnutty flavor and delicate crunch. 

Central,  1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-626-0015;  

View the dinner menu here, the cocktail menu here, and the by-the-glass wine list here

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.