January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

A plush stage for Michel Richard's witty, theatrical brand of Cali-French cooking.

No. 1: Citronelle

Citronelle’s dazzling mosaic of tuna, beef, salmon, eel, venison, peppers, scallops, and daikon radish. Photographs by Renee Comet.

One of the aims of great cooking is to take an ingredient and make it taste more like itself than you thought possible—in the case of Michel Richard’s three-cheese soufflé centered in a pool of cremini-mushroom soup, a mushroom seems more mushroomy than mushroom itself.

This isn’t the prettiest dish on the whimsical chef’s menu; next to a creation called Mosaic, a plate of razor-thin slices of raw beef and fish that looks designed to hang on a wall, it looks downright plain. But take a taste and you are reminded of the difference between very good and truly great cooking. The soufflé is so light, it’s nearly not there.

And so it goes at this gastronomic marvel. For all its vaunted inventiveness, the food is almost startling in its heft. A duck with a cinnamon and port-wine sauce with duck confit—succulent slabs of breast meat capped with a crisp, lacquered skin—will make you think twice about ordering duck anywhere else. If he were so inclined, Richard could package the duck skins as a high-end alternative to pork rinds.

Veal Two Ways bridges French classicism with American pop culture.

That seems to be another aim of Richard’s cooking: to take something elegant and nudge you to remember the popular culture. No one does this kind of postmodern irony better. One of the preparations of Veal Two Ways turns a classic of French country cooking, the braised veal cheek, into a riff on KFC; it even sits on a little pool of whipped potatoes. Breakfast at Citronelle brings a room-service tray of desserts, all made to impersonate a lavish morning spread. The wonder? It’s as tarty as the superb, more straightforward napoleon.

The menu descriptions scarcely hint at the creativity or complexity to come. Legions of chefs who learned from Alice Waters tell you everything you’re going to get in a dish. The result is that a lot of dishes read better than they taste. Richard leaves more to your imagination.

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.