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
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
Robert Wiedmaier, who says he believes Richard will do well in the city.
He is, after all, the master of surprise.