Having dined on Mediterranean, Indian, and “Nuevo-Latino” lunches thus far in DC we decided it was time for something a little more familiar – yet something you can’t really find in small town Ohio – French Bistro fare. With dinner plans for Citronelle the following night the four of us met up at Michel Richard’s downtown Brasserie – Central – the 2008 Beard Award Winner for best new restaurant. Having heard about Central’s sizable portions and decadent desserts we eschewed breakfast and arrived just as the restaurant was opening – as a matter of fact we were the first to arrive. Greeted by the pleasant receptionist we were led to a great four-top near the back of the restaurant – a seat with a great view of the all-glass kitchen as well as the dining space which would quickly fill to capacity with black suits and business wear.
Sitting down we were greeted by our server, a young woman named Valentina - she was pleasant if not overly attentive, our water and bread reaching empty and requiring requests for refills on more than one occasion. Menus were presented and drink orders placed - Dr. Brown’s Cherry Soda, House Made Grapefruit Soda, Iced Tea, and Coffee plus the previously mentioned water…as we made our decisions we were delivered a basket of hot and crusty sourdough paired with a delightful salted butter.
With orders placed we sat back and watched Sportscenter on the television at the bar while discussing the day’s plan – after fifteen minutes we received our first selection of the afternoon, an enormous cone of hot and fluffy gougeres. Flaky pastry exterior and creamy cheese within the Gougeres weren’t as meltingly succulent as those at the Keller establishments but they were salty and savory little bites straight out of a French Culinary text.
A basket of gougeres and a basket of bread devoured we waited only fifteen more minutes before our mains arrived – by this time the restaurant was filled and noisy, but not loud. After requesting refills of bread, water, and coffee we dug right into our mains – first for my sister a tasty Ahi Tuna Burger cooked rare and served with a fresh frisee salad topped with a light vinaigrette. Served with a light and zippy mayo, tomato, and two of Michel’s signature potato tuiles the hefty tuna patty worked beautifully with the brioche textured bun while the tuiles added a crunchy texture and a light buttery flavor.
For my aunt the selection would be a loaded corned beef sandwich atop toasted bread – she stated it was the best she has ever had and I’ll take her word for it. Tasting her coleslaw – a light version with cabbage, carrot, zucchini, and spices I quite liked the lack of heavy mayonnaise that plagues many slaws and the French fries were a delight – golden, crisp, and topped with crystals of kosher salt.
With mom ordering the item I’d targeted I opted for some traditional bistro fare – the Charcuterie Plate featuring Faux Gras, La Quercia Prosciutto, Country Pate, Boar Sausage, House Cure Salami, Head Cheese, Cipollini Onions, and Cornichons alongside a Frisee, lardon and poached egg salad. One of my favorite salads, the airy yet fibrous frisee was a clean palate for the creamy poached egg and incredibly salty lardons – adding house-made croutons and a light vinaigrette only helped. With regard to the Charcuterie Plate I was glad for some help from the family – the board was enormous and the options delectable. While each slice of meat was delicious and the Country Pate the best I’ve ever tasted I particularly fancied the Faux Gras – a buttery textured terrine of chicken liver with a peppery undertone.
Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes and Mustard Sauce, my mother’s option, turned out to be every bit the showstopper I’d heard it was – a difficult task for something as simple as Fried Chicken. Paired with sieved “pomme puree” loaded with butter and a side of mustard sauce the bird was tender, moist…juicy even with accents of rosemary and thyme. Undoubtedly brined the fantastic chicken was only enhanced by the buttermilk and cornmeal accented batter, laid on thick and forming airy hush-puppy-esque pockets surrounding the natural curvature of the bird.
Heavy options all around for the main courses there was no way we were skipping dessert – the menu was simply too tempting and Richard’s pastry kitchen too well renowned. Knowing what I’d order before we even arrived we each selected a different option and shared around – believe me, these aren’t skimpy desserts, there will be plenty to share. Starting with my option, Bread and Butter Pudding, all I can do is think back and smile…simple, flawlessly executed, and warm the four by four inch square was served swimming in a buttery rum sauce and topped with fresh whipped cream and candied Pecans. Everything bread pudding should be the flavors were balanced – sugar, cinnamon, butter, and cream plus small bites of golden raisin hidden in a supple brioche that melted on the tongue.
For my mother’s option – well, she still raves about it today as her favorite single dish of the trip. Simply titled “Michel’s Napoleon” the nearly 1/2 foot tall amalgam of pastry cream and flaky (think Phyllo Dough) was served in a hefty vanilla sauce and crackled with each poke of the fork. While somewhat difficult to eat without making a mess the mild flavor profile was delicious – in my opinion it begged for some fruit, but for mom it was perfect.
My aunt’s choice was Michel’s signature – a dish originally served at (and still served at) Citronelle. Simply titled “Michel’s Chocolate Bar” or “Le Kit Kat,” the dessert was a veritable tasting of chocolate in and of itself. Served as a long bar composed of a thick layer of chocolate crème, crushed hazelnut, and crispy chocolate wafer in a pool of milk chocolate my only critique of this dish would be that the wafer was so dense that it nearly needed a nice…and that that it cried for coffee or a glass of milk – it was large, dense, and decadence at its best.
Going for the gusto, my sister opted for The Banana Split. One of her favorite desserts, Valentina warned us that the dessert was immense but Erika was undeterred. Delivered in a plate over a foot wide the split made the other desserts look tame…almost pedestrian. With three ice creams (creamy vanilla, icy strawberry sorbet, and profoundly dense chocolate) each topped on their own in the upper sections of the dish the bottom half consisted of three half-bananas, split lengthwise, beneath a mound of hand whipped cream, almonds, chocolate fudge, pineapple, and cherry sauce flanked on each side by caramel and chocolate sauces swirled in vanilla cream. Excessive, yes. Delicious, yes. Finished almost entirely by a short and thin female, you bet.
Noting that service did indeed improve after I drew her attention to the empty beverages and bread I still felt Valentina was a mediocre server compared to our previous DC dining experiences at lunch – sure the restaurant was busy, but so is everywhere downtown in DC at that time of day. That said, everything that came out of the kitchen during our visit to Central was exquisite – as good as “simple” bistro food can be and it is obvious that others are paying attention, from the Beard Award to the 30 minute wait for a table as we were leaving shortly before 1:00. No, they’re not going to wow you with cutting edge cooking methods or the effusive service of Citronelle, but they are going to give you a lot of great food at a fair price in a pleasant setting.