I spent the weekend in DC with my girlfriend, we took a trip in lieu of giving each other a Christmas present, and I have to say….it’s good to be stupid, or slow, or easily impressed or whatever you want to call it. Either some of that is true or I just luck out when it comes to having some of the best meals ever. I know many of you have either read or listened to my rave reviews of various restaurants over the years, so here is another one…..chalk it up to my low standards or the fact that I really REALLY know how to pick ’em.
I’ll skip any lengthy history lessons about Michel Richard and his flagship restaurant Citronelle….because I don’t make it to DC often enough to justify the kind of dough it would take to eat there, and I’m too lazy to do any kind of internet research to make it sound like I know what I’m talking about. Long story short, Central won the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant this year…and with the prices, attitude and flavors we experienced Friday night I have to say that we are all blessed with Chef Richard’s decision to open a restaurant for “normal” humans.
The website describes it as “traditional American cuisine with a French flair”, and after visiting that translates to “artery clogging paradise” in Jerry-speak. I was almost sad that we were experiencing freakishly warm weather for December, because this food is comfort food of the highest order…..perfect for holing up at your table for several hours and blocking out the real world.
There are already a ton of reviews online, so I’ll just stick to what we ate vs. discussing the menu at length. We had 8pm reservations on Friday night, and we arrived about 20 minutes early. We were informed that they could seat us anytime we were ready, but after riding around on the Metro and walking down from Rocket Bar, we opted to sit at the bar for a few minutes and have a drink. I’ve heard/read a lot about the specialty cocktails at Central, and had my heart set on a Bourbon Blackberry Cobbler cocktail I saw online…….but alas, they are no longer serving it. That worked out just fine because I ordered the Bourbon and Maple Manhattan…. a mixture of Bulliett (sp?) Bourbon, Maple Syrup and a dash of orange bitters. Not bad at all, and easy to replicate at home.
Next up….two major pieces of advice for anyone who is going to Central; when you reserve your table ask very nicely for them to make a note that you’d like to have a view of the kitchen, and if she is working that night ask if you can have Pamela as your server. These two things will help to make the evening perfect. Watching the constant action in a massive and well-oiled kitchen, and having a friendly, knowledgeable server who genuinely loves the restaurant and food in general (and in no way makes you feel like they need to turn the table one more time…in fact, more than once we were asked when we wanted her to actually place the order w/the kitchen so we could pace ourselves) takes what would normally just be a fantastic meal and makes it one of the best ever. So for those of you taking notes: #1- view of the kitchen, #2- Pamela.
The menu is pretty large, and as I said before everything sounded good. Cassoulet, braised beef cheeks w/tagliatelle, calf’s liver and bacon, the famed “faux gras”…… fat heaven. We had a lot of questions, and Pamela was invaluable with her knowledge of the menu and detailed reasons why she loved individual dishes. We knew we wanted to start with the gougeres, but after that it was all up in the air. In the end we settled on the onion and lardon tart to accompany the gougeres, and entrees were the Pied de Cochon for me and the Lamb Shank with Creamy Corn Polenta for her. The wine we chose was a Cab Franc and ended up going so well with the food that, for the price, we went ahead and got a second bottle….. Frederic Mabileau St. Nicolas de Bourgeil 2006. Easy, easy drinkin’ wine, and I think you can get it for under fifteen bucks retail.
The bread, while it is not made in-house, is probably the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant. Super crunchy, thick crust, with a rich, airy, eggy, sour and light interior. The cheese puffs/gougeres are just one of those things you have to order when you go to Central…..very tasty and light puffs of cheesy, savory pate choux. Surprisingly, the leftover puffs were even great the next day. We went around and around on the other appetizer selection…the onion and lardon tart sounded good, but in my mind I had images of your run of the mill savory tart with too-crisp edges and that soggy puff pastry bottom. Pamela assured us that it was one of their best items, and what we received was one hell of a tribute to fatty richness. The tart crust is somewhere between paper and cracker thin…but it holds up under a blanket of crisp, thick cut and cubed bacon, caramelized onions that are first soaked in milk to mellow them out, creme fraiche and chives. Beyond rich, but the super-thin crust helps it from filling you up too much.
After we got to our hotel, I happened to read an online review of Central that included a description of the Pied de Cochon. While I’ll eat pig’s feet, it may not be the greatest thing for you and your girlfriend to stare at…..so it wasn’t even in the running until I read the review, and when Pamela gave it the thumb’s up I went with it. For lack of a better term it is an “egg roll” (pasta dough?) filled with the meat from the pig’s foot that has been pulled off the bone and mixed with sauteed wild mushrooms. It was accompanied by a lardon and frisee salad, mashed potatoes, fried shoestring potatoes and a creamy whole grain mustard sauce. Delicious to be sure, practically an opiate, and the most ingenius thing about the dish was how the chewier bits of the pig’s feet matched the texture of the thickly chopped wild mushrooms. The crust was maybe a little thicker than it needed to be, and did not carry that much flavor itself compared to the filling, but still a smart way to put the dish together. Pretty incredible, and it carried the theme of collagen rich lip-smackety goodness that was well represented in both of our entrees.
I can’t even estimate how many braised shanks of all varieties that I have eaten before, and when my girlfriend chose the lamb shank in order to try something totally out of her normal comfort zone, I knew it would be good but did not expect the depth of flavor that was infused into the meat. Sometimes the flavors can get muddled or boring by the time you get down to the last of a braised piece of meat, but the spicy rosemary flavors went all the way down to the bone, and that skin……oh man, it’s like your lips are going to get glued shut from the aforementioned smackity goodness. We both got another meal out of our entrees, so bonus.
I do like dessert, it’s just never the first thing I think of when dining at a new restaurant. With all of the talk about the “Kit Kat Bar”, we had to give it a try. It is worth mentioning that it is now called “Michel’s Chocolate Bar”, because apparently the restaurant got a slap on the wrist from using the trademarked Kit Kat name. In addition to my lack of enthusiasm for dessert, and the fact that at this point in the meal I’m already in a wine/fat coma, I’ll just say this thing was chocolatey. Very smooth, creamy, and…….chocolatey. My girlfriend was whacko for it, and it WAS damn tasty, but I stuck with my glass of Sauternes. Next time for dessert I think I’ll just get a second lardon and onion tart.
Overall, probably the best restaurant experience of 2008, even with minibar thrown into the mix. We sat down before 8pm, left around 11pm, and on the way out I made it a point to stop by the kitchen to announce as they were cleaning up….”thanks for the best meal of 2008!”. Sometimes you are lucky enough to get that perfect storm of details, where the food, the service, the atmosphere, the company, the wine and overall vibe criss-cross into one big inexplicable party. Granted, I love food and fine dining so much that I had to have surgery to add years to my life, so maybe I over-romanticize a great restaurant experience…..but as I have said before, ignorance is bliss. The food nerd world already has enough people who don’t like food as much as they like hearing themselves deconstruct it ad nauseum, or revel in finding something wrong with the place everyone is raving about, or have enough money to approach food tourism like hyperactive children trading baseball cards……so I guess even though I may be too easily impressed I’m still just superior to any of them, and I promise you I’m a way better dining companion. Give me two, maybe three meals like this one per year and I’ll call it good.
Oh, the cost for a meal like this…….I know I’m not normal when it comes to what I’ll drop on an occasional extravagant meal, but I consider Central a bargain, at least if every meal goes off without a hitch like this one. Two bottles of wine ($40 each), two appetizers, two entrees, one dessert, a glass of dessert wine, tax and a very healthy tip came to about $216. In my world, that is not bad for three very memorable hours….especially considering this trip was our Christmas present to each other (and we each got a second meal out of it). Holy shit, it was WAY better than any card and sweater we may have received. Plus, we went all out, you could eat WAY cheaper than we did on Friday. We’ll be talking about our trip to Central for quite a while, and will probably be back in May or June to commemorate the first weekend when we met in DC earlier this year.
Next up……some kind of rambling crap about the two weeks I’m spending down in Richmond….the people down here are some tacky Christmas light loving motherfuckers……