- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Nothing succeeds like success, and Michel Richard is proof. His new bistro-brasserie, Central Michel Richard, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 11th Street Northwest. has been an instant hit from the moment it opened in January.

Reminiscent of the Left Bank brasseries of Paris, such as Lipp, La Coupole and Le Dome, this new large restaurant in trendy Penn Quarter has a welcoming appeal. The decor is relatively simple and the large open kitchen, with its bustle and heat, is an attraction itself.

The tablecloths are crisp and white, but the atmosphere is informal and the menu straightforward, very different from Mr. Richard’s Citronelle in Georgetown. The kitchen is under the supervision of chef de cuisine Cedric Maupillier, formerly executive sous-chef at Citronelle Michel Richard in Georgetown. While Mr. Richard does not personally preside over Central’s kitchen, a large glass-covered silkscreen of his face at one end of the dining room reminds everybody who’s the boss.

The menu is short but interesting. Many of the preparations are American dishes with a French twist, such as fried chicken with a mustard sauce or a crab cake with leek tartar. Mr. Richard says he loves American food, and Central’s kitchen shows it.

Appetizers are divided into hot and cold plates. One American classic, so often sneered at by those with froufrou palates, gets respect here. Iceberg lettuce is chopped and sprinkled with a generous serving of blue cheese and bacon in a lovely creamy dressing. It’s a large portion, easier to manage than the traditional wedge, and very satisfying. Another salad, frisee lettuce with bacon pieces and a poached egg, is very French; still another, a Caesar salad, mixes culinary traditions by adding goat cheese.

Don’t miss the onion tart, served hot. Two small rounds, sliced like mini pizzas, are served on a wooden board. Delicate and thin, the small tarts are topped, barely, with caramelized onion and tiny pieces of ham. It’s delicious and as close to ethereal as cooking can get, a subtle range of flavors with the thinnest crust imaginable.

Traditionally French is the onion soup and the little gougeres, or cheese puffs. The crab cake and fried oysters reflect American cooking, while mussel chowder combines Americana with classic Parisian bistro fare. A portion of mussels in white wine and garlic is large enough to share among two or three, or even four diners.

Asian style tuna carpaccio, steak tartare, duck rillettes, mixed charcuterie and smoked salmon are good cold choices to begin a meal.

The menu lists three burgers: tuna or shrimp; lobster (at $28, second only to a New York strip steak with peppercorn sauce at $30 as the most expensive item on the menu); and a regular hamburger for a hefty $16, with an additional dollar each for cheese and bacon. The burgers are all thick, juicy and served with a side of green salad or french fries. The salad is a fresh combination of greens enhanced with green beans in a tart vinaigrette.

The lobster burger consists of a generous serving of poached lobster, cut up to arrive on a brioche-like bun. The bun has a coating of mayonnaise and a thin slice of tomato, and the filling is topped with a paper-thin round of fried potato. It’s a wonderful sandwich with each element — the juicy tomato slice, the rich lobster meat and the crisp potato — clearly defined and complementing the others.

A house special is the 72-hour simmered short rib served with excellent mashed potatoes and a side of green salad. The ribs are fork tender, if a wee bit fat. The flavor is full and the sauce in which the ribs are cooked is dark and delicious. It’s a fine dish, perfectly executed.

Fried chicken, rotisserie chicken and chicken pot pie are main course choices; so is a grilled hanger steak served with french fries. Fish is represented with a grilled salmon accompanied by lentils; grilled prawns with snow peas; and fish and chips. Lamb stew and lamb shank with creamy polenta round out the menu.

Our only disappointment was a dessert of apple pandowdy, overly sweet apples and raisins topped by a crisp cookie-dough crust sprinkled with sugar crystals. The crust, too, is excessively sweet. Next time we’ll choose the orange souffle with chocolate sauce.

Service, like the restaurant, is friendly and casual — perhaps a bit too much so. There was a long wait between courses, dishes were not removed promptly, and we had to call for the waiter’s attention on several occasions, the last one while he was engaged in a lengthy conversation with a patron at the bar. There’s room for improvement here.

The wine list is adequate, somewhat dear. A few wines are offered by the glass, but it’s a nice custom for the waiter to bring the whole bottle to the table to pour just a glass.

The lunch menu is much the same as dinner, with a few additions and subtractions and a switching of certain dishes from starter to entree and vice versa. Central, with or without Mr. Richard’s presence, is a popular addition to Penn Quarter. You’ll want to go back.

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