Ahi Tuna Burger
Central Michel Richard, Washington, D.C.
The temperature was dropping rapidly. In the hour it took to get from the airport to the hotel and from the hotel to lunch, the thermometer trimmed itself of nearly twenty degrees. Cold rain might turn into snow, they said. Freezing temperatures were expected by early evening.
This is not what I bargained for when I planned my birthday trip to Washington, D.C. back in December. I pictured balmy, breezy, with a chance for cherry blossoms.
But this unexpectedly cold weather was, I have to admit, perfectly matched for the type of comfort food served at Central, Michel Richard’s modern bistro on Pennsylvania Avenue.
One should not visit Central under the same circumstances that I did. You should be hungry and have no meals planned for a day or two afterward.
It’s hard to eat “light” at Central. There are salads and soups. But the stuff that really appeals – dare I say, the restaurant’s forte – are the comfort foods that probably will exceed your caloric budget for the week.
It’s also probably hard to go wrong here. Nothing on the menu seemed out of the ordinary, a stretch for the time and place. This was straight-up bistro-style food. And here, predictability is backed by confidence. Richard has trained his cooks well.
There’s fried chicken, which I’ve heard is very good. The portion is ample, the crust looked thick and crunchy. There are sausages and strip steaks, large and juicy. And there are super-sized sides: mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and macaroni and cheese, all looking generous and rich.
But I didn’t have any of these, so I can’t personally recommend them. I only saw them plated and ready to go on the pass. Our table was literally at the kitchen’s doorstep, with a full view of the line and expeditors.
I can, however, recommend everything we ordered.
There were textbook Gougeres ($7), about a dozen warm puffs sporting a soft-crust jacket laced with grated cheese.
There were textbook French fries – crisp, salty, golden.
Michel Richard’s signature Ahi Tuna Burger ($19) was well-made, a thick, chopped tuna patty on a pillowy bun with tomato and house-made mayonnaise. I might have liked the inside of the patty a touch more rare, as I recalled it being the last time I had one out on the patio at Citronelle nearly a decade ago. But it was flavorful and moist, and, perhaps the only reasonably sized portion we saw (price notwithstanding).
Tucked between the patty and the top bun was Richard’s famous “potato tuile,” a round, flat potato chip that comes on all of his burgers – the magical missing ingredient to what had, heretofore, been the iconic and already-perfect creation. Only one tuile? I remember there being at least two in past versions (indeed, the burger on their website boasts at least half a dozen crisps). Two (or more) tuiles seem necessary. The one sort of got lost along the way, its crunchiness diminished with every bite.*
My Corned Beef Sandwich ($17; only served at lunch) was excellent (even if a little overpriced). The ultra-thin layers of house-corned meat were moist and light. It was impossibly delicate, yet satisfying.
The slaw (which came on and with the sandwich) was a tangle of grated cabbage, zucchini, and carrot brought together by a slightly curried mayonnaise dressing. The rye bread – mildly toasted – held up nicely, it being neither dry, stiff, overly thick nor flimsy. Instead of fries, I opted for a salad. Nothing new here, just mixed greens and a zippy dressing.
Dessert is inevitable, if not required eating at Central. A friend had counseled: “Save room for dessert, they’re worth it.” He was right.
At first glance, the dessert menu is a laundry list of usual suspects (e.g., chocolate mousse, crème brûlée, chocolate “lava” cake, cheesecake, etc.), with a couple of Richard signatures thrown in (e.g. Michel’s Chocolate Bar, a.k.a. “Le Kit Cat.”). But don’t let that deter you. A well-made dessert is a well-made dessert.
The “Tropical Meringue” ($9) was a mountain of crisp, airy meringues and coconut sorbet topped with a fluffy cloud of whipped cream flocked with colorful dices of tropical fruit (kiwi, mango papaya, bananas, and pineapple) and drizzled with fruit syrups. It had every textural component you could want. It was light and refreshing. It was wonderful, large enough for four. (Our server admitted that our serving seemed unusually large.)
The “Banana Split” ($12) was an ice cream parlor on a plate: one scoop of each vanilla ice cream (low on vanilla, high on cream), strawberry sorbet (smooth, good), and chocolate ice cream (unbelievably rich, topped with chocolate sauce and crunchy chocolate birdshot) was accompanied by a split banana smothered beneath an avalanche of whipped cream drizzled with chocolate and raspberry sauce and bedizened with sliced almonds, more chocolate birdshot, and diced pineapple. Caramel and chocolate sauces zebra-striped with creme anglaise pooled on either side. It was excess at its best, a childhood fantasy.
Our server hit the mark for this kind of establishment at that hour of the day, focusing more on efficiency than personality. She seemed to have more to say as the crowd thinned out. Yes, the restaurant was full when we walked in around 1:15 on a Friday.
My friend Houston had hoped to revisit the Cafe Brulot here (it was listed on the cocktail menu online). Sadly, it was not on the menu when we arrived. Instead, she enjoyed a tall glass of “Cinnamon Sweet Tea” ($11). It tasted like cinnamon-flavored Listerine to me. But she enjoyed it.
It’s not difficult to understand why Michel Richard is happy in the kitchen, or why the diners at Central are happy in the restaurant. Richard’s food is fun, creative, and over-the-top. It’s generous, effusive, and lovable. Anchored in fundamental technique, there are no surprises here except how good well-cooked and simple food can be.
To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.
Central Michel Richard
1001 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington, D.C. 20004-2550
* Edited to add: After reading my post, Houston informed me that there were, indeed, two tuiles on her Ahi Tuna Burger. If you look closely at the picture I took with the top bun propped to the side, the other tuile is clinging to the underside of that bun. So, I amend my statement to say that I think there should be at least three tuiles per burger. Houston agreed with me that the effect of the chip was lost halfway through eating.
A walk back in time: James Beard Award-winner for Best New Restaurant in 2008? It seems surprising, but considering Central’s competition that year, I suppose it’s not unbelievable. I have only been to one other nominee that year – Fearing’s in Dallas. The other nominees that year were Marc Vetri’s Osteria, Psilakis and Arpaia’s Anthos, and Molina’s Osteria Mozza.