First, an anecdote from my past.
When I was eight years old, my dad and I took a road trip to LA. He had to go for work, and I was allowed the exquisite pleasure of two days off of school and a visit to Disneyland! You might think that Disneyland dominates this memory, but really what I remember most was that I was allowed to stay up late and watch Dances With Wolves, and that my dad took me to a restaurant called Citrus. So much for the happiest place on earth.
I don’t remember a lick of what I ate at Citrus, but I distinctly remember what I wore: a navy blue jumper with an orange-red long sleeved shirt and black patent leather mary janes. I remember that there was an orange tree in the restaurant, and I remember that my dad, ever the smooth talker, got us back into the kitchen to meet and congratulate the chef. Somewhere in the bottom of a drawer is a picture of me at eight, standing on a kitchen counter with the chef of Citrus – Michel Richard.
So you see, Michel and I, we go way back.
Sometime towards the end of my college career, I became aware that Chef Michel Richard and I were once again in close proximity. But back in the GW days, it was all turkey deli sandwiches, Chik-Fil-A waffle fries and late night grilled cheese. The little I knew of Citronelle would have to wait.
Once I stuck around in this city, making my own paychecks and taking a good hard look at what the city had to offer, I became more familiar with the name Citronelle, reading over and over that it was one of the best restaurants in DC, and probably in the nation. But alas, when dinner for two costs $400 minimum, well, Michel and I did not have a chance to reunite.
And then -- oh glorious trend of upscale chefs opening casual bistros for the commoners – Michel Richard opened Central. This was a more casual bistro setting, with more realistic prices for a worker with a white collar like mine, from the same genius that brought the world this salade nicoise and a dessert that looks just like a sunny side up breakfast (I couldn't find any pictures on the web, but then how did I see it in the first place? My googling skillz are not up to speed).
And who better to go with than Este? Because with her it is a business lunch, and fully expensable. AND she has infinite patience when I photograph my plates. AND she makes the very best joyful noises when confronted with a plate of gorgeous and delicious food.
So there we were, in the yellow and burgundy, silver-edged and shiny-kitchened dining room. Having decided spur of the moment to lunch together, we could only snag a reservation for a later lunch at 1:30. This time I traded in my black patent leather mary janes from when I was eight with a pair magenta patent leather heels, although the restaurant is overall fairly casual. The dining room itself is beautiful and open – all lemon yellow banquettes, giant burgundy and cream lantern lights, light wood, silver fixtures and mirrors. It’s noisy at its peak, with the power lunching set working hard and doing deals. In the back there is a large open kitchen, where you can see the cooks at work behind a high wooden counter and lit by large silver lights.
And the food? To put it simply – it is the best bistro meal I’ve eaten. In my life.
To start, I ordered the duck rillettes faux gras terrine. It came served perfectly composed on a rustic wooden board with two thick slices of toast, a small round of duck rilletes with a smooth layer of duck fat, a small bowl of cornichons and pickled pearl onions, and a larger bowl of the most perfect pate ever made. The pate was as creamy as a cream cheese, smooth as butter, light as whipped cream, rich with fois gras and light with chicken livers (a faux gras, I found out, is a mixture of 60% chicken liver pate and 40% fois gras). I think I wouldn’t mind taking a bath in it, or at the very least eating it for my lunch every day.
Este was served a dozen gorgeously green asparagus, lined up like toy soldiers in a neat little row. She poured on the mustard vinaigrette, took a bite, and emitted a grateful moan – something we were to do frequently in the next hour.
For our entrees, I ordered a bistro classic -- a salad of curly yellow frisee, bacon lardons, and a poached egg. (Este and I apparently fall into patterns. She likes to start with asparagus, I like salads with poached eggs.) The salad was light, salty from the bacon, with a crunch of croutons and a sweet vinaigrette made creamy from the poached egg yolk.
Este ordered the duo of baby sandwiches, one prosciutto, one salami. Hers arrived on the same rustic board as my appetizer, with two tiny baguette sandwiches, just as cute as can be, and a bowl of greens with that same mustard vinaigrette that made her moan with the asparagus. The meats were definitely cured in-house, or so she reported to me because I did not get a chance to sample hers. To be fair, she did not sample mine either. We are greedy like that.
Our service throughout the meal was very attentive and nice. My only complaint -- they cleared empty plates before everyone was done eating, which surprises me at a place where so much thought obviously went into every detail. They also brought our entrees before I was done with my appetizer, but I was also eating that pate very slowly, enjoying every airy bite, so I probably threw off the kitchen's timing. And when the desserts arrived, our waiter was amused by our shrieks of delight. But if you were confronted with a banana split that looked like this:
you might lose your cool and shriek as well.
Yes, that is a banana split, like none you've ever had. It came in a ceramic TV dinner-type of tray, with separate compartments for each delicious component. A decadent dark chocolate ice cream, refreshing strawberry sorbet, and lightly sweet caramel ice cream, all fresh and house made. In the larger compartment, bananas covered in whipped cream, with house made vanilla, caramel, and hot fudge sauces, sprinkled with fruits and nuts.It nearly even outdid my "kit kat bar," a signature dish of Chef Richards, in which he re-imagines the classic candy bar in haute cuisine style. I received a long, thin rectangle of a dense chocolate mousse cake, with a layer of crunchy hazelnut wafer running through the middle, dusted in cocoa and surrounded by hazelnut sauce. Unlike Este, I practically licked my plate clean.
Central is not all that expensive (as Este pointed out, at $14, her baby sandwiches were not all that more expensive than her daily sandwich from Cosi, but infinitely better in quality), and not all that fancy. At its heart, these are classic American diner and French bistro dishes, melded together and influencing each other. These are simple foods, rendered complex by their meticulous preparation and composition, with every detail of taste and presentation attended too.
I had to wait nearly 17 years, but Michel, I'm glad I was able to see you again.
And I'm off! I'll be bebopping around the West Coast for the next two weeks. But keep checking in -- I've got a few tricks up my sleeve yet for things to post about, plus the Boyfriend may do a stint as guest blogger, provided he spends his week of unemployment doing fun DC things rather than play video games on the couch...