Tue 8 Sep 2009
One of the questions that we get asked from time to time is “Why haven’t you written about XXX yet?” More often than not, the answer is simply that we haven’t had a chance to check it out, or else we didn’t feel like we got a good enough handle on the place to write about it. But when it comes to Michel Richard’s Central, it really came down to a question of timing.
We’ve been to Central a handful of times since it opened, for everything from a birthday celebration to a random lobster burger craving. And each time we’ve walked away impressed by one or more aspects of our experience: the airy gougeres, the staff’s knowledge of wines, the bar service (under the watchful eye of Justin Guthrie, who’s now turning heads as the Director of Bar Concepts for the W Hotel). But somehow, those experiences never seemed to fall at a time when it was convenient to write about them here.
Thankfully, a recent lunch gave us the opportunity to rectify that. Grabbing a stool at the bar and settling in with a refreshing peach tonic (a delicious non-alcoholic drink with plenty of bubbles and a tart sweetness from Fee’s peach bitters), I was able to reacquaint myself with Central’s menu and check out a few dishes that seemed to reflect the best ingredients of the late summer.
I arrived a few minutes early and was immediately struck by the number of people inside. Central’s lunch crowd was impressive considering the fact that we were meeting smack in the middle of the August Congressional recess (they were named Power Spot of the Year at this year’s Rammys, after all). Thankfully we had planned to meet and eat at the bar; had we attempted to get a table as walk-ins, we might have had a bit of a wait.
A truly unique gazpacho (and a few unexpected favorites from previous visits) after the jump.
On your first visit to Central, don’t bother trying to play it cool…go ahead and stare. They expect it. Frankly, they want it. Everything about the restaurant exists on simultaneously grand and narrow scales. There’s a sculpture of a towering stack of oversized plates just off the host stand. The light fixtures that run the length of the dining room consist of huge concentric circles. And a massive painting of Michel Richard’s smiling face beams across at you from the back wall.
Even so, you never feel small or unimportant at Central, and that’s the trick of the place that impresses far more than the scale of the interior design. From your first experience with the hostess to the presentation of the check, you’re made to feel like more than just a guest…you’re a VIP. And although a big part of that feeling is created by the service, it’s reinforced by the luxurious decor and the quality of the meal. No wonder Central was named Best New Restaurant of 2008 by the James Beard Foundation.
I had wondered if I would get that same feeling at the bar – lunch at the bar signals a ‘get in, get out’ mentality, after all. But I was pleasantly surprised. The bartender’s knowledge of the menu and his willingness to share favorites and insider information filled the gap left by the absence of a server and it left me feeling just as well-attended. Hence that peach tonic.
Now everyone knows I’m a sucker for a good gazpacho, and I figured Central’s version made at the height of tomato season would qualify as a good gazpacho. Boy was I right! When it arrived, I was first served a bowl with a mound of diced vegetables seated in a bed of crushed ice. Once this was situated in front of me, a pitcher of soup was poured around the vegetables to form a thick pool. The tomato base of the soup was delicious and velvety smooth, with just the right amount of sweet pepper flavor to add a note of complexity.
But there was more to this texture – and the flavor, for that matter – than my lunch companion and I could put our fingers on. He guessed they had added cream to the soup to provide that silken texture, but I wondered if it was some of their housemade bread. As it turns out, we were both wrong. The secret ingredient, the bartender informed us conspiratorially, was actually mozarella cheese. The creamy cheese was incorporated into the soup to give it that unexpected note, and there were additional cubes of cheese among the diced veggies to reinforce the flavor. Though I wouldn’t have thought to include fresh mozarella in my own version of the soup, it was somehow perfect at that moment.
There’s a lot of those moments of unexpected satisfaction throughout the menu at Central, and past meals have introduced us to them in turn. I’ve already mentioned the rich, meaty lobster burger with its craveable heft and its deep, briny taste, as well as those warm puffs of air, cheese and bread known as gougeres. But we’re also smitten with the duck rilletes and “faux gras” terrine among the appetizers, and Central’s version of fried chicken is definitely worthy of all the praise it received when the restaurant first opened. Truth be told, we’ve found very few dishes in our visits that weren’t at least satisfying…and we’ve found far more that managed to be exactly what we wanted even when we didn’t know what that was.
I knew exactly what I wanted when I ordered the crabcake for my entree this time. The menu indicated that it was paired with a leek tartare, and I was especially eager to see what that would look and taste like. When my meal came, it was a perfectly formed disc of lightly browned crab sandwiched between a salad of frisee and a creamy bed shot through with leeks.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Angela’s Food Love, a blog that helped me to understand exactly what I had just experienced after the fact. Perhaps you’ve heard crabcakes described in terms of their ratio of killer (lump crab meat) to filler (egg, bread crumb and anything else used to bind and fill out the cake). At Central, they can legitimately claim to have almost no filler whatsoever…and certainly no bread crumbs or things like that. Angela’s blog shares the recipe for these crabcakes and reveals the secret binding agents: scallops and gelatin.
Just blew your mind, no? Mine too. And the leek tartare is actually a creative take on tartar sauce (hence the name) that uses ginger, shallots and leeks to spice up that oh-so-boring mayo and relish accompaniment to all things fried and seafood.
The two dishes together made for an amazing lunch. I was definitely grateful for the opportunity to revisit a favorite that has yet to let us down…and to finally get a chance to write about it, as well!