Whimsical: An adjective often used in describing downtown DC’s Central Michel Richard. Yet, whimsy doesn’t quite capture what is at the heart of this James Beard Award winning restaurant. Indulgence seems the foundation of a menu that takes American food’s most pleasurable staples and gourmetifies them with a French twist. What results is an amusement park for fine diners. Yet, with American classics come fried finishes, flour coatings and wheat filling, deeming us Glutie Foodies unfit to board the best rides.
I arrived at Central on a recent Saturday night with my girlfriends, Mrs. Muffin, Miss Zin, and Zin’s childhood friend, a new arrival to DC. The scene by the bar was boisterous, with seats filled by couples making a night of it, and diners waiting for tables attempting a pre-dinner cocktail. The dining room was filled with creamy light, reflecting off the warm wood tables and chairs and earth-toned marble floors. Michel Richard’s face graces a large wall by the wine cellar, reminding visitors who’s the boss.
We ordered our wine and a dozen oysters as I divulged my “allergy” to the server. It did not surprise me, this being a high profile restaurant on a busy Saturday night, that the server seemed slightly put-off by a complicated customer and did not offer much guidance. I decided to survey the menu further and strategize my questioning. When he returned, I asked a handful of questions, most of which he had to check on. We discovered together that besides the obviously breaded items, many of the sauces and marinades contain either soy sauce or flour. The tuna carpaccio, mussels in white wine, miso salmon, sea scallops with bellpepper sauce, and rotisserie chicken dishes are all off-limits. Most of the sharing plates and starters either have to be adapted or skipped altogether, and the tempting ahi tuna and lobster burgers are both glutenous, even without the bun. With my options severely limited, I took the server’s advice and ordered the 100% gluten-free loup de mer (sea bass) with mushrooms.
Central is lucky it has quality on its side. Patrons know that regardless of what is ordered, it is always terrific. The freshest ingredients are used in the most complimentary combinations. Complicated preparations are perfectly executed to create consistently superior food. Needless to say, the sea bass was fantastic. The flaky 10 inch filleted fish was served skin side up, topped with a heap of rosemary infused mushrooms, and accompanied by a side of arugula, simply dressed with olive oil, lemon and shaved parmesan. The dish was light, fresh, healthy and hearty.
The pleasant surprise of the night were the French macaroons on the dessert menu (not always available), made in-house and definitely gluten-free. I treated our figure-conscious table to one of each flavor, just a few bites each to finish on a sweet note.
My meal was delightful enough to almost forget my earlier anxieties. While I will gladly return to Central for another first-rate dinner, I was disappointed with the server’s aloof attitude and the menu’s limitations. I suppose a chef as renown as Michel Richard doesn’t have to be concerned with accommodating little ol’ me.