Michel Richard’s new outpost puts fun into fine dining

In a town of name-droppers and chef-worshippers, the name Michel Richard is usually uttered with reverence. A dinner at the legendary chef’s vaunted Citronelle is a gastronomical event to be anticipated, savored — and not frequently repeated, given the French destination’s investment-grade prices.

With Central, Richard’s new, more casual restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s no such sense of preciousness. Instead, diners find a stylish destination for a fun night out, with food that’s sophisticated and surprising enough to please even the most jaded diners but still approachable and wallet-friendly.

Those entering the sleek and warm space are greeted with a signal of the dining experience to come: a sculpture, taller than the average adult, made up of precariously stacked, oversize dinner plates. Such a whimsical touch, especially in an otherwise uncluttered dining room, is only the first indication that a meal at Central is not to be taken entirely seriously.

Not that the famously meticulous Richard isn’t paying attention to the details. He is, from the remarkably chewy bread that turns up in the breadbasket to the carefully curated wine list. But throughout a meal at Central, there are plenty of reasons to crack a smile.

In Richard’s hands, humble dishes that often get a bad culinary rap, like fried chicken or banana splits, are reinvented with top-flight ingredients and respectful preparation. Clichéd bistro fare, like an onion tart or a bacon-laden salad, are similarly redeemed.

The aforementioned onion tart is a perfect way to start a meal at Central. The thin-crusted, oblong pie is simply scattered with caramelized onions, a touch of Gruyere cheese and slivers of smoky bacon. The very onion-y-ness of the dish was striking, and evidence of what Richard does best: Concentrate flavors and allow them to shine. Another starter worth sampling is the frisee salad, a bistro classic that combines egg yolk, lardons of bacon, and tart greens under a blanket of shallot-spiked vinaigrette.

The simplest dishes, ones often overlooked elsewhere, are some of the menu’s best. As with the onion tart, the mashed potatoes that accompany many of the entrees taste refreshingly of earthy potato, with a dose of garlic and butter for good measure.

The potatoes accompany the fried chicken, whose flesh is remarkably juicy and flavorful and whose exterior is crusted with a bread-crumb batter made from coarse, rustic country bread. The chicken is so good on its own, the little dish of mayonnaise that accompanies it seems to be a lily-gilding, extraneous touch. Another entrée choice, a fan of meltingly tender short ribs, is the result of 72 hours of “sous-vide” preparation, in which the meat is encased in a plastic bag to preserve its flavor, then cooked in a warm-water bath.

Richard’s philosophy of infusing dishes with flavor at every step is evident in his lobster burger. The chunks of meat making up the patty are not held together with quotidian breadcrumbs or the expected mayonnaise, but an elegant mousse of scallop.
And such attention to detail extends beyond the menu. The interior’s soothing caramel colors mellow the high-energy vibe of the open-air space. A sweeping view of the kitchen, in which an orchestra of sous-chefs and underlings make chaos look graceful, provides a show along with dinner, as does the brigade of waiters sweeping through the dining room. A huge tilted mirror above the bar in the front of the restaurant is a fresh take on the traditional brasserie setup, and reflects the handsome design and even better-looking crowd. And small touches reveal the restaurant’s casual-dining ethos: There are paper napkins (instead of cloth) and salt and pepper shakers on the tables, features that are often absent from the fanciest of the city’s dining rooms.

The wine list is a short, well-edited catalog of French selections, including several excellent by-the-glass wines. General manager Brian Zipin, who helped select the wines, boasts that the specially imported $8-a-glass “Michel Richard” wines are, “for their price, the best wines in town.” And after sampling a robust Côtes du Rhône and a bright chardonnay, I’m not inclined to argue.

The cocktail list, like the rest of the menu, features familiar choices gone upscale. A maple Manhattan is hardly a novelty act, while a Mai Tai, a cocktail so badly mangled in syrupy versions, is crisply rendered with fresh ingredients.

Desserts also showcase Richard’s impish side. His take on the vending-machine favorite, the Kit Kat bar, is a blend of crunchy and smooth textures. But nothing you’ve ever fished out of a machine ever tasted this good, with dense, rich chocolate playing off the crisp filling. A creamy, eggy orange soufflé is a similarly flavorful, though lighter, way to end a meal here.

Which, given the temptation to sample all of Central’s offerings and to linger over each course, is a good thing.