Thursday, March 18, 2010
New Yorkers Meet Michel Richard
Henry Ford called New York a different country. “Maybe it ought to have a separate government,” he said.
“Everybody thinks differently, acts differently – they just don’t know what the hell the rest of the United States is.”
I don’t disagree. I just didn’t think that the observation applied to my parents. They only moved to the City from Nashville two months ago.
But the silence said it all. My parents were visiting me in D.C. I’d taken them to Central, and soon after sitting down, I had asked them to name the two best chefs in D.C.
My dad went into a vegetative state.
“I’ll give you a hint,” I said. “One of them owns this restaurant.” My mom looked down at the bread basket, maybe hoping that the grains would miraculously form a D.C. chef’s face like the Jesus Pan that puts the face of the Anointed One on your pancake.
Yes, my parents can rattle off the names of all the important chefs of New York, but I could have told them that Michel Richard, owner of Central, was the doorman of the French Embassy. As for the second great D.C. chef, I spotted them the “Jose,” and they still couldn’t come up with Andres.
I thought that an evening at Central, winner of the 2008 James Beard Award for best new restaurant, might show them that good food does exist south of the Battery – strong medicine for anyone suffering from a touch of New York chauvinism.
They were impressed by the variety of the menu at Central, but they ordered their appetizers conservatively, starting with the house salad. Could a restaurant outside of the City really be trusted with anything else? Expressing a little more confidence in Michel, I got the foie gras and duck rillettes. The former was a “faux” foie gras – the real thing is made with duck, but executive chef Cedric Maupillier purees chicken liver with butter to make it smoother and richer. There was so much of it that I wondered if I was the one being gavaged.
The rillettes had a rustic texture – larger pieces of duck than the soft, smooth version that the French lovingly refer to as brown jam. In the Anjou region of France, rillettes are proudly displayed to the guest of honor, but when the waiter explained to my guests that the wax-like mystery topping was actually lard, they quickly passed.
But my dad did approve of the foie gras, which led him to be a little more adventurous with his entrée: braised rabbit with herbed spaetzle. The Washington Post called this dish – which features rabbit loin, leg, and sliced coins of kidney – a “stellar combination,” and my parents agreed. My mom’s only experience with rabbit was as a kid when her summer camp used to serve Welsh rabbit; all the campers called it “shit on bricks.” Since then, she had avoided rabbit, but now she was learning to love our furry little friend – in a restaurant outside of New York.
My entrée was the pied de cochon. Unlike the trotters you get with Southern soul food, the meat was pulled off the bone and braised, then mixed with mushrooms and deep-fried in a puff pastry that resembled an egg roll. The braising process had softened the muscular hoofs just enough. And the meat had that mineral taste at the finish that suggests grassfed pork.
My mom thought her shrimp burger lacked flavor, but, overall, Central had clearly impressed this New York foodie duo.
But my hopes that I had cured them of New York snobbery were dashed on the metro ride back. They complained that the station map didn’t make sense; the people in the cars were working too hard and overly serious; and, when my dad’s card didn’t work, he tried to hurdle the turnstile. He had suavely achieved this maneuver on the way to the restaurant, but now, weighed down by braised rabbit, he tripped on the wheel. The transit worker looked up from her US Weekly. She was too lazy to actually say anything, but I know what she was thinking: Must be a New Yorker.