I’ve just finished The Golden Compass, the first installment of Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I wonder if this Dust, described with eery malignance, is the tangible stuff of inspiration and passion. If so, I sure could use some. What inspires a food writer is food. Around these parts, I have experienced food made with intention, or enjoyment, even love. But rarely in WNC have I tasted exceptionally passionate or inspired food. Therefore, I too have become less inspired. Most restaurants I frequent here fall prey to the pitfalls of any tourist community. Reputations reverberate far and wide, but the actual delivery most often is simply “good.” Then one starts to question one’s own impressions, “do I think I love this food because everyone has told me I love it, or is this truly as exciting as the hype has determined it would be?” It’s confusing, and I’ve taken myself to the internal wrestling mat of the mind on this one. My solution: eat somewhere critically lauded and unequivocally great. Do so out of town.
This was my first foray into celebrity chefdom. I wanted to eat food designed by a chef quoted as saying he has enjoyed a “lifelong romance with cuisine.” I wanted to dine in an establishment keeping a “wine manager” in its employ. I wanted at least three stars in a major metropolitan area.
Like many celebrity chefs before him, Michel Richard of Washington D.C.’s Cintronelle fame has recently opened a more affordable, lower key bistro catering to a hipper, urban crowd. Central’s modern chic atmosphere was the perfect place to be on New Year’s Eve. Located in the heart of the District, a mere two blocks from The White House, Central bustled with rich, festive, professionals arriving in their longest fur coats, giving way to the sleekest of black dresses/suits.
Humbled by my desperately small town ways, I was relieved when our waiter quickly alleviated the tension with his pleasant combo of succint professionalism and extreme politeness all lassoed in together with the perfect dash of informality. The service was superbly infallible. The best service I have received in my two star-eating life. They served food from the right, and cleaned dishes from the left. We ate the pre fixe menu for New Year’s and they brought new silver and plates for each of the five courses. Water was filled dutifully with no pretention, napkins were refolded when one of us left our seats. The service was a far cry from Asheville waitstaff, whose hipness borders on disdain and informality confuses the whole idea of service. We eat out because we desire to feel special. If we wanted to be treated like family, we would stay home and eat with them.
Onward, to the the amuse bouche: Gougeres. These cheeseball-sized gruyere cheese puffs were piled high in the delightful metal cone made for this exact occasion. I bit into the warm flaky crust and my mouth was greeted with the steaming tanginess of gruyere. This was too satisfying and far too fun to simply have one or two. The bread was quite simply the most perfect French baguette I have ever put in my mouth. Warm, rock hard floured crust gave way to a thick hearty, interior, full of holes that gracefully accepted freshly churned butter.
Soup Course: Mussel and roasted celeriac. Also Carmelized duck and chestnut. I began with an oversized bowl staring down its cavernous rim at six or so mussels, cubes of celery root, and chives. Then a handsome man came and poured the liquid part of the soup onto the dry ingredients, thus commencing the soup course. One bite of the sherry-based cream soup and my tongue conjured images of wet moss, clear, cold, clean salt water, and green fields in French countryside. This soup was the most fabulous course of them all, and the mussels were breathtakingly plump and meaty. In this moment, I felt completely and totally taken care of by Michel Richard. Every single sensation was exactly according to his divine inspiration. I silently praised this kitchen god before moving on to the next course.
The foie gras parfait with apple chutney filled my mouth with light creaminess, like a savory and hearty whipped cream. It was wonderful and paired exceptionally with the apple chutney and a thick triangle of toast. The foie gras parfait disappaired in short minutes. This is the one taste I continue to long for even though I’m days away from this meal.
Our fish course was not as successful as the others. The lobster in the ravioli was delicate tail, sweet and sumptious, but the ravioli was seated in a sauce I found both too sweet and too salty. I could not place the sauce, it was a deep red, perhaps a beet-based sauce, but after two sticky bites I devoured the lobster and left the rest alone. I still had two more courses to go, after all.
I tried the short rib with black bean sauce, and potatoes au gratin encased in a filo pastry crust. The tender meat fell away from my fork with a forgiveness I knew would bode well. The combination of flavors found in the chinese black bean sauce was the perfect marriage of sweet, spicy, and sour flavors that lended themselves well to the rib. Although a little fatty for my taste, I found the dish to be wonderfully successful, especially alongside the crisped, delicate potato gratin creation. My partner-in-extravagance ordered veal with mushrooms. I ate more new types of mushrooms that night then I even knew existed, and each one offered a different experience of texture and flavor combination. Some were more pungent than others, some were boyant and spongy against the teeth. The sensations were exquisite.
My dessert was exactly what the doctor ordered: an enormous platter of mixed berries with creme fraiche I could drizzle over them at will. Each blueberry, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry was ripened just right and the clean finish rounded out the richness of my meal with a flourish.
As the Dust settled, I stood in my party dress, appraising Central for one final moment. Staring into the bright kitchen, I saw order, excitement, skill, and commitment. I saw passion. I tasted it too, and was fully renewed.
Next time you visit your capital city, get thee to Michel Richard’s Central.