We first ventured to Central in the summer of 2007, our first summer in DC. The fact that it took us three years to return is not a reflection on the quality of the restaurant, but rather a reflection on the sheer number of good restaurants in DC that we wanted to try.
I have a soft spot for Central because it was one of the first "special" restaurants we tried in DC. Long before I knew anything about the DC dining scene, I knew that Central was a hotspot that couldn't be missed. Though 3 years have passed, Michel Richard's bistro is as popular as ever. You won't want to show up without a reservation. You also won't want to be caught calling it "Central." It is pronounced "Cen - trahl."
As we took our seats, I whispered to B that Central is the kind of place where you might see a famous person. He looked toward the bar area and said "You mean like Mike Isabella?" Sure enough, the Top Cheftestant (and Zaytinya executive chef) was dining near the bar. Though that might not meet your definition of "famous", it was fun to see a familiar TV face. Also, when you see a chef dining in a restaurant, you figure it is probably going to be good.
After my Mike Isabella-gawking subsided, we dug into a basket of cheese puffs. I've heard people rave about these things. While I thought they were really tasty, I couldn't help comparing them to the cheese puffs served at nearby Oya (see our thoughts here). The difference? Central's version is a $7 appetizer and Oya's version is a freebie given out instead of the bread basket. My advice to Central: ditch the boring bread basket and sub the cheese puffs. They can't cost that much to make and they'd win you even more fans than you already have.
Central's menu descriptions are brief. While I don't need a paragraph explaining every minute detail of the preparation and source of ingredients, I do find it harder to decide what to order when the menu lists only "Bucatini and meatballs." I feel compelled to bombard the waitress with questions (e.g., "what kind of sauce? is the pasta made in house? what sides are included?). Because Central is so busy (and so very loud) this kind of interaction isn't always practical. To our waitress' credit, she did recommend two very tasty dishes. For B, she recommended the lamb shank with creamy corn polenta. The magicians in the kitchen managed to serve up a sauce that was incredibly rich and flavorful without being heavy. It snuggled the lamb like a fleece blanket instead of smothering it like one of those scratchy Motel 6 comforters.
Once the waitress said the magic words "fried chicken" I knew what I was going to be eating for dinner (probably similar to B's reaction when she said lamb). I'm on a mission to find the best fried chicken in DC and Central had tough competition from Oohhs & Aahhs and Sou'wester (see out posts here and here, respectively). Central's rendition was a twist on the classic preparation using a more panko-style breading. It was light and juicy, and most importantly, delicious. The addition of a horseradishy dipping sauce added a little zing. The mashed potatoes were forgettable but that just left more room to finish the chicken.
Central is known for its "Michel's chocolate bar" dessert which is a fancy take on a Kit Kat Bar. We tried it 3 years ago and weren't completely blown away (it was really good but not life changing), so we wanted to try something different. We chose Michel's Napoleon which was a tower of pastry/custard goodness. While gorgeous to look at, we wasted no time attacking it with our forks and crushing the pastry layers into delectable smithereens.
After such a yummy meal, I don't think we'll make the mistake of letting 3 years pass before our next visit to Central.
Second Thoughts From B
Just as sure as I will ask a waiter/waitress for a suggestion, J will ask any chef we happen across where they like to eat out. At Central, we had a first hand account from one of the best chefs in the city. Say what you want about him personally from the show (I choose to reserve judgment knowing that "reality show" is quite the misnomer), but the guy knows food.
But what did I think? After all (beware of huge ego trip approaching), if you cared what Mike thought, you'd be reading his blog... so here goes: I think Central fills the niche of fine dining in a more casual and more affordable setting really well. When it burst onto the scene several years ago, this was a much more novel concept. Today, perhaps partially due to its success, you'll find many other downtown options where a nice pair of jeans and $20 can get you a really nice meal. Of course, none will carry the prestigious of the Michel Richard name, but I would argue that the gap has closed and Central is one of many rather than the undisputed leader of the pack. This is not to say that they have slipped. Instead, the rest have caught up.
Still, it is a place where you might see someone famous. Maybe that has something to do with its owner's reputation or the restaurant's role in transforming DC's dining scene or the James Beard Award it won in 2008. I'm even willing to admit that it may have something to do with subtle techniques that are lost on lesser culinary minds and palates such as my own. But whatever the reason, Central is a destination that should be on the list of anyone looking for good food in DC.
Finally, thank you for everyone who participated in our online scavenger hunt. Some of your comments were hilarious! Also, congratulations to our big winner, Victoria. Enjoy the $40 gift certificate.