Monday, January 20, 2014

Washington Social Diary

Santa Claustian Michel Richard, with the beard, and his kitchen staff at Citronelle in Georgetown.
by Carol Joynt

It is a holiday in Washington, and elsewhere in the country, as we celebrate the Martin Luther King holiday. 

It’s also a couple days after First Lady Michelle Obama celebrated her 50th birthday with a dance party at the White House, that apparently lasted till the wee hours. No doubt the city’s gossips will fill their blogs with lists of the famous who attended, but we know for sure Beyonce and Jay-Z were there, as friends and to perform.

As a prelude to the big day, ABC News broadcast a discussion that was hosted by Dan Kloeffler. Cokie Roberts and I were the guests. Watch it here:
Los Angeles and New York may think they have the corner on professional schandenfreude, but it romps about here, too, finding joy in the failure of others. While it thrives in politics, the most recent episode involves the food scene and the Villard rooms at the Palace hotel on Madison Avenue, once home to Sirio Maccione and Le Cirque.

A decade and change later Villard is in the hands of Michel Richard, a chef who only 18 months ago was more or less king of the culinary hill in Washington, a darling of the Relais & Châteaux set. He is a Santa Clausian character, round with a white beard, equal parts jolly and curmudgeon, but also a food genius who after starting in pastry as a protégé of Gaston Lenotre, created his own unique menu of French-California fusion. He’s good. He’s very, very good.
The bar at Villard Michel Richard, followed by the dining rooms.
But last week when Pete Wells review of Villard Michel Richard appeared in the New York Times, there was no jolly, not even a trace. Wells savaged the Villard Michel Richard. He called it “awful,” gave it no stars and ranked it “fair,” one heartbeat from death. This was a day after Adam Platt of New York Magazine weighed in with a review that was tepid, at best. It was as if the two New York critics were a restaurant execution tag team. Platt got Richard from his cell and walked him to the virtual Place de la Cuisine, where Wells pulled the bag over his head and dropped the guillotine.

In Washington, where restaurants and bars are a boom industry, the New York drama was noticed. There was woe, but there was also glee. A lot of people felt, even those close to Michel, that taking on New York was folly. He had big hits here with the more formal Citronnelle, where the patrons included the President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, among many other notables, and Central, his casual bistro on Pennsylvania Avenue that is very popular with members of Congress and the lobbyists who love to woo them.
In his Pete Wells wrote "If Villard Michel Richard doesn't make it as a restaurant, it could reopen as the Museum of Unappetizing Brown Sauces."
The delicious charcuterie tower at Central in DC. Pete Wells tried Richard's cuisine there and New York: "In every case, the Washington version looked and tasted better."
In his review of Villard Michel Richard, Wells took the unusual step of traveling to Washington to dine at Central. (Citronelle closed in the summer of 2012). He liked Central quite a lot. He compared several dishes — Villard vs. Central — and Central won in a knock out. What an opportunity for a publicist to turn lemons into lemonade. Ignore the trashing of Villard and instead issue a release with this headline: “New York Times Gives Strong, Good Review to Central Michel Richard.” Right? It didn’t happen. I’m not sure Michel’s crew knew what to say after the one-two punch.

So, where’s the schadenfreude? Out in the open, but with a twist. DC readers of the New York reviews winked at each other, made frown faces on behalf of poor Michel, but inside they smiled at the possible silver lining for Washington; maybe he’ll come back where he’s loved, reopen Citronelle, and reclaim the high ground. The first hint was in a report from The Washington Post’s restaurant critic, Tom Sietsema. In December he wrote: “The best news to come out of a recent dinner at Villard Michel Richard ... is this: The French chef who dazzled us at the late Citronelle in Georgetown is mulling over another run in Washington.”
Outside of Citronelle in the winter months. Now the building is closed and boarded up.
The old Citronelle bar, after the restaurant was closed due to major repair and renovation needed at the Georgetown hotel where it was located.
A peek inside the window at the Citronelle bar.
The foodies here love Michel Richard. It’s been a complicated relationship, though, since he arrived in 1994 from California, where he created the popular Citrus in Santa Monica. At first he didn’t seem to want to be here, commuting back and forth. But then, with a $1 million state of the art new kitchen, he got more settled in at the Latham Hotel in Georgetown. He seemed happy here. Then, he got restless again, opening and closing at a Ritz Carlton in the suburbs and an outpost in Atlantic City; all the while with an eye on New York.

Sietsema, in his 2011 Washington Post dining guide, gave Citronelle a full four stars. “When it comes to showing off his food, there’s not a more creative costumer than Michel Richard.” In an earlier review, he began, “Michel Richard has me at the amuse bouche.” In Washingtonian, critic Todd Kliman opened with, “Michel Richard’s dazzling reinterpretation of French cooking puts the hoot in haute cuisine.” Ka-boom!
The cocktails at Citronelle's bar were, like the bar menu, among the best in Washington. Here, Michel's own take on the Cosmpolitan.
The refreshing Michel Richard mojito. It has a secret.
I’m putting all this out there to underscore the logic of Richard taking a crack at Manhattan. But it’s also to underscore my argument for the question: why? To be at the top of the heap in Washington is a sweet ride. When it comes to the city’s major league restaurants, Washington patrons are loyal, the critics eager to see success, and it’s not the “Postal 2” of the New York scene.

You can live well here, be hoisted on the shoulders of your competitors, and when national magazines do round-ups of “where to eat in the nation’s capital,” you get listed as the place to go, providing beyond the Beltway love. Yes, the lyrics of New York, New York make an irresistible call. But while making it there may mean you can make it anywhere, making it here can mean you don’t need to, or you will in spite of New York. “In spite of New York” already is a trend of this century. For example, Austin.
A view from inside the marble topped bar. It was particularly comfortable for a patron who wished to dine alone.
Busy behind the bar, Angel. In the foreground, a dessert of Crepes Suzette.
For all its 20 years, Citronelle was just down the street from my home. The formal restaurant was in the hotel’s lower level, while at the ground level there was a bar and an outdoor terrace. The bar and terrace were a fixture in my life and the lives of many others, including movie stars, visiting heads of state and notable members of the government.

It was the city’s top French restaurant, but it was also a hang-out. While it was a hub of fine dining, it had the best bar menu in town: excellent fried chicken and mini-burgers and pommes frites, and a dish called Tuna Napoleon Nicoise that I mourn to this day. It was a delightful spot for parties, to meet up with a friend or two, or dine alone at the bar, watched over by one of the friendly bartenders.
The bar menu at Citronelle.
Chilled provencal soup, aka gazpacho, on the terrace at Citronnelle
Out on the terrace at Citronelle, the incomparable fried chicken.
It’s not out of the question for that to be realized again in Washington. Michel is not yet Humpty Dumpty, but if too many pages fall off the calendar, the moment of opportunity will pass. A positive sign: his wife, Laurence, still lives here with their children.

Along with all the other woeful faces, I wink and hope.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt