Central is part of the wider trend of established, well-known chefs opening less expensive, more populist venues. It's the younger sibling of Citronelle, one of the gems of Washington D.C.'s food scenes. Michel Richard opened the centrally-located bistro about six months ago. It's a buzzy place - a week in advance we could get a reservation, but not until 8:30 pm. I met marzapane and P. there among the fairly crowded tables in a busy restaurant whose decor was a mishmash of soothing elegance with over-the-top pop art sprawled across the glass walls showing off the wine "cellar". Food is at the heart of Central's mission, however, with glass also showcasing cured joints of meat on another wall.
We began with airy, rich cheese puffs, redolent of gruyere, shown off in a metal wire vase. They went quickly as we indecisively browsed a menu which mixed the high end with the mundane; Michel Richard is known for his lavish takes on classic American dishes. I admired the presence of a La Quercia prosciuttio platter and was very tempted to order the onion tart. P. had studied up his reviews in advance and went straight for the tasty slow-braised lamb shank served with incredible melt-in-your-mouth mashed potatoes. My onion soup was hearty and heavy, cheese-bound and miso-rich, it was enough to be a meal in its own right - a pity, since I'd ordered a main. M. began with a very good salad, greens of superficial simplicity whose multi-faceted dressing raised it to rewarding heights.
M. ordered the onion soup as a main - hers was oversalted and had to be returned. She was full enough from her salad that our shared side-order of macaroni and cheese was enough to complete her meal. Sadly, I had to give up early on my lobster burger. The ingredients were excellent, but lobster is better as a canvas than the star of the show. It was no more than its parts. The lobster burger also lost out by being a delicate player on a table of heavy-hitting flavors. It was accompanied by a salad which, after M's starter, was lackluster in flavor, boring by comparison.
Still, after sitting for a while, we were up for sharing two desserts among the three of us. The banana split starred lovely ice creams (I especially liked the clarity of the strawberry), while the chocolate mousse was downright fun, a pocked of strawberry sauce within, and crunchy chocolatey candy balls on top of the richly chocolated fluff. P. noted that most of the reviews he'd read said that the desserts were the best part.
Central's highs are very high indeed, but show up unexpectedly. The creamy potato-rich mash was the best thing there, with cheese puffs, M's green salad starter, and the desserts close seconds. The onion soup - when not too salty - was good, but not overly special, and way too big for its intense, exhausting richness. I would have been better off not ordering my main dish at all - it was fainthearted in contrast to the rest of the meal, and I was already fairly full from the soup. Service was a little flaky, but well-intentioned. We struggled to get attention when the restaurant was quiet and had too much of it when it was busy.
After six months, I would have thought Central would be beyond its initial growing pains, but that's what the misses felt like; that doesn't mean they'll be going away, however. Central is good but inconsistant, not as good as it could be, dull in places, but very good indeed when it shines.