Saturday, February 28, 2009

New York Snobs 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.

I found that 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 both agreed. My mom’s only experience with rabbit was as a kid when her summer camp used to serve something called 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, of all places.

My entrée was the pied de cochon. Leave it to the French to figure out a fancy way to say pig’s feet. But 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 a pleasing mineral taste at the finish that suggested grassfed pork.

My parents were revolted by the idea of trying feet, but I took that more as a criticism of my habit of ordering strange entrees than the restaurant.

My mom thought her shrimp burger lacked flavor, but really, what do you expect when you order a shrimp burger? And overall, Central had clearly impressed this duo of New York foodies. I’m not a doctor, but I took their fever and examined them with tongue depressors - they seemed perfectly healthy, no symptoms of New York snobbery.

But my hopes that I had cured them were dashed on the subway ride back. They complained that the metro 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 this time, with the braised rabbit weighing him down, he tripped on the wheel. The transit worker looked up from her US Weekly and glared. She was too lazy to actually say anything, but I know what she was thinking: Must be a New Yorker.

No comments:

Post a Comment