This week I went to dinner at Michel, Michel Richard’s new restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner.
The space was previously home to the amazing Maestro, which closed when the chef moved to New York to open there … right at the start of the financial crisis, his restaurant there didn’t work and he’s on his way back to DC.
Tyler Cowen gave the place “an enthusiastic thumbs-up”. I take his recommendations seriously and find that for strip mall restaurants he’s invariably spot on but that we disagree more often than not with fine dining. He loves Komi, I find it especially hit or miss. I reviewed The Fat Duck outside London, and he thought the meal seemed like ‘B.S.’ and while I had mixed emotions about the place I think I took it much more seriously.
Like Tyler Cowen, I thought that the entrees seemed boring, though it’s somewhat hard to say without discussing each one with the wait staff. Menu items are underdescribed, they’re listed with a basic name that tells you little about their preparation or what if anything is served with the dish. And since I’ll often make my tie-breaking decisions based on sides (which have their own, separate menu listing here so are additional) that’s frustrating for me. Still, I get what the chef wants here — surprise, whimsy. And it’s easily overcome through a discussion with your server. But it’s still not to my liking.
The restaurant has an open kitchen, with clear glass separating it from the dining room which is open as well and doesn’t dampen acoustics in the least. It was hard to hear conversations at first, except those from the tables beside us.
With an open kitchen they clearly need a better disciplined kitchen staff, as they were using dirty kitchen rags and a dishwasher could be seen eating from someone’s station.
The menu seemed to have some overlap with Richard’s other restaurants, for instance the chocolate bar dessert and the charcuterie plate, both highlights of Central.
Given the relatively uninteresting-sounding entrees, my wife and I stuck with all appetizers and ordered three apiece as separate courses.
Now, the menu is slightly different in the restaurant, or at least while we were there, than what’s listed on the website. There weren’t any specials, just the preprinted menu, and it was on heavy enough cardstock that I’m guessing it isn’t a menu for the evening only. So they may want to .pdf a replacement online.
They brought out a basket of bread and butter, the bread was fine but this is one of the first things I notice at a restaurant that aspires to greatness. Have they done anything interesting with the bread, or perhaps the butter? So many places don’t, it’s a lost opportunity. 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church used to have amazing breads. Perhaps butter will be flavored, not everyone has to offer such exceptional butter as Tetsuya does in Sydney (there’s nothing in the world like his truffle butter, I could easily make a meal of bread there and eat nothing else) but I don’t think it should be an afterthought.
Before our courses came out they brought a basket of gougères to the table to share.
We began with the smoked salmon terrine and the beef tartare.
The smoked salmon terrine was excellent:
But the beef tartare was anything but. Normally beef tartare is made with capers or cornishons and raw onions, a bit of red wine or red wine vinegar. But in this case the beef was almost purple in color, it tasted like spoonfuls of red wine vinegar, it was tough to taste the flavor of the meat.
For our next course, we had the eel carpaccio. It was an interesting idea, and the eel flavor was excellent, but it was drowned out by the sauce. It actually reminded me of the local sushi buffet around the corner from my office. They used to offer generous pieces of fresh fish, but then had a change in ownership and revamped the buffet. They began offering thinner slices of fish and covering most of it in sauce. I stopped going. Perhaps Michel Richard went to lunch there and liked it.
The escargot tart was another really interesting idea but the execution didn’t fulfill its promise. The escargot was tossed in pesto, put on what amounted to a pizza. The dough raw in the middle and overcooked on the outside. The escargot was among the least prominent tastes in the dish, since it had cheese and oil and vinegar on the arugula and a sauce as well, there was simply too much going on.
The third course picked up a bit. The onion carbonara was both interesting and enjoyable. The onions were sweated and tossed in a carbonara sauce, presented like a plate of pasta.
The scallops were perfectly cooked, probably too salty but well prepared. They were topped with onion straws which could have been excellent, but instead tasted stale. They could hardly have been freshly made for dinner service.
For dessert we were tempted to order the snowman, which was ice cream inside a meringue shell and shaped like, wait for it, a snowman. Cute and interesting idea. But with an open kitchen, able to see two full sheet trays of them (more than could possibly be used in a single dinner service), they lost their appeal and we decided to try other items instead.
The profiteroles topping vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce were good though not great. Their take on profiteroles were a bit unusual, hard rather than soft, no objection but I don’t think I’d order them again.
On the other hand, the marjolaine cake tasted excellent: layers of chocolate mousse, cake, pistachio and ganache. The chocolate sauce was on the plate long enough to form a scab, and the cake’s pistachio layers were bright green with food coloring while the pistachio sauce on the plate without any dye didn’t match. Just little things that I would have expected a restaurant that aspires to replace Maestro and hit real heights for Northern Virginia dining to pay attention to. The cake did taste excellent, however.
Ultimately the food was fine for a hotel restaurant in the area, but it’s hardly a must go or top dining experience. I had expected more. Three appetizers and a dessert each for two people came to about $140 with tax and tip, excluding drinks. Not terrible, but not a real value either, and not worth driving out to Tysons for if you’re not already there. Me, I’ll stick to Central where I know what to expect and they seem to meet those somewhat more modest expectations every time.