In a way, you could almost think of Central as renowned Chef Michel Richard’s “undercard” restaurant when juxtaposed with his heavyweight venue Citronelle in Georgetown.
Like Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert -- another venue the DMVBW gang is quite fond of -- Central is the more “economical bistro” offering by Richard. Or, to put it another way: if you want to impress a girl on a first date, without reeking of trying too hard, you take her to Central. If you want to propose to her, with a big ol’ rock that she can go ice skating on later, you take her to Citronelle.
But comparing Central to some up-and-coming bouts that only serve to tide you over until it’s time for the main event would truly be taking away from how good this place really is. A James Beard-winning restaurant (the Oscar Awards for restaurants), Central (yes, it is indeed pronounced "sen-TRAHL") features classic American fare that Richard has “playfully” combined with a French influence. It's the type of place where you can get a burger and fries, fried chicken or meatloaf as your entreé after you start off your meal with some carpaccio, tartare of filet mignon and french fries (commonly referred to as "Steak Frites" in French-speaking regions of Europe) or frog’s legs.
The guys and I -- once again, with wives in tow -- arrived here on yet another unseasonably warm evening during the (so-called) winter of 2012, doing our best to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone: take our wives somewhere fancy, while enjoying a freaking delicious burger.
After a few drinks at the bar (how else are you supposed to start an evening out?), we were promptly seated and quickly greeted by our waiter for the evening. Central prides itself on its service and the experience it provides to its patrons, and for us, it fit the billing and then some. As awesome as our meal ended up being (plenty more on that to come), the waiter might have been one of the highlights of our evening. It’s a damn shame I can’t remember his name now, because he was the perfect blend of welcoming, knowledgeable, funny, charming, and bust-your-balls sarcastic -- the perfect blend to fit in with our group.
The waiter broke down the menu in an enthusiastically detailed “play by play” manner; it was almost like hearing Bill Walsh (RIP) break down the West Coast offense, more than a guy telling me what I should have for dinner. He was charismatic and funny enough that he could’ve been reading us the dictionary, and we still would’ve been captivated. Our wives had as much fun listening to the waiter give in-depth descriptions and breakdowns of food as much as anything else in the evening.
After regaling us with options of meatloaf, short ribs and the renowned fried chicken, the boys and I went ahead and ordered our two standards: a round of drinks, and a round cheeseburgers.
The waiter was equally as enthusiastic when talking about the burger, informing us of Central’s use of a grass fed locally-raised (from Maryland) beef that’s dry aged and hand-formed into a 7-ounce burger patty. My friend, you’re off to a great start!
Central certainly has one of the most “interesting” of presentations when it comes to the burger. When my burger arrived, flanked by its meshed-metal tin of hand-cut, double-fried fries, I was almost tempted to say: “that’s it?” It almost looked too small on first glance.
But when I took a second look at it, and really began to break it down, I immediately realized how wrong I was. What the burger may have lacked in circumference, it made up for in height and thickness. It was one of the taller burgers with one of the thickest patties I had ever consumed, almost as if it had been cooked and constructed within some magic cylinder that we wanted to steal, replicate, and sell on late night infomercials (except it wasn’t... we think). But thanks to this perfect cylinder of meaty goodness (that’s how we’re going to sell it on the aforementioned infomercial), we were big fans of the presentation.
It was one of the taller burgers with one of the thickest patties I had ever consumed...I nearly had to unhinge my jaw to get a full bite of this skyscraper of a burger.
When it came to the inside of my burger, it was admittedly a touch overcooked -- a bit closer to medium-well, as opposed to the medium we always order -- as I nearly had to unhinge my jaw to get a full bite of this skyscraper of a burger. Yet, the burger was still incredibly juicy, and the clean, pure, fresh, and ridiculously flavorful quality of the meat immediately jumped out at me.
I thought the meat was a touch on the underseasoned side, probably continuing the trend of wanting the grass-fed, locally sourced beef to stand out on it’s own. Still, could the burger have used a touch more salt? Perhaps, but that’s really picking some serious nits. I’d much rather the burger stand on the ridiculously high quality of its meat, as opposed to seasoning the hell out of it to give it some taste.
One of the interesting parts of the burger from Central: there was no lettuce on it. Yes, while lettuce is nothing more than a bunch of water that mysteriously turned into a vegetable, it’s fairly mandatory that it be included on a hamburger. Instead, Central uses a potato tuile (essentially a glorified potato chip that looks a bit more like a wafer), giving its burger the required crunchy texture, except with their own unique French twist. Perhaps the lack of cool lettuce may have taken away from the contrast potential of this burger, especially because the tomato on it didn’t really add as much as we would’ve liked either, but we’re just arguing semantics in regards to this.
The grilled onions on my burger, however, really packed the flavor. I’m a huge fan of grilled onions on almost everything -- with this burger being no exception -- but sometimes, the problem with cooked onions is that they have such a rich caramelized flavor that they can become a little dominant, skewing the pure taste of the burger a bit. For the purposes of this burger, however, I think it provided just the right almost “onion jam”-like quality.
The house-baked brioche was of solid quality, toasted very nicely and holding up to this really juicy burger. I wasn’t as blown away by it as I thought I’d be, but, to its credit, it was definitely crunchy where it needed to be and soft in the right places, as well.
And last, but certainly not least, the gooey and perfectly melted cheese was solid. It did its job of providing the buttery and salty notes for this burger, but nothing really past that to where you’d push it into the “great” category.
Put succinctly, this was the awesomely-tasty, high quality burger you’d expect for the price. It was so good that we didn’t want to stop and take notes while consuming it, since it would have only delayed our next delicious bite.
Or, put another way: this was the type of burger where you felt like you were still getting an amazing dinner entreé, even if it meant foregoing the steak or fried chicken. Proof? When one of us dined here on a late Saturday evening, as he walked back to the table, he saw at least a half dozen people plowing into the burger.
Even the women were impressed with the burger. Several said they'd definitely consider ordering it, which is noteworthy considering most of them have (somewhat disdainfully) seen us consume the better part of seven to eight dozen burgers apiece.
Anything you order at Central Michel Richard will be fantastic; it’s no wonder that, even after completing your meal around 10pm and making your way out, there are still people coming in to a completely booked restaurant.
And clearly, the burger is no exception to that. We give it the genuine five-star seal of approval.
The Hamburger (with cheese) at Central Michel Richard