As fans of Michel Richard, we are very excited to share with you the following article by the New York Times
The first time I ate at Villard Michel Richard, the latest restaurant to dance among the frescoes and marble pilasters of the Villard mansion in Midtown, I strongly suspected that I was in an awful hotel restaurant.
This seemed like a connect-the-dots conclusion. It’s a restaurant. It’s in a hotel, the New York Palace. And it was awful.
That didn’t make any sense, though. Born in Brittany but a star in the United States, trained in pastry but adept in every corner of the kitchen, Michel Richard has been one of the most respected chefs in this country since the 1980s. Settling in Washington, he gave the city a restaurant, Citronelle, that earned national fame. Michel Richard was serious. He would not have come to New York last fall to open an awful hotel restaurant.
Other possibilities had to be considered. Hoping that I was wrong about the awfulness, I went back two more times, concentrating on the à la carte menu served in the bistro on the Madison Avenue side of the restaurant rather than the tastings presented in a room named the Gallery, where dinner starts at $140 for four courses.
The Stanford White interiors look better than they have in years, thanks to the attention the design firm Jeffrey Beers International paid to the way light strikes the paintings and fireplaces. White’s giddily opulent Gilded Age rooms can awe out-of-town visitors. Two weeks before Christmas, the restaurant was full of little girls in fancy dresses, most of whom stared, hypnotized, into phones and tablets, although one young rebel held a doll in her lap.
A glass cube in the center of the dining room shows off the wine stockpile amassed by Gilt, the last restaurant in this space. It’s not too hard to get a wonderful and affordable bottle, but you may have to manage on your own. One night, when my table of three wanted a little Beaujolais, the sommelier tried to sell us a magnum. Another time, when I asked for help choosing among more than 80 German whites, a manager said apologetically that he didn’t know much about them, and that the people who did weren’t around.
Still, I always ended up drinking well. And if everything had been on the level of the roasted chicken, the rustic bean soup and the salmon fillet on a bed of lentils energized with balsamic vinegar, Villard Michel Richard would easily qualify as an average hotel restaurant. But many other dishes vaulted across the gap that separates average from awful.
Think of everything that’s great about fried chicken. Now take it all away. In its place, right between dried-out strands of gray meat and a shell of fried bread crumbs, imagine a gummy white paste about a quarter-inch deep. This unidentifiable paste coats your mouth until you can’t perceive textures or flavors. It is like edible Novocain.
What Villard Michel Richard’s $28 fried chicken does to Southern cooking, its $40 veal cheek blanquette does to French. A classic blanquette is a gentle, reassuring white stew of sublimely tender veal. In this version, the veal cheeks had the dense, rubbery consistency of overcooked liver. Slithering around the meat was a terrifying sauce the color of jarred turkey gravy mixed with cigar ashes. If soldiers had killed Escoffier’s family in front of him and then forced him to make dinner, this is what he would have cooked.
Yes, Villard Michel Richard is, in fact, an awful hotel restaurant. But it still didn’t make any sense. Was Mr. Richard not the chef I had thought? Were the ecstatic reviews, the five awards from the James Beard Foundation, the induction into the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France, all a mass delusion?
I doubted that, but to make sure I had dinner at Central Michel Richard, a bright, loud French-American bistro that opened in Washington in 2007. (Citronelle has been closed since 2012.) If a dish was served in both cities, I ordered it. In every case, the Washington version looked and tasted better, for the same price or less.
Mr. Richard makes a chicken-liver mousse he calls faux gras, and at Central it was so silky and rich that the pun was not much of a stretch. The one in New York wouldn’t be mistaken for anything but mediocre chicken liver.
Lobster bisque in Washington had a robust shellfish intensity. The Villard version was floury, pale and almost completely bland; you could get nearly as much flavor by putting a lobster bib into a juicer.
A frisée salad at Central was garnished with crunchy little croutons, freshly crisped bacon matchsticks and a warm poached egg. At Villard, the croutons were stale, the bacon limp and the egg cold.
The strangest thing about my dinner at Central was the fried chicken. It looked like the one at Villard, but it was terrific. The difference between them was like the difference between winning a medal for figure skating and falling through the ice.
Mr. Richard was so clearly a smart, accomplished chef that for one crazy moment, I wondered if Villard Michel Richard was bad on purpose. Maybe he was paying tribute to the awful hotel food of years past, the way Grant Achatz and Dave Beran of the restaurant Next are paying homage to Chicago’s steakhouse tradition.
The seafood pasta, after all, is almost a direct quote from the 1980s, when doughy, gluey, overcooked fresh pasta and washed-out bits of unidentifiable seafood drooped in flavorless pink sauces. Of the same vintage, and just as bizarre, were the mushrooms under a tower of puff pastry ringed with cold, mud-colored sauce that tasted of uncooked wine. (If Villard Michel Richard doesn’t make it as a restaurant, it could reopen as the Museum of Unappetizing Brown Sauces.)
The flaw with this hypothesis was the desserts. They broke character. Mr. Richard’s elegant, reverse-engineered Kit Kat bar; his rectangle of classic crème brûlée with mango sauce; his profiteroles in the style of a croquembouche, with a steeple of puff pastry spheres enclosing the ice cream and a pitcher of warm chocolate sauce to be poured over the top: They were all too good to be a joke. The girls in dresses even put down their phones for the celebration cake, a chocolate drum that shoots out sparks and, when you break it open, reveals a jumble of fruit and spongecake.
There was another possibility: Perhaps the restaurant was awful because Mr. Richard wasn’t actually involved. It’s true that he is not the owner, but neither does he have the kind of licensing and consulting deal that has often made the names of Gordon Ramsay or Todd English little more than celebrity endorsements. He is a partner, a publicist said, sharing in profits and overseeing “day-to-day operations.” A union contract limits his ability to hire and fire cooks, but that didn’t keep Paul Liebrandt and Justin Bogle from pulling off formidable technical feats when they ruled this kitchen.
There is one more theory. Villard Michel Richard may be a symptom of the deal-making culture that afflicts the restaurant business. Too many chefs are being tempted with too many offers from too many developers and investors. Hotels especially know that a famous name lures travelers, who won’t realize until it’s too late that the food being served has nothing in common with the cooking that made the name famous.
Opening a restaurant used to be a brutal process, and for many chefs it still is. If you’ve spent your own money and borrowed from your friends and family, you’re too scared to slack off. But the best-known chefs don’t have to worry about this anymore. It’s become much easier for them to open restaurants. Maybe it’s too easy, because running one is still as hard as ever.
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The Bistro at Villard Michel Richard
455 Madison Avenue (East 50th Street), Midtown; 212-891-8100; villardmichelrichard.com
ATMOSPHERE The centerpiece of the ornate drawing room of Henry Villard’s 1882 mansion, a Gilded Age treasure, is a state-of-the-art glass wine cube.
SERVICE Welcoming, but not especially prompt or knowledgeable.
SOUND LEVEL Lively when busy.
RECOMMENDED Napoleon; celebration cake; crème brûlée; profiteroles.
DRINKS AND WINE Cocktails are less exciting than the wines. By the glass these are no bargain, but by the bottle they can be, if you know what to look for.
PRICES Appetizers and salads, $12 to $20; sandwiches and main courses, $26 to $59.
OPEN Daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS The dining room and accessible restrooms can be reached by elevator from the lobby of the New York Palace hotel, which has street-level entrances on 50th and 51st Streets.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambience, service and price taken into consideration.