The standard thinking on Central Michel Richard goes something like this: It’s more democratic than Citronelle,the celebrated chef’s Georgetown flagship. The bistro offers a chance to sample Richard’s kitchen wizardry without dropping a pair of Benjamins, which is certainly true. But, really, Central feels casual and cheap only by comparison to hotel fine-dining.
Sitting here suffering from bistro-style service while I wait seven minutes for a menu, I’m thinking specifically about the $29 lobster burger, which I ate on a previous visit. I don’t know about you, but a $29 sandwich doesn’t exactly strike me as prole food, even if you have to wait like a Soviet worker on a bread line to order one.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the burger is quintessentially Richard, a sandwich that requires the precision of a baker and the imagination of a great chef to overhaul a staple like the lobster roll. It doesn’t surprise me that the sandwich is the best-selling item at Central, despite its price tag. More than five years after its debut on the lounge menu at Citronelle, the lobster burger is still a rock star.
The dish, according to Richard’s cookbook Happy in the Kitchen, consists of a plump patty of chopped tail and knuckle meat bound together with puréed claw flesh. The house-made brioche bun is slathered with an aromatic ginger mayonnaise, also house-made; a thick, oven-roasted tomato slice lies on the bottom bun along with some greens. (The recipe calls for mâche, while the real deal at Central comes with no greens whatsoever.) The patty is then slid into place and topped with several potato tuiles, thin crispy wafers glued together with the same ginger mayo.
That mayo, generously applied on several surfaces, drips from the sandwich as if a stand-in for beef juices. But no matter how messy and delicious it is, can anyone justify charging $29 for a bistro sandwich? Even more to the point: Can I make the burger any cheaper at home, using Richard’s cookbook as my guide?
The problems with my home burger begin as soon as I talk to Richard’s PR coordinator, Mel Davis, who says the chef buys no retail ingredients whatsoever. My second issue is that the recipe calls for live lobsters, which means that I must kill before I eat. This snuff business is never easy, particularly after my wife, Carrie, starts petting the first lobster that the fishmonger lifts from the tank at River Falls Market.
Per tradition, I boil the lobsters alive. The creatures stuffed inside these hard shells thrash about and twitch their extremities even when submerged in scalding water. But before long, they’ll be broken apart for their red-speckled flesh, and their calico-orange shells will be nothing more than garbage for Wednesday’s trash pickup. It’s humbling to realize you’re the agent of this dramatic change.
One lobster, however, has no interest in surrendering the flesh. His monstrous claw won’t crack under the blunt end of my 10-inch chef’s knife, forcing me to pull a curved-claw hammer from the toolbox. The hammer lays waste to the shells, sending blood everywhere. If lobster blood were red, rather than clear, our galley kitchen would look like the killing floor of an abattoir.
Making the patties is just the beginning. Once those rounds are chilling, you have to prepare the oven-roasted tomato slices sprinkled with thyme, garlic, and various other seasonings. Just prepping the burgers and tomatoes has eaten up nearly three hours.
The next morning, in preparation for a 2 p.m. lunch with our friends Paul and Angela, I start making the tuiles, which Richard describes in his cookbook as “quite simple to prepare.” For you, dude. I can’t quite manage rolling up the slippery collection of julienne potatoes into a thick, airtight log, and as a result, my sliced, silver-dollar-sized crisps do not resemble the wide, golden rounds in Richard’s book. They look more like little stained-glass windows with bullet holes.
I’m way past aesthetics, though. It’s almost noon, and Carrie and I still have to make the ginger-laced mayonnaise, dress the greens, and finish the peach salad accompaniment. By the time Paul and Angela arrive, all that’s left is cooking the patties, which is, by far, the easiest part of the job. All told, prep time takes nearly six hours.
My burger resembles the one at Central in much the same way that an in-store Big Mac resembles the steroidal version plastered on billboards. The bun—which I confess I bought from Balducci’s in a concession to sanity—dwarfs the patty, not to mention my tiny stack of potato crisps, which provide the required crunch only on those bites in which you actually hit a wafer.
Still, as I’m assembling the final burger in the kitchen, I hear some unqualified praise coming from the dining room: “Awesome!” “Amazing!” I understand how Adrian Fenty must have felt before someone discovered his school-board plan was plagiarized, but my lunch companions swear I should take more credit for the flavorful, if ungainly, burgers. “It’s the best nonbeef burger I’ve ever had,” says Angela.
It may also be the most expensive one. The two Maine lobsters, 5 pounds in all, set me back $100. The rest of the ingredients cost about $44. Food costs alone top $140; that’s $35 per burger, and I wasn’t paying for labor. I’ve already surpassed the price of Central’s sandwich, and my version is completely bereft of culinary cachet.
The next day, I meet Richard at Central to review my efforts. He laughs at my stories of cracking open the lobster with a hammer and trying to roll up the unruly pile of julienne potatoes. Then, perhaps out of sympathy, he tells me some secrets, namely that his lobster burger includes 10 percent scallop meat, which helps explain the plumpness of his patty. He also admits that he buys lobster meat already shucked. It costs more, but it saves staff time.
Richard seems relieved that my experiment has somewhat justified the charge of his burger. In fact, it has given him a convenient excuse to consider raising the price, since his food costs for the sandwich hover around 45 percent, he says (Richard tries to keep food costs at 30 percent of menu price). “We should sell it for $36,” he says. If he does raise the price, blame me. Otherwise, you might just take Richard’s advice after hearing my tale of lobster-burger woe.
“Don’t make it,” he says. “Make reservations instead.”
Central Michel Richard, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 626-0015
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