For a concept as prosaic as ground meat shaped into savory spheres, the new Penn Quarter eatery simply called Meatballs sure has generated a lot of buzz.

Part of the hype is probably due to the restaurant’s brash marketing strategy. Consider the eye-catching signage out front, which heavily emphasizes the word “balls” in large capital letters.

Another big attraction is the famous chef at the forefront of the project: Michel Richard, the celebrated French toque behind acclaimed fine-dining destinations Citronelle in Georgetown and Central in Penn Quarter, as well as the newly opened Central Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace.

This unique combination of culinary celebrity and cheeky advertising has provided the place with a slew of pre-opening publicity. Virtually every food blogger in town had posted photos of the interior, weeks before the planned launch this week. The restaurant was expected to open Wednesday, but city inspectors had yet to give it the green light. Leading up to the long-awaited opening, it seemed, the whole D.C. food scene had been talking about Meatballs.

Well, except for one guy.

“I really don’t want to be in public involved with this,” says Mark Bucher—a pretty strange request for someone whose name and notarized signature appears all over public records on the project.

Bucher is the creator and operator of Cleveland Park’s popular steak frites spot Medium Rare, as well as the founder of BGR: The Burger Joint, with locations in Dupont Circle, Bethesda, and elsewhere.

Ask him or his PR rep about his possible involvement in the new meatball shop and you’ll get a pretty firm denial. Neither “Mark nor BGR is involved in this,” Bucher’s publicist told me last week. “[N]ot/never,” she later clarified via email. Contacted by phone, Bucher, too, initially denied any involvement.

Then why has he taken such an active role behind the scenes?

The restaurant’s application for a liquor license, for instance, notably lists only one owner or partner in the business—and it’s not Michel Richard. That lone proprietor, according to the application: Mark Bucher, described as the “managing member” of Meatballs E St, LLC, who also, as the paperwork helpfully notes, holds licenses for BGR Dupont LLC and Medium Rare Cleveland Park LLC. (See the documents below.)

The number listed on the application as Meatballs’ business telephone rings Bucher’s cell. Placards posted in the windows of the restaurant appear to have been doctored with correction fluid to conceal Bucher’s name as the listed contact, but the posted phone number is the same.

Lest you think this stated managerial role carries merely a minority interest in the actual business, the application pegs Bucher’s stake in the venture at 100 percent.

Yet, despite having certified in writing “under the penalty of perjury” that he is the “true and actual owner of the business,” Bucher still insists that he has zero ownership stake in Meatballs. “If there is something that says otherwise, that is inaccurate,” he says.

According to him, the real “true and actual owner” is a company based in New York called Food Research Corporation. “Michel Richard is the front man on it. We all like him to be the front. It’s important for lots of reasons, but they’re the ones that have put the money up, and they’re the ones that have backed it,” he says.

Bucher describes his role as merely advisory. “I’m helping my friend,” he says. “I’m helping Michel. I’m not an owner of this thing at all. I’m just helping him get coordinated.”

Contacted for comment, Richard’s usual rep at Central and Citronelle, Mel Davis, curiously referred me to Bucher.

That Bucher and Richard are somehow collaborating on the concept isn’t much of a surprise. Richard was often mentioned as a consultant on the launch of Bucher’s Medium Rare restaurant this past spring; its opening chef, Cedric Maupillier, previously worked for Richard at Central. Bucher also credits Richard with helping him launch BGR.

Neither restaurateur can really take credit for coming up with the idea for Meatballs. The menu submitted alongside the liquor license application isn’t even original—it’s a print-out of the offerings at the similarly themed Meatball Shop in New York, which also seems to be the inspiration for all the D.C. eatery’s ballsy humor. “You’ll get thirsty eating our balls,” the New York menu reads in its drinks section. A different menu, inviting patrons to “pick your balls” from a list of classic beef, chicken, lamb, crab, or lentil, was posted in the windows of the D.C. restaurant on Wednesday.

What’s odd is Bucher’s caginess about the whole thing. Given his résumé, he would seem an ideal candidate to help spearhead the development of this kind of project. Like Meatballs, his prior restaurant concepts, BGR and Medium Rare, are both tightly streamlined operations, focusing on a single food form—burgers and steak, respectively—served in fashionable but casual surroundings. And both appear to be thriving enterprises. BGR currently boasts 17 locations either open or in the pipeline from Arlington to Alabama, according to the company’s website.

Meanwhile, stop by Medium Rare any given night of the week, and you’ll see a location bustling with diners, despite its limited menu of gravy-smothered sirloin caps, fries, salad, and bread. Ask Bucher about the steak frites place, and he isn’t the least bit shy in talking it up: “People love it. It’s consistent. It’s a rule-breaker. And it just continues to do great.” His biggest concern seems to be whether to expand the concept to other corners of the city or simply keep it as a single location.

Bucher’s pedigree is also more in sync with the style of service planned for Meatballs. BGR, in particular, is a similar quick-serve sort of joint, complete with the vibrating buzzer to signify when your order is ready for pickup and the DIY satisfaction of self-busing your tray to the nearest trash bin when your meal is over.

Contrast that with the résumé of Richard, whose other restaurants are the sort of fancy full-service places that refold your napkin every time you leave the table.

French chefs aren’t typically known for their meatballs. But Richard has shown a real knack for elevating Americanized comfort foods. His burger at Central, topped with a crispy potato tuile, is often mentioned among the best in the city. And his take on fried chicken inspires similar raves.

For a chef of Richard’s caliber, mastering the meager meatball shouldn’t present much of a challenge.

Getting a handle on the assembly-line pace of a quick-serve business, though, could be a different story.

According to Bucher, any behind-the-scenes effort on his part is purely to help ease his chef buddy’s transition into this altogether foreign form of food service.

“I’m helping him learn quick-serve,” Bucher says. “Learning quick-serve is very different than Central and Citronelle for him—staff and training and speed of service and line set-up and equipment. There are lots of things in quick-serve that move differently than in a fine-dining restaurant.”

That certainly explains why Richard might seek Bucher’s help in developing the concept. It doesn’t explain why Bucher is putting his neck on the line legally for a business that he claims to have no actual financial interest in. “Friends help friends,” he says.

No matter what the forms say, Bucher says he couldn’t be an owner in Meatballs because it too closely conflicts with BGR. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for my partners and investors in Burger Joint,” he says. Burgers, meatballs—it’s all ground beef, right?

As for why Bucher’s name and signature are on the legal documents for Meatballs instead of Richard’s, Bucher says it was sort of an oversight. “He probably should’ve been, to be honest with you,” Bucher says. “I think it was a speed issue and we just moved fast.”

Whatever his official level of involvement, Bucher can’t seem to distance his public persona from the project fast enough. Following this week’s planned opening, he says, “my work there, my help there, is done.”

He insists his future ground-beef ambitions come purely in patty form: “Burger Joint’s on a huge trajectory—that’s my full-time focus and attention.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Meatballs, 624-A E St., NW

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