It was 11:15 p.m. on Tuesday. Only a few patrons remained in the dining room at Citronelle, Michel Richard’s temple of gastronomic arts in Georgetown. My companion and I were just finishing our desserts—an orange soufflé with caramel sauce for me, the trompe l’oeil “breakfast” for her—when we looked up and saw five paramedics standing around a gray-haired man seated at the chef’s table.
The handful of diners still there stopped mid-bite to assess the scene, including one redneck behind us who suggested aloud that Richard’s cooking was so good “it killed him.” I asked our waitress for a better briefing of the situation. She said the diner was an elderly man with high blood pressure who had likely overindulged in the ten-course menu with wine pairings—a decadent spread that includes soft shell crabs, lobster medallion, duck, and chocolate “three ways.”
My follow-up call to the D.C. fire department on Wednesday morning indicated that the man may have faced a situation more dire than a case of heartburn. Alan Etter, spokesperson for the department, said that Engine 1/Medic 1 at 22nd and M Street NW received a “Delta, critical call” at 11:16 p.m. When the unit arrived three minutes later, they found the patron “unconscious” with “ineffective breathing.” The man was transported to George Washington University Hospital at 11:49 p.m.
Because neither hospital nor fire officials can release the name, no information was available on the man’s condition at GW.
But Jean-Jacques Retourne, the maitre d’ on duty Tuesday night, indicated that, as far as he could tell, the ill diner was not on the verge of having his last meal at Citronelle. The man, Retourne said, stopped eating about half-way through the tasting menu because he was feeling “a little faint.” His dining companions, a group that included a doctor, cleared a space for him to lie down on a banquette, and then they resumed their high-dollar noshing. They apparently told Retourne that he “shouldn’t be concerned,” that the man would be all right. But by the end of the meal, after the bill had been paid, the man was still not talking and still feeling faint. That’s when Retourne called the ambulance.
The maitre d’ said the call was more a precaution than an emergency. Retourne did note, however, that paramedics induced vomiting. “They brought a plastic bag, and he vomited,” he said. With chef’s table prices starting at $275 per person, that might have been the biggest crisis of the evening.