Michel Richard’s Central elevates the 24-hour cafe
Wed, Sep 21, 2011 (6:30 p.m.)
Photo: Bill Hughes
Whether or not you like Central (pronounced sen-TRAL) pretty much depends on whether you like your 24-hour-a-day casino restaurants to be ho-hum coffee shops or demand more from their food. Caesars Palace is gambling that this chef-driven spot right off its main lobby will satisfy the latter niche and raise the bar for dining and drinking for all three meals it serves. For two of those three, it seems to be succeeding. The third has a long way to go.
Central is an offshoot of the same restaurant in Washington, D. C. There, it is smaller, as befitting an urban bistro just blocks from the White House, but both are the brainchildren of Michel Richard, a French food wizard who has bedazzled gourmets on both coasts for three decades. Here, the 200-plus-seat room is high-ceilinged, bright, and open on two sides—one onto the lobby and the other to Caesars’ main entrance. Large windows and doors face eastward and bathe the room in sunlight, a long overdue design development for restaurants in a town with an abundance of it. A large, wraparound onyx bar spills onto the lobby and does double duty as a perch for the weary, along with those seeking a libation before checking in or out. Wherever you sit, you’ll notice some of the best people-watching this side of Mon Ami Gabi. Not into staring directly at fellow diners? You’ll appreciate the three huge, angled mirrors that provide an innocent outlet for casual voyeurism.
- Caesars Palace
- 24/7, 650-5921
Those wanting a good breakfast should head elsewhere until someone whips this kitchen into shape. To be fair, the place has been open just a couple of weeks and only two things were tried, but neither justified its $16 price tag. The “homemade” corned beef hash was standard issue, and so boring it made me wonder exactly whose home it was made in. Much more egregious were the two, almost raw “poached” eggs that came with it. Coddled for two minutes was more like it, and if cooks can’t get them right, heaven forbid they have to make something requiring actual skill. Something called French toast crème brûlée looked like a yellow glob stuck between two moist, egg-soaked, fried bread slices, and again suffered from the curse of promising more than it delivered. Its construction was almost as absurd as that homemade descriptor—custard-oozing toast dribbled with raspberry syrup served with (very good) whipped cream, fruit and a jar of real maple syrup—the culinary equivalent of wearing a belt with sugary suspenders, sleeve and sock garters.
Things improve immeasurably at lunch and dinner, where one simple, easy-to-read menu lays out the offerings for the rest of the day. Richard won an Outstanding Chef James Beard Award in 2007, and Central D.C. garnered a Best New Restaurant Award a year later. Many of the hits that launched the original are here, and they’re dead ringers for the grub that made it famous. Before you get to those, you’ll navigate an appetizer and salad menu of mostly hits, with one big miss. Both the deviled eggs ($9) and the bacon and onion tart ($14) are fine starters to be shared, and even though the goat cheese Caesar is far from a classic, its well-balanced tanginess is a welcome change from all the bland ones around. Don’t hesitate to get the sharply spiced filet mignon steak tartare ($22), but avoid the shrimp cocktail ($17). It’s made with just-thawed, frozen shrimp and a dull sauce of Heinz ketchup and little else. Concentrate instead on your gougères ($10)—light cheesy puffs so good they would be right at home at Guy Savoy upstairs.
Like all great French chefs, Richard has a way with birds, and his chicken—whether fried or spit roasted—will make you rethink things most fowl. Tasteful simplicity abounds on the menu, as you’ll savor from your first bite of the simple roast pork over flageolet beans ($26), a dish straight from the Left Bank of Paris. A man-sized lamb shank ($38) comes atop a grown-up portion of polenta, and the hangar steak ($29) provides the perfect introduction to this bloody-red, mineral-rich steak lovers’ steak. Its accompanying creamy onions “carbonara”—with sides like Brussels sprouts with bacon and the medium-cut, potato-intense French fries—bear the stamp of a kitchen (at lunch and dinner at least) where even the tiny flavor details are attended to. The desserts are so good (especially the banana split and mile-high Napoleon), they will bring tears to your eyes.