I was invited to a cake tasting at Pomme Palais a few months ago and really enjoyed it and was very impressed by the food (though not entirely by the slightly creepy famous chef, Michel Richard). Regardless, I had heard that Chef Richard had a great restaurant in Washington, DC, so I was looking forward to coming back to try the other restaurant(s) in the New York Palace Hotel.
But then, the reviews came out… The New York Times gave the restaurant a scathing single star and my favorite food reviewer, Adam Platt of New York Magazine, gave the restaurant a hesitant, non-committal 2 stars.
Though when I saw Villard Michel Richard come up as an option for Restaurant Week Winter 2014, I figured… why not? The desserts I had sampled were fantastic, so how bad could the food really be? Though I was happy to be able to try it for Restaurant Week prices so there was less risk involved. And hell… maybe it could surprise us! (Ohhh… how optimistic and naive I was just a few short days ago). The hotel lobby is quite grand.
And as I looked around the dining room, I had to wonder how much of the fine detail was real, and how much money went into building a hotel like this when The New York Palace was built, not mention the recent (reportedly) $140 million face lift.
Though mixed with the old, somehow the giant glass cube of wine to the ceiling, with an old chandelier hanging into the center, taking up a good part of the middle of the dining room, didn’t feel entirely out-of-place.
Over the bar is a fascinating hologram mural that flips Chef Richard’s face with Henry Villard (the financier that gave the place its name). Very, very odd.
Upon arrival, they insisted on taking our coats because “it’s tight in there” (it wasn’t). Mike is a curmudgeon about checking his coat, and while I made fun of him for this for a long time, the day came when the place did in fact lose his coat, so I have bitten my tongue ever since and have come to hate the automatic coat check. To add insult (literally) to injury, the woman asked to take Mike’s “school bag.” Nice lady… real nice…
The Restaurant Week menu looked appealing, with some different dishes and some options to “buy up” by a bit to try some items that are right off the menu. (I opted for a few of those).
The bread was served warm, but the butter incredibly cold. So cold that it to tore the bread into pieces as we tried to spread it. I wished it were better.
And then after the bread came and the wine (a very affordable Vouvray, our favorite kind of wine, that started a bit tart but grew on us) we waited. And waited. And waited. The table next to us that was seated a full 20 minutes after we were received, ate, and finished their appetizers before ours made a presence. And then finally they arrived… or did they? Mike ordered the New York Salad with rare tuna and red wine vinaigrette. And this is what was put in front of him:
A lovely looking salmon tartar indeed. I was curious to try the avocado bottom and yucca chips, but alas, it wasn’t what was ordered. So they whisked it quickly away (if it’s already been served and has sat on the table for a few minutes, just leave it… you can’t reuse it… come on).
And within moments the correct appetizer was placed.
Mike said it was incredibly boring (and that’s kind of sad, seeing as though there was potential for a very tasty salad from the nicoise take-off).
I paid the $5 supplement to try the shitake mushroom feuillette. And I’m glad I did. It was actually quite tasty, with a super flaky, delicate pastry (note… pastry) with mushrooms and a lovely, rich sauce. I was hoping things were turning around…
They weren’t. We waited a solid 30 more minutes for our entrees. We had now been sitting for over an hour and half and had only had our apps. The same table next to us was finished with their meal and the table beside them, which sat an HOUR after us, were munching on their entrees when we looked beside us to see a plate of sad brussels sprouts just sitting out. And they sat out for a while longer until (I think) the servers caught us leering at them so they were removed. And then served a few minutes later with our entrees.
Now the lighting in here was bad for pictures, but this is exactly how grey and mushy they looked. It was like someone opened a bag of frozen brussels sprouts and tossed them in olive oil until they got brown (but no where near crispy) and served them roughly 30 minutes after they were done cooking. They were hardly warm. They were awful. When the waiter came back to ask how our meal was, we actually told him that they were horrible and he took them away. We never send food back unless it’s really, really wrong. So this was a pretty sad state of affairs.
Entrees were served and Mike got the roasted chicken breast with mushroom crust and butternut squash puree. Usually, we don’t make a habit of ordering a chicken breast out at a restaurant, but the mushroom crust and butternut squash sounded good so we went for it. It was cooked reasonably well since it was still moist but it was somehow incredibly boring. It didn’t have any real chicken flavor and the mushroom “crust” was more like mushroom mush that was pasted onto the outside of the boring boob. The butternut squash was tasty but runny and a bit over sweet. The entire dish had zero texture and was very one-note. If it had been made with the skin on and slightly crisped, or served with a sunchoke chip or SOMETHING. ANYTHING. Instead, it was just like boring brown food.
My short ribs were only slightly better. They were cooked perfectly, and really, if you cook short ribs fork tender how bad could they be? But the rest was just… meh. The sauce added nothing to it and the potatoes were, again, quite watery.
I was hopeful that desserts would be as good as what I had at Pomme Palais, and they certainly were not, but they were absolutely the highlight of the meal (not that hard to do though, I suppose). The creme brulee was light and airy on the bottom with a thin brulee top and a nice vanilla bean taste. The fruit syrups around the end were a nice touch that were beautiful and tasty, and allowed you to add as much or as little was you wanted to each bite.
I paid the upcharge to get the “candy bar” which was actually quite divine. It was chocolate and hazelnut with an almond and pistacchio crisp in a lovely sauce with chocolate chips (or nibs?) The flavors and textures were excellent and reminded me of what I loved at the patisserie.
And I really loved the beauty of the crisp.
When we got the check, I was very surprised to see that gratuity was automatically added (at 15%). When we got the final bill, it said that they do that automatically and add 20% automatically for parties of 5 or more. I kind of understand the reasoning, even if I don’t agree with it, of adding it for big parties, but to add it to all parties and have different amounts I found quite odd. Also, I am a chronic over-tipper, even when service is lackluster, I usually wind up tipping 15% after taxes for mediocre service. So if anything, they lost money on me (though I know I’m the odd ball).
Our very odd meal with pretty lousy service trickled out as we left, when we passed by a few managers who didn’t say goodnight and then stood by the coat closet as many people who worked there passed right by us. Finally a manager took the ticket of the people who were lined up BEHIND us to get their coats. When he came out and looked at us, he apologized and said he thought we were already helped. (Way to ask… dude). Then there were a FLURRY of people suddenly around us trying to be helpful by trying to grab coats to put them onto our shoulders (there were now about 8 people all getting coats that the same time) but it turned into an awkward dance of me having to tell three different people that I was capable of putting my own jacket onto my own shoulders… thank you very much. Odd. That’s really my best summary for the night. Odd.
We clocked in at over 2.5 hours when all was said and done. Anything that we had that was more like pastry (the desserts and the mushroom appetizer) were quite good. Everything else was really quite bland or downright awful (brussels sprouts) and the bad service just added to it. I really didn’t want to prove those reviewers right, especially after I had such a great experience with the baked goods, but it was just as bad, if not worse, than they said. It was like no one told the servers how to do their jobs so they all just fumbled around, doing their best, with no oder. And no one told the cooks that the dishes had to be made to taste good, not just sound good.
Overall, it wasn’t even worth the Restaurant Week prices.
Total Nom Points: 4 out of 10