Here is a culinary riddle of sorts: What was a palace, a circus and a McKim, Mead, and White-designed architectural townhouse that is now a pastry mecca, two glamorous restaurants serving innovative American food with a French twist or is it French food with an American turn?
World-renowned Chef Michel Richard is the culinary wizard at Villard Michel Richard at The New York Palace Hotel.
Culinary Talismans Abound
There are few restaurants in New York where one leaves the streetscape and enters through a twinkling courtyard.
It makes one sigh with relief. No gourmet homework or culinary crib notes needed at Villard Michel Richard.
It hearkens back to a simpler time - when the social contract was about the relationships between the efficient and hospitable maître-de, the waiter and of course, the chef.
The “front of the house” is in the very capable hands of chef Michel’s longtime manager and brother in law, Jean-Jacques Retourne.
Mai, bien sûre…
And it bears pointing out here that the glory of classic and enduring restaurants hinged on this key role of greeter-in-chief, CEO of plate-spinning, multi-tasking coordination between the kitchen, bar, and customer.
Regrettably, the spotlight on celebrity chefs dimmed the star power of the great restaurant’s Captains and their ability to make customers feel special; to orchestrate the cast and performance of a restaurant’s tour de force.
Against this backdrop there is now attitude.
Yet, one can also get attitude on public transportation. Or fed from Gordon Ramsey’s spew of kitchen expletives meant for the ratings.
Culinary hospitality? Elegance?
That’s a skill and talent and passion this Examiner hopes will be in the spotlight again.
Dining in Style
Sliding into the lizard-green soft banquette one is obligated to regard the entire room. It’s grand appointments command attention.
Chef Michel nods to take in the scope of the room, too, describing how he had a hand in the interior design.
Working with the designer Geoffrey Bier, chef explains the need was to balance the irreplaceable room elements, including the striated blue marble (that looks not unlike Stilton or some Roqfourte cheese) with a clean, modern, contemporary look.
The jury may still be out on the glass cube in the room’s center studded top to bottom with wine bottles, and it’s as modern expression.
Looks like it was inspired by the Apple store cube on 59th Street…
Chef also had a hand in the selection of the Taylor cutlery, the C&S stemware and Rona Sensual glassware for Steelite, not to mention the pure white plates with gold trim – that feature his signature. In gold. (This is still a palace, lest one forget.)
If the eyes do eat first as the French have long admonished, the dining room view offers a rich, Italian cathedral-inspired Renaissance architecture that assaults the senses.
You know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
The restaurant space has hosted Le Cirque, Gilt and now Villard Michel Richard.
All have worked wonders balancing the design periods.
So the stage is set. Anticipation is heightened for the theater of the dining experience and meal that is about to commence.
Diners will not be disappointed.
This is a restaurant that grown ups can frequent.
There is no question it is a culinary crescendo for special occasion dining.
Birthday? Anniversary? Engagement? Holidays? Business lunch?
A romantic dinner where couples can canoodle in the corner?
One can make reservations with confidence (sadly, this is no small feat any longer in Manhattan).
One can also have confidence that the entire dining experience – from welcome through educated wine selection to every glorious food course from appetizer to “can I have the check” that is discreetly presented, is a feel-good interlude.
This is glamorous food; prepared with skill and pride by Chef Michel and his trained staff.
Asked why he needed to schedule a protracted training period at a test kitchen in Harlem prior to opening the restaurant given his pedigree and resume, he exclaimed, “For the staff!”
While he tries different recipes all the time and is heralded for his creative inventiveness, he needed to make certain that the kitchen team was taught his way of cooking and learned his signature dishes.
And to inculcate their confidence.
This is a master chef. He leaves nothing to chance. All while making it look effortless—and fun.
There is no waiting here at Villa Michel Richard.
Upon seating, the bread is quickly served – its heady fragrance arriving at the table before it’s set on the table alongside the tidy, jewel of black marble that is the butter dish.
It is not surprising all the breads are made in-house for the restaurants because Chef Michel launched his culinary career some five decades ago as a pastry chef.
Today, Pomme Palais, his signature pastry shop and its café are located in the hotel, just steps away from his restaurants.
There, one can also purchase take out – along with copies of Chef Michel’s three cookbooks, as my dining partner did.
Chef Michel graciously autographed with a whimsical pen drawing!
The hands-down best-tasting item this Examiner enjoyed at lunch was the white bean soup glistening with garlic and scallions that swirled like teeny rings on top.
The soup had character: it was light, fresh and crunchy all at the same time. The fresh garlic added a smoky flavor that was heavenly.
Equally exciting was the crab cake. The two mounds of lumped crab stood on their own – no need for fillers -- and were lightly seasoned, allowing the fresh, sweet flavor to be thoroughly enjoyed.
The mustard seed sauce was a nice touch and a pretty presentation but superfluous insofar as the crab cakes were best au natural.
The mushroom risotto was nuanced and showed off a crumbly texture.
The lobster burger is a signature dish – Chef said his DC customers couldn’t get enough of it (think lobbyist expense accounts.)
The dish came recommended, too. Sadly, it didn’t hit the mark. It had no taste – almost as if it was just one cold, solid step away from a frozen state. The home-baked brioche bun was huge and the presentation promised a juicy, sweet luxury but it was not to be…
Another highly recommended menu item was the fried chicken.
This is a triumph: Elegant, fried chicken.
According to Chef Michel, chicken is his favorite food – and clearly, it loves him back.
His signature fried chicken is moist, delicious and the batter-fried shell is a happy tour de force. It is a recipe he invented more than 25 years ago and continues to hone.
He described the process: poach the chicken at 60 degrees sous vide. Coat the bird in a paste of flaky potato crust fried in clarified butter. The potatoes make for the crunchiest crust imaginable and the sage, garlic and cumin spices add depth.
Wow. This tasted like “More, please.”
This Examiner suggested his chicken would be a perfect take-out bucket for customers to show off and eat nearby Central Park cultural events. He smiled, saying he does sell this crispy, juicy comfort food by the bucket in DC and will do so in Gotham too.
New York Master Chef
Not that he’s hiding his age, but much has been written about Chef Michel’s return to New York at this stage of his career – some in rather incredulous observations, considering all the athletics required of today’s top chefs.
No less than master Chef Thomas Keller was quoted in The New York Times saying, “I don’t know why he is doing this at 65. It’s a lot of responsibility and a huge amount of effort. I love Michel but New York can be unkind.”
To which Chef Michel shrugs.
Besides, Keller is a bit of a carpetbagger himself having arrived in Gotham from Napa Valley.
And New Yorkers can very kind, in fact. How many notables come here to reinvent themselves? We love those who strive – and artists who practice their craft – especially for our benefit.
Plus, New Yorkers love to eat; we go to the ends of the earth – or as far as MTA will take us – to enjoy a truly great restaurant that consistently serves great food.
His own kind of a Harlequin
Moving beyond the tales of Le Cirque interviewing Chef Michel, one can marvel at his pure, unadulterated love of what he does.
Chef Michel is engaged on all levels of the business, as well as his far-flung culinary constellation.
He’s also a minx.
He’s a father of six children and a delightful flirt. All the while he seems to be having a ball.
Bear in mind, running the food service at the Villard is no small task.
Besides the two fine dining restaurants: Bistro and the Gallery, the restaurant is also tasked with providing breakfast and room service in addition to lunch and dinner.
Yet one gets the distinct feeling that Chef Michel views it all from the prism of “this is business” not solely as an outlet for his personal expression.
If his vast and successful food service experience tells him anything, is that he can be the pinch-his-cheek imp of the dining room while his other half is the well-oiled manager of the kitchen.
This is the harlequin of Villard today.
In fact, he says the Villard was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
The restaurant’s financial backers Northwood Investors and Hospitality, had purchased the hotel, renovated it and the restaurants, and came to their friend, Chef Michel to operate the food service businesses.
One has to think they too were buying into a confident, assured professional.
When asked why he would accept such an offer given his other business responsibilities and family and, ahem, advanced age – that is-- according to everyone except Chef Michel.
He replied, ‘Why not?’”
Why not indeed?
Chef Michel appears to approach life with the same je ne sais quoi/joi de vivre.
“It’s a joy to be back in New York,” the chef said.
With what seemed like equal pinches of wonder and pride at the circumstance he now finds himself in, he gazes out the Versailles-sized windows onto Madison Avenue, saying he hopes that visitors and locals both will come to frequent and enjoy the restaurants and his menu.
He now lives in New York, overseeing the business here but said he will return to DC to make sure all is running smoothly there – and to visit his wife who remains in the nation’s capital.
He is quoted as saying if you open here in New York; you have to be here full time. And he is.
With outposts in Washington DC and Los Angeles, his empire now fittingly includes a true gem in an iconic, Manhattan, landmark building.
It’s impossible to say No to dessert sitting across from a pastry chef.
So before you can think about how to add one more mouthful, sweet confections arrive, tempting beyond imagination.
The bowl of profiteroles was just about The best ever and just two steps from the gates of heaven.
Profiteroles are little cream puffs filled with whipped or pastry cream topped with chocolate. This Examiner so loves cream puffs that her wedding cake was a croquembouch (or “crunch in the mouth”) – and it is essentially a tower or cone piled high with this exquisite French pastry. (And ribbons or toffee or gems or…)
Being a cream puff expert, I highly recommend this dessert.
Chef Richard’s puff patisserie maintained the integrity of their crunch even while pressed onto a scoop of ice cream and having molten, creamy dark chocolate poured over them. Wow. It doesn't get any better...
The crème brulee is a sublime flan – a faint hint of apricot; not fruity but with a side of raspberry swish that is oh-so-good.
With all his confectionary salutations, one can’t help ask what is Chef Richard’s favorite dessert?
No drum roll. It is the Éclair.
Chef described how in France the traditional éclair is a tad different in terms of the chocolate and raspberry – plus the pastry is left outside of the refrigerator and so it is very moist.
While all these visions of sugarplums are dancing in your head, think Christmas and New Year’s Eve at Villard.
Here are the special menus:
Smoked salmon terrine
Lamb with white bean jalapeño cumin jus
Surf and turf beef tenderloin and roasted lobster tail, salsify, baby artichoke, with bordelaise
Poached salmon Brussels sprouts, celery root sauce
Santa hat cornucopia of fruits (How cute is this?!)
Bûche de noël
New Year’s Eve
Smoked Salmon Terrine
Sea Bass Cauliflower PUREÉ, Asparagus sauce
Lobster Beet and Pea Shoot Risotto
Filet Mignon Potato PUREÉ, Bordelaise Sauce, Haricot Verts
Long Island Duck Breast pan seared, fig and spice sauce
$190. (second seating
LIVE ENTERTAINMENT, CHAMPAGNE TOAST
Villa Michel Richard Restaurants:
The Bistro (open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner) delivers a playful juxtaposition between menu and setting with casual dishes in an opulent and gilded landmarked space…think soaring ceilings, ornate wall details, and rich textures playfully paired with Fried Chicken and Lobster Burgers.
The Gallery (open Tuesday – Saturday for dinner only) is Michel’s signature fine dining room offering gourmet tasting menus (6-course, 9-course, and 6-course vegetarian) with modern twists on sophisticated, lighter French fare. The same opulent setting is present in this room but with an injection of Hollywood glam from the addition of custom-printed black and white photos of classic movie stars including Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman.
Villard Michel Richard
The New York Palace Hotel
455 Madison Ave (between 50th & 51st Streets)
New York, NY 10022