Whose Meatball Is It Anyway?

November 30, 2011

A little over a year ago, the James Beard Award-winning chef Michel Richard was telling me about his dreams for the future—new restaurants to open in Las Vegas and elsewhere—and then mentioned his love of meatballs. He remembered coming to this country in the 1970s and eating at a spaghetti joint in New York City that served up a heaping portion of pasta in a bowl topped by enormous meatballs. “This country is so generous,” he thought.

There is now a small meatball eatery in the Penn Quarter called Meatballs (624 E Street, NW) that touts Michel Richard’s meatballs. All the food blogs and even places like Huffington Post were reporting on Michel Richard’s latest venture. But when I asked him about it last week, he demurred. His publicist Mel Davis also had little to say. “I sold them the recipe,” was all the chef offered. And he stressed that “we must try harder every day,” a not-so-subtle hint that things could be better. Otherwise he was mum.

It may be because Meatballs is below Michel’s expectations—way below. According to Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema,

I’ve visited Meatballs twice, and as clever as the concept sounds, the execution leaves an unfortunate taste in my mouth. If a business is going to specialize, it has to do that one thing right. The meatballs I’ve tried have been inconsistent: sometimes dense, sometimes pasty in the center, sometimes mute. They miss the texture that develops when meat is seared or caramelized. (Vegetarians might be as disappointed as carnivores here, judging from the slick center of the heavy lentil balls.) The best of the middling has been ground lamb hinting of the Middle East with its spicing. Try it as a grinder, with hot peppers…. The food on my table – dense beef meatballs, mixed greens you might find at 30,000 feet, crab balls that tasted a day away from the shore – remained largely uneaten; the dirty tables around me remained in that condition too long. For such a new business, Meatballs felt unsupervised and less than fresh.

This cannot make the acclaimed French chef happy, especially since his name appears on the menu. In addition, Sietsema spoke with Meatballs general manager Jonathan Theriault who said, “It’s all Michel Richard.” (The actual owner is Mark Bucher of BGR fame.) But the vibe I received from Michel Richard was “I have nothing to do with that except for the recipe that I sold them.” The chef is also a perfectionist: During my lunch with him at Central last week, the chef just about lost it over a clam chowder whose potatoes and carrots were not fully cooked, referring to it as “garbage” and ordered the kitchen to stop serving it. “I am with a writer and you’re serving garbage!” he told the staff. “What is the chef doing?” he asked. “Is he doing anything?” A waiter’s shirt was slightly untucked, which also bothered him (Michel actually reached in and tugged on it). He sent back a salad whose green beans were at the bottom of the bowl instead of the top. And he questioned a busboy about a neighboring table’s ketchup, served in two disparate bowls. Why?

I cannot even fathom the chef’s reaction to the Sietsema review or to the actual day-to-day operations at Meatballs. Actually, I’m guessing he was silent. Terrifyingly silent.

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