It's his time, by design. For venerated former French pastry chef Michel Richard (writer’s note: in the 1980s, my Valley girl friends and I doubled our Jane Fonda workouts due to weekly pillages of his S. Robertson Blvd. patisserie in L.A.), reinventing himself as a celebrated Hollywood restaurateur, and then again in Washington, has had several iterations, but maybe none as personal as his latest venture: Michel.
Hanging his toque in the former Maestro (restaurant) space at the Ritz-Carlton, Tyson’s Corner, Richard encouraged his friends at Group Goetz Architects (GGA) to use a pinch - or maybe a gallon - of alchemy in creating a space that naturally reflected his signature style and food, but genuinely trumpeted the wine connoisseur within. With his D.C.-based Citronelle and more moderately-priced and GGA-designed Central, restaurants representing a more high-end and down-in-the-(Manhattan) boroughs kind of ambience, respectively, the concept for Michel is more bistro than urbane, though Richard’s sophisticated palate and passion for the grape are manifested in its velour fabrics and deep, sumptuous colors.
"He wanted the look to be contemporary but also like going to a winery, a vineyard,” said GGA Principal Al Gooden, noting the celebrity chef’s robust personality and penchant for randomly seating himself at a table to ask surprised diners how he’s doing. “He’s not interested in your coming, eating and going,” Gooden continued, explaining that the traditional measure of restaurant success is the quick turnover. “He wants you to make an event of it.”
Wood, Walls and Wine
Located off the 4th floor Ritz Carlton lobby, the 4,800 s.f. Michel came together in a warp speed-like 14 weeks, thanks to Forrester Construction Company, with a magic budget of about $800,000 (far less than most high-end restaurants of its ilk). The space boasts a 19-ft.-tall glass wine room displaying all of the restaurant’s wines, adjacent to the space’s entrance stairs, and at the bottom of the stairs, where the maître d’ is posted, a pickled grey wood wall – actually a large sliding door – swings out and becomes a total opening, according to Gooden, with the effect both dramatic and contemporary. For the first image as diners enter the restaurant, which takes into account what Gooden called Richard’s “unproclaimed logo: the tossing of plates” (echoed in Citronelle and Central), the architects used LED lighting to illuminate a 6-foot stack of translucent plates, 3 feet in diameter, which appear to float as they are tossed into the air. In the dining area, raised leaf-pattern bolsters in a light green color, such as one might see in a vineyard, complement burgundy banquettes and mahogany tables redolent of wine country colors. Built for 124 patrons, which includes the option to incorporate 16 seats of a private dining room directly into the space, Gooden said among the room’s focal points is the 9x3½-foot chef’s table made of honey-colored alabaster with deep purple veining. Strategically backlit (it glows), the team decided to suspend the table with cable using one small leg to stabilize it.
Retaining the previous restaurant’s coffered ceilings, the architects removed crown molding and added silver leaf which they uplit so that it sparkles like champagne. A white tensile fabric, suspended from the ceiling in individual bowl-like fashion, contains LED lighting that meanders from various purples to greens to ambers, and an open kitchen design makes diners a part of the process. “Michel wants you to have a real experience here,” Gooden affirmed. “The funny thing about the space is that the color scheme, lighting and selection of materials is very regal,” he said, acknowledging his client’s homage to quality and great wine, “but the seating and placing of elements are all very casual – very relaxing.”
Energy, Efficiency and Eggs
Avoiding landfills by retaining some of Maestro’s elements for sustainability purposes was paramount in Richard’s plans. To that end much of the older kitchen equipment - such as grills, steaming pots and fryers - was refurbished, with the addition of more efficient burners. Various functions of the Ritz’s current restaurant kitchen (or room service restaurant kitchen, as Gooden referred to it), shared space with the former Maestro kitchen, and Richard elected to maintain the shared facilities, such as the dishwashing area, though some Energy Star equipment had to be purchased. “It saves energy and saved hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of construction,” Gooden said. “It was a very good move.” In best practices form, any new woods used in the restaurant space, including the entrance’s grey pickled wood wall, were reconstituted and came from within 500 miles. Adhesive for the ceiling’s silver leaf was low-VOC, carpeting has a minimum 30 percent recycled product and fabrics and finishes were all local and readily available.
Noting that the firm really had two clients, Richard and the hotel, Gooden said Ritz-Carlton, owned by Host Hotels and Resorts, was adamant about being involved in the design and all approvals. “The restaurant is, after all, only accessible through the hotel, without its own entrance,” Gooden explained, adding that the corporate design team was present throughout the entire process. “They were definitely active, which worked out really well because the great thing is they are really excited,” he said, noting the plan to position Michel, which the restaurateur has designated his flagship, as a “destination restaurant,” with customers coming to dine and then perhaps deciding to stay over (the opposite of most hotels). Additionally, like his predecessor in the space, Richard has elected to serve breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner, to perpetuate the D.C. “power breakfast” paradigm, but ideally with his own signature patisserie offerings – the hallmark of his early career.
“We teamed with a lot of really good people to make this happen,” Gooden said of the project. “You can sit down and totally focus on the experience.”
Photo credit: Len Depas and Sokol Kokoshi