Monday, April 17, 2006

Citronelle: Running Chaud et Froid

3000 M Street NW
Washington DC 20007
Chef Michel Richard
Dinner nightly

Citronelle on Urbanspoon

UPDATE: April 2007
I went back after hearing that Adam Curling from Komi had become the sommelier there. I was not disappointed with his wine pairings. Somehow Curling manages to find the perfect wine to match the flavors of every dish. At the same time, each wine selection on its own is so beautiful that I would have been happy to enjoy it solo.

I wish I could say I was as impressed with the food. The "mosaic" surf and turf, a visually arresting dish of raw scallop, beef, tomato, and bell pepper carpaccio arranged on a plate to resemble a mosaic, had overly chewy beef and sandy scallop slices. The seared scallops in a subsequent dish were overcooked and rubbery. The only memorable dish was the "virtual fettucine," squid cut into the shape of fettucine noodles dressed with clams and squid-ink flavored garlic croutons. The "breakfast" dessert, consisting of cookies made to look like bacon strips, a meringue inside an egg shell to resemble a soft-boiled egg, and cubes of mango topped with strawberry sauce to look like home fries with ketchup, were quite entertaining to look at but flat and uninteresting in taste.

Citronelle remains a notable power dining restaurant and perhaps the focus on food will return one of these days. I'm sad that I will be missing out on Adam Curling's talent going forward.

Tried: April 2006
I was very excited to try Citronelle. It was going to be the apex of my dining experience in Washington D.C. Our party arrived at the restaurant about ten minutes early and were shown immediately to our table. The restaurant had two levels, with the bar area on the first level and the dining room below ground. The upstairs lounge area looked a bit worn and dated but in a comfortable, sit-and-relax-with-a-drink-and-cigar sort of way. In the back left corner of the downstairs dining room, there was a large wine cellar behind tinted glass walls. The back wall was covered by a large modern light panel mural that changed colors every few seconds, casting rotating shades of yellow, red, blue, purple, and green over the room. The decor was an interesting mix of traditional and eclectic. The tables were spaced comfortably apart that each table felt intimate. The chairs, however, were all so low that most of the diners looked like children seated at the grown-ups' table.

I almost forgot about the discomfort of the short chairs as I studied the menu and the wine list. Since we were left unattended for about fifteen minutes without anyone coming by to take our order or drinks, I had plenty of time to do so. As I reviewed the menu, I found that I was more tempted by the choices offered in the three-course menu than the chef's tasting menu. This was surprising since one would expect the tasting menu to be the showcase of the chef's best dishes. The three-course menu at $85 per person with $15 supplement for cheese course, offered items such as cuttlefish fettucini, white asparagus three ways, rabbit tasting, crab risotto, rockfish vegetable crumble with baby bok choy, duck two ways with beet cinnamon sauce, and pork four ways. In contrast, most of the chef's eight-course tasting menu looked fairly mundane: lobster and pea soup, foie gras, lobster with eggplant, halibut with kohlrabi, and venison with potatoes.

The problem was that our server informed us that we could not order multiple items a la carte from the three-course menu selections. We were also informed that we could only get the foie gras if we ordered the tasting menu, which had to be ordered by the entire table. In the end, we reached a compromise. After much wrangling and multiple trips back and forth between our table and the kitchen, we were permitted to substitute one item on the tasting menu and order two dishes from the three-course selections to supplement the tasting menu.

Richard's reputation of creating delicious illusions with food was apparent with the amuse trio-- a simulated boiled egg, a cigar, and a green egg salad. The wedge of boiled egg was actually mozzarella cheese shaped like the egg white with pureed yellow tomatoes shaped to look like the egg yolk inside. The cigar was made with layers of browned filo dough on the outside with mushroom "tobacco" inside. Lastly, the green egg salad was actually chopped baby green beans mixed with tobiko, shallots, and wasabi served inside a real egg shell sliced cleanly in half to serve as a bowl and lid. Each of these surprises were visually intriguing as well as tasty. The only thing that marred this experience was the fact that the server forgot the wine pairing so I had my champagne after I had already finished the entire amuse plate.

The first official course was a lobster pea bisque with lentils, squid ink brioche, and carrots. The bisque was fragrant and creamy, if a bit ordinary, and the squid ink brioche was completely lost in the dish. The 2004 Weingut Gruner Veltliner, while lovely on its own, was too acidic and citrusy to match the flavors of the bisque. The wine actually worked better with the next dish, the cuttlefish fettucini. Likewise, the plump and buttery 2002 Stony Hill Chardonnay that was paired with the cuttlefish fettucini worked better with the bisque. (The timing of the wine service was off for most of the evening. The inadvertent benefit, however, was that it allowed me to try different wines, as opposed to just the intended pairing, with some of the courses.)

The cuttlefish fettucini was another example of Richard's virtuosity in food fake-out. The fettucini was not pasta, but ribbons of raw cuttlefish sliced to resemble the noodles, in texture as well as appearance. The fresh beets, celery greens, and light cream sauce blended beautifully with the cuttlefish "noodles," and the bright orange pearls of briny trout roe added the perfect amount of saltiness and visual appeal. In contrast, the seared scallops with eggplant puree, grilled scallions, and hearts of palm were forgettable despite being solidly executed.

Before the next course was served, the sommelier brought over a glass of 2003 Domaine Kientzler Riesling. When I mentioned that I thought this was an interesting choice to pair with the seared foie gras, the sommelier informed me that I was not having the foie gras. Since the foie gras was the whole reason for my ordering the tasting menu, I corrected his misimpression. This resulted in a lengthy conversation between the sommelier and our server, followed by our server disappearing to the kitchen for several minutes, followed by another lengthy conversation between our server and the sommelier, followed by the sommelier removing the Riesling. Quite a service circus.

When the foie gras was finally served, the wine pairing was a 2002 Domaine Reynaud Banyuls, which matched well with the chocolate sauce served with the seared foie gras. The richness of the foie and the chocolate was balanced with the sweetness and mild acidity of minced pears, apricots, cherries, and pineapples in the dish. The dish again displayed Richard's command over flavors and ingredients.

The next course was sauteed halibut with sliced kohlrabi, celery, and potato in a lime-verbena emulsion, topped with celery greens. The Riesling was brought out again, correctly this time (our server joked that we would be having the Riesling with every course). The fish was cooked acceptably, but the celery was overpowering and I could taste little else. The last seafood course, lobster with eggplant, was also satisfactory but not exceptional. In addition to the disappointment of having the same ingredient twice in a tasting menu, even though the repeated ingredient was lobster (which frankly I find to be overrated anyway), the eggplant and lobster blurred together with no distinctive notes in flavor or texture. The opulent 2003 Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet Chassagne-Montrachet, however, paired well with the richness of the dish.

With the final course, pork four ways, Richard again displayed his expertise. The first was a soft, rich, and melty braised and seared pork belly with a Bearnaise sauce. The second was braised shredded pigs' feet deep-fried in a crunchy panko crust with foie gras mashed potatoes. The third was a slice of pork tenderloin in a red wine reduction sauce. The fourth was a pigs ear and apple risotto, with a tangle of frisee lettuce drizzled with dijon vinaigrette on the side. Although every one of these variations were masterful, I found the whimsical combination of pork and apples in the risotto, using pigs ear (which tasted like extra chewy bacon), to be particularly impressive. This was nothing like what I have seen at some other restaurants that claim a "four ways" preparation by offering the same meat with four different but indistinct sauces. The earthy and muscular 1996 Chateau Lacoste Borie Pauillac that was served with the pork did not quite match any of the four variations, but I suspect that was because the sommelier did not adjust the pairing with this substitution in the tasting menu.

The two dessert courses consisted of apple two ways-- a sorbet and a cake-- and a chocolate mushroom vacherin. Both the hard candy caramel top on the apple cake and the pool of caramel sauce on the bottom of the dessert were delectable. The chocolate vacherin was rich and chocolatey but unremarkable.

Citronelle is one of those illustrious restaurants with a renowned chef whose reputation is so established that he has nothing to prove to anyone anymore. When he is in the mood, Chef Richard's cuisine is extraordinary. While I cannot deny that there were moments of culinary brilliance during my visit, I felt like I was paying more for an expensive name than the cuisine. At $230 per person for tasting menu and wine pairing, I wish I could have seen more of Chef Richard's creative flair. I was also surprised that service was rather disorganized at a place where I would have expected it to be seamless. I am very glad I finally got a chance to try Citronelle, but I wish that I had the opportunity to do so when Chef Richard was still inspired to apply his creativity and genius more than just intermittently.

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