Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dinner at Citronelle on May 20 (our 20th)

Citronelle in Washington, D.C.,
May 20, 2009

On a somewhat quiet section of M Street in Georgetown, Citronelle looks like an unassuming little bistro from the curb. Four wooden tables for four are outside near the walkway, three of them with patrons. We ask if we might sit there and enjoy a glass of champagne while we wait for the main dining room to open at 6. “No, we reserve those tables for diners,” says the woman at the bar, which is odd, since none of those at the other three tables are dining, at least not yet. She busies herself with our order, and another couple arrives. The other bar back takes their drink order and asks, “Would you care to sit outside until your table is ready?”

We are not pleased. She apologizes for her assumption when she brings our drinks, but does not alert us when another outdoor table becomes available.

But then it is time to enter the main dining room, and what a fine theater it is, the subtly lighted dining area with a view of the bright, white kitchen. Our waiter, Daniel (I had to ask his name at the end of the meal; he did not introduce himself as he greeted us. That was fine with me. I don’t need a cheerful “friend” to bring me a meal at a restaurant), appeared shortly after the maitre d’ seated us near the balcony rail and got us started on our three courses for $105 per person. (There was also the $190 Promenade Gourmande with nine courses: a starter of crab gratin, chicken “lollipop” and virtual egg; green asparagus vichyssoise; soft shell crab; halibut; lobster burger; short rib; cheese; strawberry cocktail and chocolate bar. Both dinners end with what are termed “petits fours.” More on that later.)

We declined “Michel’s Signature Entrée… short ribs, prime, braised 72 hours, raisin-peppercorn sauce, XXL served for two.” Since Mr. Richard was not on the premises, it was no slight, except perhaps to our palates.

There were plenty of vegetarian options for the first course, and one for the main. An optional cheese course of imported and domestic was available for $18.

Before we had a chance to order, Daniel brought an amuse bouche of tiny tacos of halibut, cucumber and black sesame seeds, a salmon terrine with wasabi sauce, and spinach soufflé. We enjoyed the little bites as we studied the menu and watched the kitchen drama unfold. The kitchen workers were busy but went about their business calmly.

My partner chose the soft shell crab tempura with baba ghanoush, which made me smile, since he would never pick up an eggplant in the store to grill at home. I chose to start with the mosaic, a colorful combination of surf (diver scallops, ahi, salmon, eel) and turf (filet mignon and a swirl of red, yellow and green bell peppers), all sliced to a translucent thinness and displayed, single layer, on a large square white plate. Neither of us was disappointed. The mosaic was sprinkled with Richard’s rice crispies and black beans; given the comparative blandness of the lovely dish, I was hoping they would be fermented black beans, but alas, they too were the bland kind. Yet I couldn’t imagine what spice could be used to enliven such a dish; anything subtle enough not to overwhelm a diver scallop would certainly be lost on beef. So it was best to let each ingredient assert itself au natural. The sweet tenderness of the crab was set off nicely by the light and crisp tempura, and the creamy baba ghanoush was an inspired accompaniment.

For a main course, my husband chose the loup de mer, a fish for which he has been longing since first tasting it at a fine Greek restaurant in Manhattan, and I went with the veal three ways, which Daniel explained contained a braised shank, cheeks cooked for 24 hours to a melting tenderness and, touching his neck, sweetbreads. It was not easy to choose; other entrees included lobster, ivory salmon (an unusual fish which I first had in Seattle more than a decade ago), skate rolled with crab, halibut in a lobster-saffron broth, roasted duck, rack of lamb, chateaubriand, squab and a four vegetable tasting, and the aforementioned short ribs.

The fish and the veal parts couldn’t have been more delightful. Sweetbreads must be done just right or else they are horrid. These were just right, and the sauce over the asparagus and morels was richly divine. The shank was tender, and the cheeks were as meltingly tender as promised. The loup de mer was bright and fresh and the spring vegetables scattered over it were lovely to look at and tasty as well.

A bit of orange mousse topped with black cherry coulis was served as a palate cleanser, just as refreshing and light as any sorbet.

Dessert filled us up. Jim had the crème brulee that was stacked with pastry rounds, and I had a medley of mostly chocolate desserts (see photo). I wish I could tell you more, but I was enjoying myself too much by that time to take notes. The last note I took was that the Ehlers cabernet tasted like it had been aged in whiskey barrels.

The meal ended with “petits fours,” not four little identical cakes with icing surrounding them, but one tiny layer cake and three other delightful little treats: a chocolate truffle that molded around a nice ripe grape, an inch round chocolate cookie with a chocolate drop on top of it, and a spongy little muffin with a candied filling. I couldn’t possibly take another bite. Daniel not only packaged mine up, he added a few more, which I enjoyed with coffee in our room the next morning.

There was no one at the chef’s table the night we were there, perhaps because Chef Michel was away, or perhaps the recession has made some rethink whether that $2100 for a party of six could be better spent elsewhere. As far as performance goes, it’s hard to beat the French Laundry, which is not nearly that expensive (when we were there three years ago, we spent less per person for the nine course tasting menu than we did for the three-course menu at Citronelle, with almost as much wine). The service, although quite good, is matched at other fine establishments around the country, such as Antoine’s in New Orleans and Cyrus in Healdsburg, and there are certainly more cozy and romantic spots around, although I haven’t found one in D.C. yet.

So what did I think? I had a great meal, a bit out of my comfort zone in price, but having tested Michel Richard’s recipes at home, I think they are worth every penny. I would go back, but only for another very special occasion, or perhaps to order from the bar. Then maybe we’d get one of those outside tables, after all.

- Lori Korleski Richardson

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