Citronelle, Carmel Valley
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Chef Michel Richard is our culinary community’s man of the hour. I’ve been anxiously enduring a fair grace period for his new restaurant, Citronelle, to find its rhythm in its new home at Carmel Valley Ranch, a resort set on 400 acres.
Adding to a mountain of accolades and good press, Chef Richard won two James Beard Foundation awards in 2007 for Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Wine Service at Citronelle in Washington, D.C. His latest venture in D.C., Central, was nominated recently for Best New Restaurant, an award to be bestowed in June upon an enterprise of excellence that “…is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”
Last month was a good time to become familiar with the food and the wizard behind it. I attended Richard’s cooking demo at Pebble Beach Food & Wine, chatted with him, and dined at Citronelle and the next-door Citronelle Lounge.
Richard has a romance with traditional American cuisine and uses his French culinary background and personal inventiveness to create contemporary dishes. Skill and playful humor are woven into a continuous expression of the man and his food.
“I like to create food that makes people feel good or makes them laugh,” Richard said while drawing cartoons on aprons for guests of his demo. “I use a very small amount of fat. And I like to create magic.”
Richard not only elevates popular food with an haute spin but brings his haute cuisine down to earth with a pop-food vibe. He makes faux caviar of cous cous and squid ink and “faux gras” from chicken liver. He gets a laugh with dish names like Shrimp Einstein, Lobster “Begula” Pasta, and his take on the candy bar, Le Kit Kat. He also puts awe in my soul with dishes like the spellbinding Mosaic Surf & Turf and his deconstructed Apple Tart Tatin.
These dishes are among those on both the Washington, D.C., and Carmel Valley menus, though specific recipes may vary and dishes may disappear or reappear on a whim. The rest are created by Executive Chef Anthony Keene, our man here in Monterey County. Keene modifies the menu primarily when products come into season and is on the phone about four times a week with Richard discussing recipe ideas and cooking techniques. Richard also visits regularly.
“Michel is very conscious of local products and freshness, and favors clean, simple presentations,” Keene said. “He’s a brilliant mind, so I have to lean toward his knowledge. He thinks about a dish completely and puts a twist on things.”
To enter the restaurant, guests pass through Citronelle Lounge and its gorgeous assemblage of modern designs and textures while accompanied by a transcendent soundtrack. The songs share a mesmerizing fusion of world, electronica and lounge music, a style made popular by the DJs of Buddha Bar, a restaurant/bar in Paris that has produced a successful series of compilation CDs.
Inside Citronelle, the décor softens to a level of understated comfort so restrained, it serves the same function of negative space as the oversized white plates favored here – not to distract from the principle object of attention: the food.
Brian LaFontaine, our personable and professional waiter, has a remarkable command of the dishes and his lengthy descriptions make it clear that the menu is a bare outline. The conceptualization of the dishes is striking, from the startlingly elemental to the utterly complex.
Concepts dazzling to the mind and eye contribute to a dining experience, and yet I’m tired of beautiful food that isn’t deep-down delicious. Fortunately, each dish worked on two levels: extraordinary to consider and behold, and again to smell, feel, taste. Richard adores contrast and texture in food and things that crunch have become a signature element.
As it would be wasteful for this meal to be upstaged by wine, my partner and I chose a food friendly, reliable 2006 Sancerre Terroirs from Domaine Sylvain Bailly in Loire, France. This 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc is a blend of grapes from various vineyards and harvest times. It’s fresh, balanced and fruity, with citrus, floral notes and minerality ($65).
The weakness of the evening was slow service. It was likely the best LaFontaine could do as he appeared to be the sole server with some backup assistance and diners at all 15 tables and booths. I clocked 15 minutes before our wine order was taken, then first courses arrived before the wine. I was told the dining room is not fully staffed and hiring is a priority.
We ordered the five-course prix fixe dinner of mostly seafood ($65), plus two appetizers, an entrée and dessert. At Pebble Beach Food & Wine, I tasted eggplant gazpacho, tomato tartare, and salmon stuffed with asparagus. At the Lounge, I tried a Caesar salad, Kobe beef burger, and fish and chips.
Many dishes at Citronelle are a microcosm of the entire dining adventure – to understand one dish is to understand the whole. But I’ll tell you about four.
The Mosaic Surf & Turf ($17) looks like a mixed media piece of art and is astonishing in its dimensions of flavors and textures. A layer of carpaccio-thin slices of beef tenderloin, salmon, ahi, and scallops is adorned with pickled daikon, citrus segments, and baby frisée. Dotted with puffed rice and black beans, it’s finished with parsley oil and ginger butter. An absolute must.
For one of the simplest dishes, cuttlefish – similar to squid, but more tender – is sliced into strips of “virtual fettuccine.” Razor and littleneck clams are added, plus a flavorful “alfredo sauce,” or more accurately, a suggestion of one. This is a sublime, delicate dish, even if you don’t strive toward Omega-3 fatty acids or sustainable seafood ($14).
Apple Tart Tatin is a classic, only here it is unrecognizable. Imagine four parts: an apple cooked six hours in sugar, butter and caramel and placed on a pastry; a cup of vanilla bean ice cream with a candied wafer; another cup of caramel cream; and crème fraîche sprinkled with pastry crumbs. Brilliant and delectable.
I must mention the exquisite French fries because they’re made in ghee (clarified butter), which is lactose-free and has no hydrogenated oils. OK, it’s still controversial, but no one said you have to eat it often. Try these at least once.
I’m betting Citronelle will be a great success. I have some doubts about the Lounge, and would like to see it full of warm bodies – the area could use a cool bar/restaurant for the young and sophisticated. If it doesn’t generate enough heat, it will be because the food is expensive and fussy for everyday fare.
Though we ordered more than is necessary, dinner for two cost $205 and a casual dinner in the Lounge was $94, before tipping. Citronelle is expensive, but it’s not overpriced. Each dish was worth its cost, and regardless, this will be a special-occasion restaurant for most. May we all have occasion to celebrate often.
Citronelle 1 Old Ranch Road, Carmel • Tuesday-Saturday, 6-10pm • Citronelle Lounge daily 11am to 11pm • 625-9500.