I’ve been thinking for nearly seven full days now about my experience at Citronelle and have yet to come to any concrete conclusions. Hopefully in writing this review some things will be clarified for me.
My expectations, such as they were, were pretty high: Citronelle was recently voted by Washingtonian Magazine as the best restaurant in DC (these rankings are pretty meaningless, but still, the bestrestaurant. . .); a co-worker of Erin’s uses Citronelle as his benchmark with which to rate all other restaurants (he was also disappointed by a meal at Charlie Trotter’s within the past year).
In order to do this any justice I’m going to go through each course and say what I liked and didn’t, and why. In italics are the wines that were paired with each course:
Amuse bouche – egg surprise, escargot crumble, Truffle-Foie Gras Napoleon (Champagne Eric Rodez “Cuvee des Crayeres” Brut Grand Cru de Ambonnay) – this course was served left to right, with the egg surprise being an egg shell containing a cauliflower puree (really a foam as we would find out on a tour of the kitchen) with smoked salmon. As far as first bites go this was memorable and I tried to make it last, taking only the smallest amount of puree that I could get away with and still be able to taste. The smoked salmon was easily the best I’ve ever tasted.
The escargot was served in a small, round dish and was beneath a “crumble” of pesto. This was the second time I’ve had escargot and fortunately for me both chefs have steered clear of the tendency to overload it with garlic – I’m not sure I would like it much that way. The flavor here was subtle and you could definitely taste the escargot, which is a good thing.
The black truffle/foie gras on the right was less a napoleon to me than it was a terrine, and was served with a black truffle vinaigrette and rice crispy’s (yes, rice crispy’s) to add some crunch. I’m assuming the black truffle layer was made with truffle juice and thickened with gelatin or some such way. The foie gras layer was a foie gras mousse. It was delicious. It was heaven. I could eat this every day of the year.
Chestnut-peanut soup (10 Year Old Rich Malmsey Madeira, Blandy’s) – very large bowls were delivered to our table containing “dots” of house made peanut butter. In the center sat some roasted chestnuts that had been roughly chopped and a little shredded duck confit and the soup was poured tableside.
The best part was that the soup was thickened with foie gras instead of cream.
After the first course this was a great second, and the peanut butter perfectly accented/complemented the chestnut flavor.
As for the bowl the soup was served in I’m going to be a little nit-picky and say I thought that it detracted from my ability to fully enjoy and experience the soup (I’m sorry if this sounds totally lame and pretentious). The rim was too big thus making you prone to drizzling your soup, and the edges of the bowl itself were at too right of an angle. Ultimately I used the bread to scrape up the remnants of soup. Probably not the classiest act, but the soup was too damn good to just let it be washed down a sink.
Abalone, from Monterey Bay, cream of caviar (Sancerre “Grande Reserve du Vignoble” Domaine Paul Thomas 2006) – the abalone was sliced thin, sitting on top of that were some slices of cuttlefish, the sauce of cream and caviar was around the plate and the plate was garnished with a few small dices of scallop and some multicolored rectangles of pasta. This was my first experience with either abalone or cuttlefish. I could see how someone wouldn’t take to abalone too well, mainly due to its texture which approaches the amorphous and chewy which so many of us westerners don’t like.
This dish was rather straightforward – I’m assuming this was so that the diner could experience some unfamiliar (to Americans) ingredients and not be confused by a ton of things happening. It worked, I liked it.
Sablefish, broiled, sake-miso marinated (Riesling Grand Cru “Geisberg”, Domaine Andrew Kienztler 2002)– this dish was also straightforward, and the only accompaniment on the plate were some vegetables (snow pea, artichoke, carrot). The directness of the dish worked because the sablefish and accompanying sauce were that good. This was definitely one of our favorite dishes of the night.
Lobster burger (Chassagne-Montrachet “chenevottes” Premier Cru, Domaine Laurent Borgeot 2004)- with all the utensils cleared from the table we were served one of Michel Richard’s signature dishes, nothing more than a burger made from lobster and potato chips which were deep fried in clarified butter. I can’t remember all the flavors and textures going on in the burger, but the recipe is available in Happy in the Kitchen. Although it looks simple enough, ultimately this was a stunning course with a shitload of layers. You quickly realize that this is not just a burger when you take the first bite, as you quickly realize that these are not just potato chips.
Veal, black angus steak, sweetbreads, morel sauce (Gevrey-Chambertin, “Cuvee Pere Galland,” Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon 2003) – the only other thing going on with this course was some julienned parsnip and acorn squash. This was a good course but it seemed flat considering the previous five courses we were offered. The portions were too big and the flavors too redundant. I wish we would have just been served the sweetbreads. Whereas all the other courses you wanted to make last, no matter how many bites I took this course never went away, mostly in part due to how much food was actually on the plate.
Selection of imported cheeses (Quinta do Panascal, Porto Fonseca 2001) – Not much more can be said. There was an excellent goat cheese I’ve since forgotten the name of. Feeling pretty full and knowing that dessert was on the way limited how much I had of this course.
Jolie pomme – quite possibly the most memorable dessert (or is it supposed to be a palate cleanser?) I’ve ever had. The photograph is above (which I snagged from Washingtonian’s website). The apple is really a sorbet like thing, what looks like the caramel sticking out is really an apple puree set with gelatin (at least I believe so) and cut, there’s a caramel sauce on the bottom and the “stem” is really dried vanilla bean.
Chocolate three ways (Bugey-Cerdon “Methode Ancestrate” Domaine Bernard Rondeau) – I only remember two of the ways – one as a fudgecicle type thing and the other is Richard’s take on a Kit Kat.
Petit Fours – no one had any room and we had these wrapped to go. I hope my in-laws got around to eating them because I never did.
We asked for and received quite a lengthy tour of the kitchen which was given to us from someone in Garde Manger who was already beginning to take his station down for the evening.
During the tour we learned a few of the tricks that had been employed, including the cauliflower puree (really a foam) and the little pasta rectangles (there were huge tubes of colored pasta hanging in one of the walk-ins that would be layered, cooked and then sliced – I’m still unsure how they were sliced so small and uniformly).
So you’re probably wondering why I haven’t made my mind up about Citronelle. For this there are really only two reasons:
1) The service – if we were a bunch of rubes fresh off the bus from East Jesus we wouldn’t know any better. But we aren’t from East Jesus and we do know better.
At best the service was disjointed. Once during the meal there were too many wine glasses on the table. A little later the server reached all the way across the table to clear those same wine glasses (to be fair I caught the floor manager’s look of terror at this one).
Bread was just kind of dropped onto the plates. The butter was too cold to spread.
And all through the night wine was dribbled either onto the base of our glasses or onto the tablecloth. This was perhaps the most glaring (and irritating) error made throughout the entire night, mainly because it is so easily avoidable.
2) The cost. Course by course the food was excellent (save the very last savory course). But is it $175 great (or $255 with the wine pairing)? I’m not so convinced of this, especially when the service issues are factored in. There are a lot of places that serve excellent (if not less imaginative) food. Going to Chinatown can (and has) cost $6 per person.
My father in law said that “This makes Charlie Trotter’s look like a bargain”. The last time we ate there was nearly a year ago and I know he’s raised his prices since. In fact in the recent Time Out Chicago made mention of the cost of the Grand Menu – $150. Tru’s website lists the cheapest tasting/degustation menu at $145 (9 listed courses, undoubtedly there’s another one or two not listed like an amuse bouche and mignardises or petit fours).
These prices may seem comparable, but when service is taken into account Charlie Trotter’s and Tru really do seem like bargains.
Alas, I don’t want to complain too much, because I did have a really good time, the food was good and the service wasn’t all bad.
I even managed to catch a glimpse of the Christmas tree at the White House on the way home before it was turned off for the evening.