Sunday, July 06, 2008

dinner at Citronelle

Forget elaborate gifts or weekend getaways - Mark and I usually celebrate anniversaries and/or birthdays by eating somewhere we wouldn't be able to justify any other time of the year. My personal shortlist of D.C. restaurants special enough for that once-a-year trip include Komi, Restaurant Eve, CityZen, Citronelle, Minibar, and the Inn at Little Washington. We've done Komi and Eve, so this year for our second wedding anniversary, we made a reservation at Citronelle, Michel Richard's flagship restaurant.

Citronelle definitely has a different atmosphere than Komi or Eve; the latter both feel comfy, while Citronelle is more of an officious-French-waiter, D.C. dealmaking sort of place. That's not to say the service isn't excellent. It is, and if you can get over feeling intimidated by it, it's fun to sit back and admire the complicated dance. Anyway, we went with the promenade gourmande, the more reasonably sized of the two tasting menus. If it hadn't been a weeknight, we'd have done the wine pairings, but when I've gotta work the next day, that's just too much for me. So I started with a glass of Sancerre for the first few courses, than asked the waiter to recommend a red that would go well with my heavier courses (it was a Bordeaux and it was fabulous, but that's all I remember. I was a little put off that he didn't even ask me about my preferences, though - I asked and he just nodded and whooshed off and reappeared with a bottle). First came the amuse bouche, or rather a trio of them: egg surprise, escargot crumble, and vitello-tonnato. The "egg surprise" was a mousse-like cauliflower puree topped with smoked salmon, served in a perfect eggshell half. The top half had a little handle that you lifted up to reveal the puree. The escargot was in a tiny, thimble-sized ramekin, and the vitello tonnato looked like a tiny, pretty wedge of layer cake, one of Richard's many whimsical presentation touches. Next was a silky vichyssoise with house-made potato chips (fried in clarified butter - yum). That was followed by a fried soft-shell crab on a bed of chilled ratatouille. I felt like the crab itself wasn't all that special, but the ratatouille was nice.

Next, a melt-in-your-mouth broiled sablefish with a swoon-worthy caramelized sake-miso glaze. However, this was one course where Mark's vegetarian counterpart got short shrift: my fish came with a little mound of veggies (baby bok choy, etc., with Asian flavors). His dish? Simply three mounds of those same side-dish veggies. It felt like such a dated attitude toward vegetarians. A place that respected them as diners with equally sophisticated palates would have aimed a little higher. In fact, now that I'm on the topic: When we sat down, our waiter acted befuddled when Mark wanted to order a vegetarian version of the tasting menu. (This was after Mark told them he was vegetarian twice: once when he made the reservation on OpenTable, and again following up on the phone. We're aware this is the sort of thing a place needs to know in advance.) The waiter said something like, "Are you sure you want that?" I think there was some confusion because I was getting the regular tasting menu, and the waiter said Mark would have gaps where I had courses and he didn't, because the vegetarian tasting menu was shorter. Mark said that was fine with him, but then the waiter said no, no, it's no problem, the kitchen can do it. I have to say, Komi and Eve were never confused by the request or anything less than gracious about it. (In fact, I think when we first arrived at Komi, the waiter came over right away to ask Mark whether he ate cheese and eggs before he could even remind them he was a vegetarian.) In retrospect, Mark would've been better off with the shorter vegetarian tasting menu, because they don't seem to have enough ideas to sustain a longer one. (Hence the three piles of the side veggies from the sablefish dish.)

Anyway. Next came the lobster burger, my favorite dish of the night. It was a perfect little slider on a brioche roll with what I think was a tomato-ginger jam. (I think it's available in a full-sized entree version at Citronelle's casual-dining counterpart, Central. That would certainly lure me in there.) Perfectly moist, and just the right ratio of lobster to bread. It was served with more of those buttery potato chips. They were delicious, and certainly made sense with this fine-dining take on the burger, but then again, I'd just had them a few courses back. Hmmm. (Similarly, Mark was served asparagus two or three times, and not really in an "asparagus three ways" sort of way. Maybe if we'd gone with the wine pairings, we'd be tipsy enough to not remember?) Next, black angus steak with veal sweetbreads, morels and asparagus. It was good, but it had a tough act to follow after that superstar lobster burger.

Next, the cheese course. Then a strawberry cocktail - a little dish with a sort of strawberry compote in the bottom, then a nice little mousse layer, topped with a mint granita that was so fresh and clean and herbal-tasting. One of the best "palate cleanser" courses I've had. Dessert, Richard's take on a Kit Kat bar, was fabulous. A dense chocolate/hazelnut crispy layered thing with pistachio ice cream and rhubarb tuiles .... sigh. Oh, and then somehow we found room for the petit fours. And managed to waddle home. :)

Overall, though? I sort of felt like we'd been sized up and mentally seated at the kids' table. They have a certain number of star dishes to trot out, and they're incredible, but a lot of Mark's dishes felt like afterthoughts. Maybe they figured we didn't know any better, but we do. In the future, I'll get my lobster burger fix at Citronelle's casual sibling, Central, and we'll do our special-occasion dining at places that treat us like we know what's going on.

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