News & Politics

April 2004: Citronelle

From Bargain Dining at Expensive Restaurants, April 2004

Sampling Citronelle's Dazzle With the Cocktail Crowd

There are nights when the bar and lounge at Michel Richard's Citronelle are taken over by an ebullient crowd of twentysomethings sipping by trend: highballs of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum and ginger ale, cosmopolitans, and–the latest thing–bubble martinis: lemon-flavored vodka and sparkling wine garnished with tiny cherries marinated in Cognac.

The favorite item on Citronelle's bar menu–even with a $20 price tag–is the splendid lobster burger, couched on a brioche roll and garnished with a stack of fries cooked in clarified butter. There is also the rare-tuna burger that Richard created in California and introduced to Washington when he opened Citronelle in 1992, but the lobster burger is the newest thing, just as the bubble martini makes the cosmo and appletini yesterday's tipples.

Aside from the seafood burgers, there is little on the first page of Citronelle's bar menu that shows Richard at his inventive best. For diners content with the simplest things, the platters of Serrano ham or smoked salmon or assorted cheeses are very good–their ingredients are the best available on the market.

What attracts a steady clientele to Citronelle's bar is not the casual menu–it is the page of dishes from the fixed-price menu that one can order à la carte. In the dining room, the obligatory tariff starts at $75 for three courses and rises to $150 for Richard's gargantuan tasting menu. Enjoying a couple of favorite dishes from Richard's repertory with wines by the glass in the bar is slightly gentler on the pocketbook.

A wonderful beginning was one of those startling dishes that reaffirm Michel Richard's reputation as one of the best modern chefs in the country–a scallop tart ($24) comprising a wafer-thin circle of pastry topped with almost translucent slices of diver-harvested sea scallops, sprinkled with a mince of crisped Serrano ham, and showered with fresh chervil whose anise-like flavor complements the scallops.

One delight was a main course of duck breast in a cinnamon-port sauce with a garnish of braised endives ($35). Richard serves his duck breast in a pair of cuts that resemble miniature New York strip steaks. They are dark-pink throughout, marvelously moist and flavorsome. The bitterness of the braised endives leavens the richness of the duck and provides a foil for the sweetness of the cinnamon-port sauce.

In one of those disappointments that come from Richard's desire to imbue every dish with an element of crispness–a penchant that has earned him the nickname Captain Crunch–a piece of fresh sea bass ($32) was overwhelmed by being sandwiched between two rectangles of crisply fried rice. It was presented in a broth-filled plate packed with cockles, mussels, and tiny shrimp. But the crunch of the rice–as well as its strong flavor–overwhelmed the fish. It was one of those rare Michel Richard dishes that fails to achieve harmony.

Citronelle's cellarmaster, Mark Slater, offers a changing assortment of wines by the glass, each selected to complement the dishes on Richard's menus. A glass of Chapoutier Hermitage Blanc is a perfect fit with the lobster burger. The house wines, listed as "Michel Richard Selections," are a very attractive Chardonnay and a mannerly Cabernet Sauvignon, both vinted in California and priced at a very fair $7 a glass.

Richard has been searching for a property to house his next project–a popularly priced French restaurant he intends to call Bistronelle. Everyone would benefit if the prodigiously creative chef would use Citronelle's bar menu as a vehicle for testing dishes he intends to offer at Bistronelle.