DC Grub 2011: Citronelle

Wednesday night at Citronelle

     I know it has taken me too long to get to the best meal of my trip….but I’ve had a lot going on and I wanted to do it justice. And it truly was….the best meal of the trip, and I would also add it to my top five ever. And this post is going to be extraordinarily too long, because I feel like it! I have a love/hate relationships with “real” food blogs and bulletin boards. I pretty much owe the fact that I even considered Citronelle to eGullet, because without the utter overkill of humorless and self-aggrandizing banter over there, I would not have the ability to sift through ten tons of bullshit in order to find some true diamonds. The fact that I’m food-obsessed and still manage to make fun of people whom I think take their self-importance too far is not lost on me….and neither is my constant abuse of proper grammar and improper handling of tenses within single sentences. I GET that shit, I’m just constantly amazed at the topics people will beat into the ground, sounding like they are auditioning for imaginary “foodie scouts” with every fucking syllable. I’ve met some very cool people via food boards, and those online communities really are no different than any others….just a different niche that also imagines itself to be the most important one of all. And like all other types of online communities, its value is measured in the total number of topics, posts and views….so you have to keep yammering away long after the horse is dead in order to keep it relevant. But hey, you can get something like seven thousand words on topics like…..the world’s best wooden spoon.  Or chime in on extremely stupid, stick-up-someone’s-ass topics like “is there any place for profanity in food writing?”.  Yeah, so thank you and fuck you and all that to the dining elite out there…..I do realize I sound exactly like you stiffs to everyone BUT you when I do a write-up like this one. But I use profanity to set myself apart, because it’s unique! And I lack the skills, vocabulary, intelligence, and social grace to do it any other way! And ONE DAY, Tony Bourdain will show up here and go “WOW! You’re one of those harsh but lovable heart of gold types! Would you like to be on the teevee with me?!?!!”. And then I’ll go back on eGullet and have a five hundred post thread dedicated to me….but it will be titled something like “Zeemanb’s Varying Flatware Usage- Distracting?”.

     And now that I have the “I always have to take the piss out of something right up front” portion of the post completed, I can get back to talking about the greatness of being a white man in America who drops close to three bills on a single meal and then won’t shut up about it. And this time I even included photos, despite having to constantly push my erection out of the frame. That is how good the food was…it was nail-driving good. And in all seriousness, that is EXACTLY what I was expecting….anything less and I would be yammering on and on about THAT. Oh, you have no idea…..I literally gave up a seat at minibar to keep my reservation at Citronelle. I got a call from Bonji at Café Atlantico around 3 in the afternoon letting me know she had a cancellation….and oh my God what a little piece of fortune it was to be chosen from the throngs of those on the waitlist….but I just had to try Citronelle. So I was expecting perfection. And it has nothing to do with the money, price is worth mentioning here….you have to throw all of that cost shit out the window. Your willingness to spend enough money to feed a family of four very well for a week on a single meal is fine, it’s your choice….but when you start picking the meal apart based on what you paid….you sound like a total dick who loves to bitch and eats at these places because it is your birthright, not because you love the food. I know people who would spend thousands on a Superbowl ticket……I don’t do this type of dining often, it’s kind of like my Superbowl.  Well, the French Laundry or El Bulli would be my Superbowl…..but anyway…..

     I know I’ve mentioned this several times….I don’t know what it’s like for the rest of the lone diners out there, but I get some great treatment. Most of that is, of course, because when you go high-end the service SHOULD exceed your expectations. But I do my best to gild the lily, and if I had any advice to give it would be to use OpenTable to make your reservation if possible. Call to confirm and all that too, but the thing is- the restaurant reads the additional notes/requests for the maitre d’ that you type into your reservation . I don’t go all Eddie Haskell in there, but I’ll generally note that this is my first time dining there, coming in from out of town, looking forward to the chef’s tasting….stuff like that. And it’s a party of ONE, so they know you are there for the food. Nine times out of ten, shortly after I arrive someone mentions something to do with my comments. At Citronelle it was literally like they were waiting for me to walk in the door….I think I met everyone on the staff between the front door and my table. I do not remember the captain’s name, but my server was Eileen and I also spent a lot of time talking with Jean-Jacques, the GM/Maitre D’. The little perch that they gave me was pretty perfect; just above the first set of steps in the main dining room, looking directly down into the fully open, glassed-in kitchen (I wrote “fully open/ glassed in” just to fuck with anyone’s OCD tendency to question that description). The workings of a very large, high-end kitchen is worthy of posts of its own, but I will say the seamless action is pretty riveting. And no matter where you eat, the chefs all guzzle water out of strangely humongous plastic cups or bowls.  They get thirsty.

     About the service….I guess that five star/Michelin star, however you want to label it, service deserves its own topic, but I don’t experience it often enough for comparison purposes, so I’ll just ramble about it here. And I am keenly aware that Citronelle does NOT have a Michelin Star, and that there are about five billion places across Europe where this level of goddamn service is the norm ….blah blah blah….. But, this is the kind of service that could really weird people out. I absolutely love it….not the pampering or ass kissing aspect, but the level of professionalism and dedication to the art. Everything is anticipated, and these people have seen it all. Everything you want or need is right there….and the level of service will magically morph into your personal expectations to a great degree. For example, at the beginning of the meal I wasn’t getting as much detail about each dish as I needed, and as soon as I asked the first clarification question, both the server and the captain provided detailed descriptions of every dish going forward. When I wanted to slow the pace of the meal down by just a few extra minutes between each course….done. It is a pretty amazing thing to watch, actually. The captain knows when each dish is being fired, runner is there at the pass, comes out through the dining room and stages the cloche-covered course on a small table across from yours…the server and the captain walk over, uncover it to inspect it, cover it back up, bring it over to you, the big reveal, and then the details of the specific dish, any necessary Q&A, etc. When three drops of Armagnac-peppercorn sauce dripped on the table when the server was placing the dish, a clean napkin was placed over the spot as soon as the table was being prepped for the next course. And this is going on all across the dining room…with a personalized level of service for each party; Japanese businessmen, a couple’s anniversary, big tables of crazy-rich regulars, etc. You know how I always like to be “buddy” with my servers whenever possible, be more casual and get their input about food and stuff in general…well that isn’t going to happen at Citronelle. Very, very friendly service, not stiff or stuffy in any way, just…..professional. Now, Jean-Jacques works the living shit out of the room, I guess he’s worked with Chef Richard for something like thirty years, and he’s the man for any buddy-duty….and I’ll mention, just one hell of a nice guy. So sit back and enjoy the choreography.



It only took about a thousand words to finally get to the food. And I did get some pictures. It’s a nice place, but the vibe seemed appropriate for picture taking….or I should say there were people who were WAY more conspicuous about it than I would ever be, so my camera phone was practically invisible. PLUS there were about five different birthday/anniversary celebrations throughout the course of the evening, each one with its own miniature pyrotechnic display. So here you go…crappy, dark Android phone pictures of the highest quality food. As much as it may sound like it sometimes, I’m not some fanboy ready to drink the kool-aid just because I’m at an expensive or popular restaurant….in fact, when I hear someplace is “the best” I put it under the microscope. I’ll find something usually, even if it’s being handed a glass that came out of the dishwasher too recently and is still too warm to hold wine, etc. I judge a place by the level of food and service that they claim….and Citronelle claims to be among the best. Well, no shit, they indeed deliver.

Amuse Bouche

Okay, here was the one strange thing of the evening…..when they brought the initial plate over to me I looked down and it contained one completely intact and cleanly severed human finger with about 3/4  inch of the bone Frenched and the end inserted into pickled icicle radish.

Don’t I wish! Actually it was just an oyster shooter and some excellent tuna tartare in cute little dishes on a lit stage. Okay, I’ll admit it’s not the most cutting edge presentation in the world but it beats the hell out of Tramonto’s damn fighting fish bowls.

Split Pea Soup

I did not get a picture of this just because it would have looked like a bowl of split pea soup.  Had I been so bold as to say “wait while I take  picture!” prior to them pouring the soup you would see several thinly sliced rounds of a mild cured sausage arranged around a bed of confit of leek fresh from the ring mold.

Definitely a sign of the richness to come…the sausage wasn’t overly strong or fatty, which is a good thing with the comparatively light flavors of the pea soup and leeks.  Very good shot to the system on a chilly night.  And the BREAD….it was French style loaf, sourdough-y. I wish I could have handled a lot more of it, the table next to me just kept getting it refilled about five dozen times….it had something like three full layers of airy crunch before getting to the soft insides.  Great for sopping up soup! And they literally give you all the butter you can eat! They’ll just keep bringing it!

BUTTER!!

Blanquette of Nantucket Bay Scallops

Had it not been for the sauce from the next dish, these scallops would have been without peer on the “gay jock hate crime of love” scale for the entire trip (long story for those just joining us, that’s my version of ‘five stars’ from a few posts back).  I wish the picture was better, but I guess I don’t really care because I actually got to eat these things.  Insane amount of butter in the sauce, leveled out with a little bit of celery/celeriac and I believe a small amount of roasted cauliflower.  And the scallops themselves were unlike any I’ve had before….I’ve generally only associated a great scallop dish with the big diver version.  Any bay scallops I’ve ever eaten have been the deep fried Red Lobster version, or cheap ones I’ve gotten on sale in the freezer section…..but these were FAR sweeter, and even more tender, than their dinosaur-sized cousins. And just the perfect doneness…which is hard to get with these little bastards.  The perfect translucent center, but across the top it was like someone had waved it under a broiler only long enough to barely caramelize the very tops and edges.  This dish was perfect. I mean perfect. And yes, while it was rich beyond comprehension, the flavors were so clean and clear, each one distinct and solid…..a magical feat.

 

Halibut w/lobster saffron broth

Ok, so these people know how to cook seafood.  Here you basically start with an absolutely perfectly done, meaty and tender piece of halibut…..you put some nicely cooked little veggies around it…brussels sprouts, caramelized onion, baby bok choy, things of that nature.  So far, a damn fine dish.  Then comes the insanity in an innocent enough looking little gravy boat.  They pour a modest amount of the broth around the perimeter of the fish, and then leave what remains in the container on the table right in front of you.  I won’t even try to describe this sauce/broth….lobster and saffron, that’s all I know.  Butter is in there somewhere to be sure.  Between this and the scallops, back to back “GJHCOL” level deliciousness.  Just crazy, crazy good….and when you bring it up to the staff it’s like they already know exactly what you’re going to say about it. If I didn’t have to watch it with the richness making me sick if I’m not careful, I would have made a little bread bowl and poured what was left in the dish into it and devoured it.  Lots of delicious lobsters gave their delicious carcasses to make the stock that went into THAT……

Lobster Burger w/chips

And speaking of lobster, here we have a miniature version of the extremely popular Lobster Burger from Central.  Which came first, the one here or the one at Central?  I have no idea.  But here was a fun “comparatively light” dish after the last two….and smaller, so that was good. Wee little crisp potato chips, a wee little hamburger bun, and a little piece of lobster that was the most tender of my whole trip.  It seems like I ate lobster in some form at every meal, and I had no complaints about any of them, but this was tender like a barely poached langostine is tender, even a little bit of snap to the texture.  A flavorful punch to boot…I’m not sure what all they added, maybe a little lobster roe or something of that nature. 

You can see that little potato chip cone standing upright there….I just kept imagining some poor Mexican kid in the kitchen cursing as the dishes came back in and he had to keep chipping away dried globs of glue.

BUTTER!  They’ll just keep bringing it!  I’m being serious!

Boneless Rack of Lamb, jalapeno cumin sauce

It seems like I’ve been eating way more lamb (and rabbit!) these days. I know that here in the U.S. we are way behind much of the world when it comes to lamb consumption, and being raised on beef, pork and those tiny frozen scallops I’m no exception.  Before this dish I’d say that there was nothing better than a medium rare, fatty, Colorado lamb chop with nice caramelized crust on the outside. I don’t know where they source their lamb at Citronelle, but THIS version was outstanding.  Sometimes with lamb you miss the actual lamb flavor….this dish definitely had the distinctive flavor without being overpowering. The quality of the meat itself was excellent. The preparation, however, just took it far, far over the top.  The-most-perfectly-executed-medium-rare-center…..like it was sous vide and then finished finished in the oven…but it wasn’t sous vide…..so I just sat there wondering what Jedi power they muster in order to get a perfect center AND a perfect crust.

60 Hour Braised Short Rib, Peppercorn Armagnac Sauce, Tater Tots

Shortribs.  Very good to eat.

Cheese

Oh, if anyone besides my wife catches the reference in my shortrib review you’ll be my personal hero for quite a while.  But now it was time for another goddamn CHEESE COURSE….and it has nothing to do with my newfound lack of love for the cheese course, but I FINALLY caught these pricks doling out something that was NOT to my liking.  They serve a couple of kinds of bread with the cheese, one of which is a sunflower seed roll.  THE SUNFLOWER SEEDS ARE NOT TOASTED!  CAUGHT YOU!  DICKS!  Okay, just my personal preference, but I had to find SOMETHING I didn’t like about this place. Just ruined the night. I almost packed up a bindle of that butter and skedaddled.

The great thing about THIS cheese course is that you get to choose the cheeses and how much you want, so I got a small amount of three…Grayson from Virginia, a French Petit Basque, and something else. The Grayson was really, really good. I’d seek it out actually. 

Eggs-Ceptional Lemon Meringue

It’s not an egg!  So don’t slap-palm your forehead, bug your eyes out and yell “They feed you a raw egg! AN EGG! For that kind of money they oughta COOK THE DAMN EGG!”.  Because it’s NOT a raw egg…it’s a trick! 

I’ve eaten my share of humorously recreated dishes, and this was a tasty and impressive one. The shell is made of white chocolate, the egg white is meringue and lemon curd for the yolk. The “hay” it’s sitting on is just a bunch of sweet crumbly and crispy bits.  Very tasty in addition to being beautiful.

Pear Vacherin

Okay, all you egg-yelling (pronounced AAYYGG) people don’t start in about how they ought to at least peel the damn pear for that kind of money.  It’s not a pear!  It’s a crispy meringue shell sitting on a small puddle of chocolate, stuffed with pear sorbet and little chunks of poached pear.  I’m not a huge fan of that type of meringue, but the insides were out of sight. Good and light after such a rich meal.

Petit Fours

By the time they come by with the tray of petit fours, you’re just dying.  I was like “Baby please, I’m not from Havana!”.  Could not take one more bite, so I had them packed up and took a picture before devouring them while watching Top Chef.

So THIS is the tale I am telling about my dinner at Citronelle. Perfection and kindness from start to finish.  At one point after the meal Jean-Jacques asked me if I would write a little note to the staff so he could read it to them before service the next evening….I’m telling you, these people take the craft seriously.  So I did that, and it was heartfelt. I do anticipate eating there the next time I’m in DC.  I’ll have to decide what meal or meals I’m going to have to give up in order to do it, but the overall experience was well worth it. High end and formal, but also like going to a friend’s house.

BUTTER!!!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “DC Grub 2011: Citronelle

  1. Kim Shook

    Oh, God, Jerry! Every single thing looks and sounds incredible! I want to drive up tonight. I had the lobster burger at Central and it was one of the best things that I’ve ever eaten. And the little glued on cone is hilarious! bon appetit, inDEED!!!

    • zeemanb

      Honestly one of the best meals ever…..kind of reminded me of when I went to Gary Danko- some apprehension due to the popularity/food touristy aspect, not really expecting it to live up to the hype. But in both cases my fears were put to rest almost immediately. Most of the time I find that the reputation is earned very honestly. The dream meal would be to get enough people together to get the kitchen table….not really in the kitchen, a little room right next to it.

  2. Mike Shook

    You make me want to be a better man. I want to deserve this meal AND have your gift of sharing it vicariously. To a fat man like me this sounds….. heavenly.

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