Is it a trend? Or is it a lark? Is it the real turtle soup or simply the mock?
In a season brimming over with new restaurants, it's easy to confuse Citrine with Opaline, or was that Citrus? Once upon a time, restaurateurs tried to stand out from the crowd with an unlisted phone number. Now it's an obscure, hard-to-spell name with a whiff of the exotic. Citrine, in fact, is both a pale, greenish-yellow color and a translucent semiprecious stone.
And now it's also a restaurant that at least looks as polished and sophisticated as the name sounds. Decorated in a comfortably eclectic style, the long narrow dining room facing the open kitchen feels airy and spacious. Commodious booths lining the outside wall give it a sexy urban vibe, and the saucy Xs on the backs of the proper gold chairs have a certain dash.
The lighting is soft and romantic, but dim enough that you may want to pack a flashlight to decipher the menu. Brilliant flowers flame from across the room.
Anyone who revels in the rush of waiters coming and going will feel pampered by the attentive service, which can sometimes be almost too much of a good thing. When two or three chefs in their whites swarm the table, your first thought may be to make a run for it. Until you realize that for some nutty reason, the waiters are dressed in long white aprons and double-breasted chef's jackets. And they're here to bring you an amuse bouche.
One night, it's a single oyster in its shell, set on a pile of salt to steady it. Gratineed just long enough to warm it through, it's embellished with ochre sea urchin roe and a slurry of avocado. Another night, the amuse is a narrow shot glass holding a lobster pecorino bisque. Dosing the bisque with pecorino, though, doesn't turn out to be such a good idea: The effect is grainy and salty, not the ideal way to perk up your palate.
It's also the first clue: The evocative name and elegant room convey a delicacy distinctly at odds with Citrine's aggressive California eclectic cooking.
Laying it on
Maine lobster ceviche arrives in a martini glass with an off-kilter stem crowned by the fiery red lobster shell rising out of it like a rocket ready for takeoff. With its bits of lobster, cucumber, cilantro and chile, the ceviche is the best dish of the night because it's allowed to stand on its own.
Chestnut bisque sounds luscious on a brisk fall day. When it arrives in a slanted bowl at a steep tilt (the very latest in plate fashion, I'm sure), half filled with soup, the waiter carefully turns it around so the low side faces me. It's so rich and concentrated, it qualifies more as a sauce than a soup.
The plate also includes spring rolls stuffed with rabbit and chanterelles, heavy enough that you might break a sweat lifting them.
Nobody expects foie gras to be a lightweight. Its unctuous richness is the entire point. Why would anybody want to gild the lily with not only a touch of aged aceto balsamico, but also sweetbreads, bacon-wrapped dates and a corn arepa?
I never thought I'd pity tuna, but here I do. This poor raw ahi is forced to keep company with cape gooseberries and a penetrating chile oil in a tartare that also includes avocado and Maui onion. The final blow is a dressing that leaves the tuna feeling smudged and greasy.
Chef David Slatkin certainly sets out to make an impression, but it may not always be what's intended. He's trying so hard to stand out from the crowd that he seems to have forgotten that taste comes first. Before the tortured prose on the menu. Before the startling presentation. If that first bite isn't delicious enough to take another bite, the latest trend in porcelain doesn't much mat- ter.
This is not lazy cooking. It clearly takes a great deal of effort and frantic work to put together a menu like this, night after night. But to what effect? Putting too much effort into being original, he loses sight of what works or even makes sense. Or what delights.
Slatkin can be a capable chef. I liked his food at Mojo in the W when it first opened. It was lighthearted and fun, tropical with a California breeze blowing through it. He wasn't trying to be so serious, or to invent so much. He grew up in the Valley, went off to culinary school on the East Coast, and when he graduated, headed south to Florida where he got caught up in the Nuevo Latino food movement. From what I've tasted at restaurants where he's cooked in Southern California, he has a real feeling for that style.
But here, it's just confused. The chicken mole, for example, is made with the bizarre combination of white chocolate and pistachio. Fortunately, everything gets so mixed up on the plate that the white chocolate disappears into the tomatillo salsa, and in the end this dish is more successful than some others.
In another dish, he'll take a beautiful half chicken he's grilled on a cedar plank to get a delicate smoke, then cover it with a heavy sauce and unnecessary garnishes.