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It's Citrus season again in Hollywood

Chef Michel Richard stages a virtual return, bringing artful cuisine to the menu at Social Hollywood.

April 09, 2008|S. Irene Virbila | Times Restaurant Critic

CARPACCIO of "surf, turf and earth" is laid out on a square platter -- a fabulous mosaic of raw beef, tuna, salmon, scallop and roasted pepper, each round decorated with a wisp of frisee or a pretty pink grapefruit segment, the whole pulled together with a drizzle of basil and kumquat oils. Each bite is different, making a melody of flavors that dances across the palate.

Another dish, listed as "Scallop scramble not 'Eggsactly' " is a play on texture that would intrigue any Chinese chef. A puzzle to solve, it's actually a pillowy scallop mousse cooked with a little saffron that uncannily mimics the mouth feel of soft-scrambled eggs, with bits of delicious sweet scallop standing in for the curds. The whole thing is crowned with a single scallop that wears a crunchy shaggy coating of shredded filo dough.

At dessert time, an adorable meringue mushroom arrives standing upright in a pool of pistachio sauce dotted with chocolate pearls. Cocoa dusts the top of the mushroom cap. When you touch it with a fork, the cap falls away to reveal chocolate ice cream and thick whipped cream inside. The contrast in temperature and texture is a delight, and the artistry behind it so skilled it's almost offhand.

Michel Richard is back -- in a virtual way, as consulting chef at Citrus at Social Hollywood, part of Jeffrey Chodorow's update of the historic Hollywood Athletic Club. The original Citrus, Richard's French-California restaurant, opened in 1987 and defined an era in L.A. dining with Richard's inventive and delicious cooking and the casual setting accented by white market umbrellas unfurled beneath high ceilings. (His pastry shop on Robertson Boulevard was a mecca for foodies too, and though it still bears his name, he no longer owns the shop.)

In 1998, the portly chef decamped with his family to devote himself to his then 4-year-old restaurant Citronelle in Washington, D.C. That launched Phase 2 of an extraordinary career that began when Richard was an apprentice pastry chef in France. Now he's considered one of the best chefs in the country, and on a level with the top toques in France.

Which brings us to this new gig. Despite its romantic decor, the Moroccan-themed restaurant with which Chodorow opened Social Hollywood two years ago wasn't working. The bar crowd wasn't adjourning for dinner, nor were people pouring in from the pounding club scene next door. Without a name chef to draw in the foodies and scenesters, the restaurant never developed a following.

New York entrepreneur Chodorow, who owns Asia de Cuba and China Grill, among others, is no dummy. His solution: Bring in a chef whose name has resonance in L.A. And while you're at it, bring back the name of the chef's signature restaurant as well.

A consulting chef who lives 3,000 miles away could be a recipe for disaster, but Richard has found an extremely capable chef to execute the menu. Remi Lauvand was executive sous chef under Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque and executive chef at Montrachet, both in New York. Most recently, he was chef at Miro at Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. Here, under his direction, the kitchen is executing the menu with grace and formidable skill. But that's not the only change at Social's restaurant.

Reflecting the scene

Citrus at Social now has its own entrance on Sunset Boulevard. Instead of dark and romantic nooks framed by canvas curtains, the room has been opened up and decorated in sunny citrus colors. The pillars are mirrored now, the better to reflect the scene and the original Hollywood Athletic Club's stunning frescoed ceiling discovered during renovations. A rug warms the room and slipper chairs and banquettes are upholstered in mint -- or is that pale lime? -- green satin.

Without the private crannies, the dining room seems more elegant and spacious, with plenty of room between the tables. In fact, this may be the most glamorous room in all of L.A. at the moment.

The food makes just as grand an entrance. Richard's training in pastry and his wonderful eye mean his dishes are flat-out gorgeous. He also loves a visual pun. A tin of beluga is set before you, the lid slightly askew, the better to show off the glistening dark gray caviar. But it isn't beluga at all (and a printer's typo means the tin reads "begula"): It's actually Israeli couscous dyed with squid ink with lobster and a soft-poached egg tucked beneath the layer of faux caviar. Nothing in the appetizer's description would lead you to expect this. It also happens to be delicious.

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