CITRONELLE'S King of Crunch Chef Michel Richard likes to add a 'firecracker' of crispness to his dishes

April 11, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

I love to eat, and I used to go to restaurants all the time." Michel Richard, baker, chef, entrepreneur, raconteur, artist and bon vivant, was sitting one recent morning in his newest Citronelle restaurant, atop the Latham Hotel Baltimore, overlooking Mount Vernon. He has requested, and gotten, a tray of breakfast breads and rolls, which he nibbles with gusto while explaining the role he thinks restaurants should play in modern life.

"There's nothing better than when you eat in a restaurant and you say, 'Ah, the food was great.' That's superb. There's nothing better than going out to a great restaurant, you sit down, you can talk to your friend. If you go to see a play, you spend an evening with your friend, but you can't talk to them! I think the best place to spend time with your friend, or your wife, is a restaurant."

Mr. Richard, 45, still spends plenty of time in restaurants -- and plenty of time in transit. His flagship restaurant, called Citrus, is on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood and he is a partner, with Latham Hotels' owner CapStar, in three Citronelle restaurants. (The other two are in Santa Barbara and Georgetown.) He still has an interest in the chain of bakery shops that were his first venture on the West Coast.

He looks out, at the statue of George Washington atop the monument, and the church spires nearby. "When you come from L.A., where every-thing is kind of new -- and this, of course, is older -- it makes me feel very comfortable, because I'm from Europe. And I feel like home here."

He beckons to Anthony Pels, executive chef at the Baltimore Citronelle, who spent five years at Citrus. "Tony, will you join us?" (Later in the kitchen they joke that they have worked together so long Mr. Pels can read Mr. Richard's mind. "Or my face," says Mr. Richard, who had only to look up questioningly for Mr. Pels to supply him with the knife he needed.) Mr. Richard is in town on one of his periodic trips to guide the East Coast Citronelles along the paths he's chosen for them.

The two restaurants are similar, but not identical -- for one thing, the Georgetown Citronelle is in the lower level of the hotel. But both have a touch of California sun in their light colors and curvaceous dark-green wicker armchairs. It's a big change from the dark florals of the former Conservatory, which occupied the space when the hotel was the Peabody Court, before it was sold to CapStar last summer.

"We created an informal, maybe a Pacific, look -- a Citrus look-alike," Mr. Richard says. "And we found those chairs -- I think they're beautiful. It's a romantic feeling, with some charm." He gestures to a stripped pine sideboard. "And you have a touch of the past, in a modern way. We tried to create a simple line, more like a modern brasserie."

"The windows are nice," says a colleague.

He nods. "And at night time, you have the lights. At night time, you think it's Christmas."

Mr. Richard was trained as a pastry chef in his native France -- beginning at the tender age of 13 -- and for a while he worked for legendary pastry master Gaston Lenotre; he moved to New York to open the first United States Lenotre pastry shop.

But his interests were wider than that, and he soon moved West; he opened Citrus in 1987 because "in L.A., people had no place to go" to enjoy his kind of evening with friends and food. "We're getting better," he says. "Compared with 20 years ago, there are plenty of good restaurants."

Part of the appeal, he says, is that restaurants have changed: They're no longer stuffy, fussy and intimidating. These days, he says, the best restaurants serve food that is simple, without a lot of competing tastes. And in his restaurants, it's food with a quality that might be called Michel Magic: "Crunch-crunch-crunch."

"In French food we don't have any texture -- everything is kind of soft," Mr. Richard says. "I always love Chinese food -- Chinese food is different, they don't cook the food for a long time, . . . they use a lot of crunch. I use Chinese techniques in my kitchen. It's always fun when you bite into something and you have a little surprise, a little firecracker."

Mr. Richard gets the crunch into his dishes in various ways, some of them astonishing: cylinders of grated Parmesan cheese, melted into lace in an omelet pan, lifted out and wrapped around a wine bottle to cool; free-form lattice potato "chips," baked, not fried, and tucked into the top of silken mashed potatoes; ordinary Rice Krispies tossed at the last moment into risotto or salad; or extremely thin slices of beet or apple, baked in a low oven for several hours, that come out looking like pieces of stained glass.

He is also a fan of kataifi, Greek shredded-wheat pastry, which he uses to wrap fish or shrimp; when the packet is plunged into hot oil, the pasta sprays out above, a kataifi corona that adds mystery as well as crunch.

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