At Citronelle, California Dreamin'

DINING OUT

June 06, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Citronelle, Latham Hotel, 612 Cathedral St., (410) 727-7101. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, Mondays to Saturdays for dinner, Sundays for brunch only. Major credit cards. No-smoking Aarea: yes. Wheelchair accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $7.50- $12; entrees, $19-$26.50.

Few restaurant openings in Baltimore have been as eagerly awaited as Citronelle's. The luxurious Conservatory, in what was the Peabody Court Hotel (now the Latham), was a hard act to follow. But if anyone could do it, it would be Michel Richard.

Mr. Richard is chef and co-owner of Citrus, one of Southern California's most celebrated restaurants. Citronelle, a spinoff he opened in Santa Barbara, has also been extraordinarily successful. Now Mr. Richard has expanded to the East Coast, with Citronelles in Washington and Baltimore. Philadelphia is next.

Although the chef de cuisine of Baltimore's Citronelle is Anthony Pels, it's Mr. Richard who's gotten publicity of movie-star proportions since it was announced he would be "directing" the kitchen (presumably by flying in from California several times a year). Baltimore expected Citronelle to be Santa Barbara transplanted to Cathedral Street; and that's pretty much what's happened, starting with the redesign of the Conservatory's fin-de-siecle dining room.

The look is no longer elaborately opulent but has an almost Japanese simplicity -- in a luxurious sort of way. The airy rooftop room is filled with deep green curved wicker chairs, stripped pine sideboards, and tables set with clean-lined china and silverware, creamy linens and candles. Nothing about it is fussy.

The same can't be said of the food, which is sometimes superb but sometimes innovative simply for the sake of innovation (or so it seems). But at least there's a coherent vision behind Citronelle's offerings. Much of it is healthful cooking without seeming so: sauces, for instance, are reductions and vegetable essences, never overloaded with butter and cream. There's a sense of playfulness and interest in the unexpected -- and an emphasis on textures. These are combined with an appreciation of food that tastes good, elegant or not. There are even comfort foods (like lamb shanks and home fries), which turn up on the menu here and there.

If your idea of California cuisine is that it's heavy on fresh vegetables and greens, light on red meat, you're in for a surprise. Caesar salad with Parmesan chips is the one salad offered, and vegetables are sometimes just a garnish. The selection of meats includes veal, rabbit, beef and a couple of lamb entrees -- and portions are generous.

In two ways, though, Baltimore's Citronelle is very Californian. The menu would seem completely familiar to Citrus' patrons: Local influences are conspicuously absent except for a crab cake appetizer at lunch. And, of course, looks are just as important as how each dish tastes.

If you like food as work of art, order the salmon terrine with cucumber salad as a first course, and admire the 18 -- or is it 22? -- tissue-thin layers of smoked salmon and paler pink salmon mousse, the shocking pink zigzags of flavored mayonnaise and the confetti of flying fish roe. (But if you shut your eyes, the taste is still smoked salmon.)

Much has been made of Richard's signature use of shredded kadafi pastry for texture. Citronelle's kitchen coats shrimp with it, which are then fried, giving them a delightful crunch and an amusing porcupine look. The shrimp are wonderful, but their bed of chayote (Mexican squash) is tossed with a much too mustardy vinaigrette.

Our best starter was foie gras roulade, an extravagant slice of the buttery rich goose liver with a mosaic of shiitake mushrooms for a crust, a golden bed of onions and a bit of shiitake essence as a sauce.

One of my dinner companions raved about the grilled swordfish and the rare tuna she had had before at Citronelle, but this evening she was disappointed. Whitefish, placed on a bed of silken mashed potatoes, was curiously mushy and flavorless except for its topping of caramelized onions.

The dish that best exemplified Citronelle's strengths was duck with bordelaise cinnamon sauce. The duck breast is roasted and sliced still rare, the leg braised to juicy tenderness. Its delicate wine sauce has just a touch of cinnamon, hinting at Middle Eastern influences. Couscous with chopped figs and apricots seemed entirely right with it in theory, except that all you could taste were the figs. For color, the kitchen arranges six or eight emerald-green baby green beans around the duck breast.

Our waiter recommended the braised lamb shank, rustic in its intense lamb flavor, elegant with its arrangement of bright green peas, carrots and little potatoes. Not a dish you expect from a Southern California kitchen, but one of Mr. Richard's specialties.

Mr. Richard began his career as a pastry chef, so it's not surprising that desserts are taken seriously here. My favorite is the chocolate creme brulee, with custard as the bottom layer and a cross between chocolate mousse and chocolate souffle on top. But the rice pudding with ginger orange sauce is also superb. I'm probably alone in being underwhelmed by the restaurant's crunchy napoleon with butterscotch sauce, made with creme brulee custard between layers of phyllo. I'm a traditionalist as far as napoleons are concerned.

Mr. Richard and his food have gotten all the press, but I was wowed by the service. There's no stuffiness here, although you can't quite call it casual; the kitchen and the waiters manage to handle the crowds superbly. And crowds there are. I called a week in advance to make a reservation for a weeknight, only to find Citronelle was completely booked.

Next: Tandoor Palace

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