In planning the family trip to DC it must be noted that the trip itself was functioning as Christmas, Graduation, and Birthday for me – I worked overnight call for every major holiday this year and as such requested each family member to dine with me somewhere in DC during our visit as my gift – similarly I took them all out for their respective holidays…”stuff” gathers dusts while memories of special times with family last a lifetime. For the final meal of the big three I knew a bit of planning would be necessary – to call my aunt an unadventurous eater would be an understatement. Having heard of the legendary service at Michel Richard’s Citronelle I opted to e-mail ahead to see what could be done for a picky eater and what followed was one of the most impressive displays of hospitality I’ve ever encountered.
Conversing extensively with General Manager and Maitre d' Jean-Jacques Retourné prior to our visit in order to be certain I could enjoy the Promanade Gourmand while my Aunt opted for less food (and less adventure) I was assured “we can definitely do something to that effect” – they even went so far as to offer to let me customize the Gourmand for myself. Delighted with Mr. Retourne’s service and communications we planned for a 7:00pm dinner in the main dining room and arrived early to scope out the Georgetown area. After a short walk we made our way into the Latham Hotel through the Citronelle Bar area, a pleasant space with many folks enjoying cocktails and small bites before being greeted by a host who led us to a great seat overlooking the entire dining room and the enormous and gleaming kitchen.
Moments after seating we were greeted by Jean-Jacques himself – a pleasant man with a long history of serving in Chef Richard’s restaurants and, for all intents and purposes, an expert in the field of hospitality. Pleasant, jovial, and conversant he introduced us to our servers for the evening and presented us with customized menus – 4 courses for my aunt, 9 courses for myself. Already waiting with baited breath we were offered cocktails, an offer we gladly accepted, and we proceeded to order one each – for Aunt Michel's Cosmopolitan with Absolut Citron, Cointreau, Cranberry Juice, Drunken Raspberries and for myself the Bubbly Martini - Absolut Citron, Marinated Cherries, French Champagne. Heavy on the alcohol I must say the house cured fruits added great nuance to the drinks, but for a lightweight like myself they were still a bit “hard.” Sitting back we waited only moments before the grandeur of Citronelle would be on full display.
With napkins folded each time someone rose for the restroom, water filled as if by an invisible hand, and frequent check-ins by everyone from the Maitre d’ to the waiter to the runners the service at Citronelle was beyond reproach – elegance with charm, refined with a sense of humor…much like Chef Richard’s cuisine. To begin, for our Amuses Bouche we were served different items – first for my aunt a trio consisting of Ratatouille Taco, Daikon with Potato and Prosciutto, and a Salmon Mousse Cupcake. Varying textures, temperatures, and a progression of flavors from vegetal to savory to sweet the small taste I had of each was good – and for amuses, each portion was impressive. I particularly loved the cupcake with the small orange salmon eggs atop – akin to a bagel with lox, but more playful and sweet.
For my amuse, on an excellent illuminated “plate” that drew stares from across the room, I was served Asparagus Tartare with Black Truffle and Asparagus , Potato, and Egg Veloute. The first served in an egg cut lengthwise and the second served in a leg cut down the middle, one hot and one cold, one a crunchy salad and the other a creamy and buttery soup. One of the best conceptualized amuses I’ve ever tasted. Served along with the amuses was a crisp sourdough – similar to, but served with creamier and sweeter butter, the version at Central…the bread would be ever replenished, just like the designer bottled water.
Beginning our proper tasting was a plate a piece, aunt receiving larger portions, myself receiving more courses. For Aunt, Goat Cheese Ravioli, Mushroom Broth – simple in title but without a doubt the most shockingly delicious option of the evening. With seven small and creamy Ravioli hidden beneath a “meadow of spring vegetables” the dish was finished tableside with a creamy mushroom broth and smelled like the very essence of earth. Fresh carrots, peppers, zucchini, and celery forming the “meadow,” the flavors came alive with the broth and were well balanced by the creaminess of the cheese.
For my first course I received one of Chef Richard’s signature dishes – the whimsical Lobster Begula Pasta – a pseudo-caviar experience based on a misspelling in the chef’s past. Utilizing small squid ink orzo to form the roe, the warm pasta laid atop a layer of butter poached lobster and poached fresh croutons of brioche for texture. Classic flavors served in a playful manner, even the ice was an effect – they were actually cubes of glass. The effect of the dish – wonderful.
With Aunt resting for a course my next dish was served shortly after our plates were collected – it was perhaps the dish I looked forward to the most of the evening and it did not disappoint. Entitled Foie Gras Roulade with Duck Rillettes the dish itself featured a round disk of foie gras pâté surrounded by a smooth and spicy duck rillet. Heavy and unctuous the Foie was flawlessly prepared and unlike the quail in a jar at Per Se it was expertly balanced with the rillet, neither overshadowing the other. Surrounding the liver and protein was a circle of beet and passion fruit emulsion – sweet but earthy, and laying across the disk was a rice crispy treat…a little sweet, a lot crunchy, a great texture. Served alongside the dish was another surprise, a matching disk of buttery brioche served atop a steaming hot stone.
Halibut with Vegetable Tart, Lobster-Saffron Broth would arrive next for myself – utilizing a firm and clean flavored slice of the mild fish with crispy skin the kitchen once again showed a deft hand with their proteins. Serving to not only enhance but improve the flavor of the mild fish, I was very pleased with the seemingly Indian inspired flavor of the buttery lobster sauce. With a pea pod, peeled tomato, and summer squash thrown in for texture and some vegetal accents I liked the dish even though it wasn’t as exemplary as the prior dishes…when a great piece of well prepared fish is your worst dish of the meal the kitchen is doing something very right.
Arriving next, a larger version for my aunt and the miniature version for myself, would be Michel’s Lobster Burger with Yukon Gold Chips. With well textured and buttery crustacean balanced on a sweet brioche bun with potato tuilles, tomato confit and house-made mayonnaise the burger was every bit as good as advertised – crispy, supple, and decadent to an extreme. The chips – wafer thin – the very essence of butter and salt on a crisp delivery vehicle.
Lamb Rack with Jalapeno-Cumin Sauce would follow the burger – it would prove to redefine the manner in which lamb should be served. The lamb was flawless – a subtle bit of gamey flavor and easily cut with the side of a fork, but when paired with the savory/spicy/pungent/aromatic green sauce at its base it was as if the entire palate was awakened. Interestingly, tasted on its own (dipping some sourdough) the sauce wasn’t as excellent – it was as though it was made to be served with this very piece of lamb. The accompaniments, a crispy sunchoke and parmesan potato crisp were nice, but largely insignificant to the brilliance of the lamb/sauce pairing.
What came next, both my dish and my aunt’s, was the true testament of the kitchen’s skill – one a classic all fancied up, the other not as classic, but every bit as impressive. First, for my aunt, the Chateaubriand, Tater Tots, Mushrooms, Horseradish – a large portion of the most tender beef to ever touch my tongue. Yes, I realize I don’t normally eat beef, but when my aunt (who doesn’t like rare presentations) was ooh-and-aahing a piece of rouge protein I had to see what the fuss was all about. Smoky and savory with an almost ham-like texture the beef melded elegantly with the horseradish spiced seared onions to form a very hearty yet elegant presentation. Alongside the beef was a “cannoli of wild mushrooms” – essentially a crispy potato roll containing an amalgam of blue foot, hen of the woods, and lobster mushrooms – it was perhaps better than the beef. In a side dish – a serving of Richard’s tater tots – essentially pan seared mashed potato cubes with a bit of parmesan.
For my main course, for once a bird following the mammal instead of the other way around, Duck with Roasted Meatballs and Beet-Cinnamon Sauce. A perfect slice of breast with succulent fresh and crispy skin over a thin layer of fat, the duck was paired with crispy potato strings and a trail of fresh beans and vegetables. Like the lamb, the duck was vastly enhanced by the earthy and aromatic sauce – thick, like A1 in texture, the flavor was akin to Poblano mole sauce. Behind the duck were served three small roasted balls of confit duck leg – fatty, smoky, and melting on the tongue.
Becoming somewhat full we were grateful for a break between savories and sweets – watching a table next to us celebrating an anniversary with a giant sparkler cake I had to smile – it is refreshing to see people actually having fun and taking it easy in such a rarefied room. As we chatted a cheese course was delivered featuring four selections; Bonne Bouche Vermont Goat, Triple Cream Brie, Maytag Blue, and Manchego Cheese. Paired with a delectable raisin-pistachio-wheat bread all three were excellent, but I particularly enjoyed the Brie and the Bonne Bouche, a novel cheese to myself full of floral and buttery notes.
More room watching followed before my palate cleanser, the “Egg-ceptional Lemon Meringue” arrived. With lemon yolk over mascarpone white, a white chocolate shell, and a nest of sheared butter-cookies the composite taste when combined was precisely that of a lemon meringue tarte. Cute, clever – a well conceived palate cleanser.
For our desserts proper my aunt received the Napoleon Crème Brulee with a side Crème Brulee Ice Cream and Chocolate Buckshot. Fluffy pasty layered with torched custard the napoleon offered more texture than the traditional dish and was all the better for it. Served over a rich caramel sauce, the Napoleon itself was good. Equally good, and sporting a surprisingly similar flavor to the Napoleon, was a custard textured ice cream with the same delightful chocolate buckshot served at Central.
For my dessert, it was yet another adventure in Chocolates with the nightly Chocolate Degustation. Featuring a milk Chocolate panna cotta with caramel and buckshot, dark chocolate tart with warm raspberry compote, Michel’s Chocolate Bar, and a double Chocolate Cheesecake popsicle…really, how could you go wrong with this dish? Featuring so many different textures, temperatures, styles, and approaches to chocolate – decadence defined.
Arriving with our desserts was a plate of mignardises – four each we received cocoa covered grapes, chocolate-hazelnut operas, sour cherry financiers, and chocolate almond cookies. A great mignardise place I particularly liked the super fresh and sour grapes coated in dense chocolate and cocoa.
Opting against coffee as it was nearing 10:30pm we watched a few more tables snap pictures as sparkler candles burned – the room was full and smiles were everywhere. As Mr. Retourne personally stopped by to ask us if we would like anything else we both thanked him for the wonderful evening and he presented us with copies of the menu to keep. Paying the relatively modest tab and leaving a substantial tip we were led by our server through the kitchen and up the stairs where the door was held open as he wished us a good evening. Looking back on the experience I can only say that Richard’s cookbook is appropriately named “Happiness in the Kitchen” – there wasn’t a moment spent in Citronelle where I wasn’t happy to be there…and more importantly, there wasn’t a moment where it felt like they weren’t genuinely happy to make our evening fantastic.