To reach the inner sanctum of Franco-California cuisine in Georgetown, Washington DC, I must first leave behind narrow streets dating back three centuries, cross the inner courtyard to the elegant Latham Hotel, navigate the lobby and pass a mural of sunny Mediterranean vineyards before descending, through aromas both enticing and mysterious, into a thoroughly contemporary world of natural wood and abundant light.
This is Citronelle, ultimate creation of Michel Richard, recipient of the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef award. He worked with Duncan & Miller Design to make food preparation part of this exceptional dining drama. The large tilted mirror provides diners at even the most discreet tables a view of a kitchen designed by Tim Harrison of San Francisco where, in an arena of stainless steel and bright yellow tile, various ranks of aspiring chefs arrange in little paper cups the airy, razor-thin potato crisps twice-fried in clarified butter or manipulate – with long-handled tweezers, no less - shaved medallions of filet, scallop, ahi with black beans and dabs of micro-greens drizzled with basil oil, all for a visual tour de force called Mosaic.
Supervising, of course, is Richard, who studied in France and whose on-going culinary adventure in America has included his own pastry shop-cum-restaurant in Santa Fe and full-scale restaurants in Los Angeles (Citrus), San Francisco (Bistro M), and Carmel, Calif. (Citronelle at Carmel Valley Ranch). But this, the original Citronelle, is his flagship, and Richard looks downright piratical in his full-bodied black chef’s jacket and white beard. However, he’s smiling. “You’re too thin,” he tells me, with mock Gallic severity, “but don’t worry, we’ll do something about that.”
He will indeed, with a menu specially prepared for Veranda. It’s launched with a diminutive white plate of four amuse bouches - a tiny, delicate crab cake in remoulade sauce, a “cigar” of sauteed mushrooms in phyllo with an emulsion of ginger, a mini-taco, and a thin, glistening round of salmon sausage garnished with baby watercress.
Then comes one of Richard’s signature dishes, the Jackson Pollock Soup, an allusion to the abstract painter’s famous paint squiggles made with multicolored noodles of shaved zucchini, beet, and carrot, all these gently subsiding in a concentrated, powerfully-flavorful beef stock.
Next comes the lobster burger with French fries, deceptively simple-sounding but in fact an ardent reversal of New World inventiveness and Old World tradition. The meat is partially cooked in order to remove it from the shell, then chopped, formed into patties, lightly sauteed and placed on brioche spread with fresh mayonnaise and shaved ginger. This diminutive American variant is then served with those crisps as an accent, a Maine staple that never got better treatment and emerges light, fresh, and imaginative, with the ginger a welcome parting wave.
Devouring my last crisp, I notice a framed watercolor on the wall of an apple, lovingly painted in its various shades of red and yellow. Two minutes later Richard joins me at the table with a portfolio of his paintings of his culinary creations. He also designs each dish he invents, and the fruits, vegetables, and pastries in these paintings going directly from model to morsel. This is a way of conceptualizing what he later intends to create, a kind of artistic double entendre.
A lovely half-brick of orange and lemongrass mousse arrives with, as a garnish, a fan of dried pineapple, thin as parchment. I wondered how I could possibly eat all this, but quickly realized that air – and flavor – are the primary constituents of this dessert laved in raspberry sauce and further accented with slices of fresh orange. This is followed by an assortment of farewell sweets that includes another Richard creation – a seedless grape rolled in melted white chocolate and doused with powdered sugar.
“Delicious,” says the chef, who has been watching. He sounds almost wistful, not bragging, just summing up. And I say to myself, “He’s probably hungry.”