Wednesday, September 9, 2009

(Not) Citronelle - Carmel

At first, I didn't have very high hopes for our first dinner in Carmel. Given that the meal was going to be sandwiched in between visits to Incanto on the front end and Manresa on the back end, I was OK with low expectations. Then just a few days before we arrived, I got an email from the Carmel Valley Ranch where we were staying, advising that the resort had "partnered with acclaimed French Chef Michel Richard for our new signature restaurant -- Citronelle by Michel Richard." Well - that changed things. I've never eaten at Chef Richard's flagship restaurant in Washington DC[*] but I certainly knew of his reputation as a phenomenally talented, creative and whimsical chef. Maybe this dinner wouldn't be a letdown after all.

But from the moment we set foot in the restaurant, something seemed amiss. First off, there was no signage whatsoever identifying the place as Citronelle - not in the resort, not in the entrance to the restaurant, not on the menu. Then out came an amuse bouche of - a lemon sorbet? Is it 1975? Followed by a bowl of french fries? They were good fries indeed, perversely reminiscent of classic McDonald's fries (and I say that as a compliment), but - could this really be how Chef Richard's reputation was earned?

Aside from no evidence of the name, the menu also showed no signs of Michel Richard's influence. Where were the trademark dishes - the lobster burger, the 72-hour braised short rib? Nowhere to be seen. It turns out, I now know, that right around the time we arrived, Chef Richard and Citronelle had cleared out shortly after the resort was sold to new owners. Chef Flynt Payne (which has got to be one of the most manly names I have ever heard) was dubbed the new executive chef shortly aftwerwards. I don't even know if he was in the kitchen yet at the time of our visit.

With this preview, it should come as no surprise that the meal in fact was something of a letdown; but I blame this mostly on the resort management which was responsible for emailing me about their "new signature restaurant" Citronelle, even as Chef Richard was packing up and heading out the door. It would also certainly suggest that it is too early to fairly evaluate the new incarnation of the dining room at the Carmel Valley Ranch. So this is much more in the nature of a "just passing it along" post rather than passing any sort of judgment.

The menu was a fairly short list of maybe a half-dozen each of appetizer and entree options, and a few desserts, offered only as a $65, 3-course proposal. They were accomodating, however, when we proposed to split one 3-course menu between the two kids, with Little Miss F taking a vegetable risotto starter and Frod Jr. a quail main course, and then splitting (reluctantly) a chocolate torte for dessert. I had myself a pig-fest, starting with a pork terrine followed with a milk-braised pork shoulder, and closed with a cheese course. Mrs. F had a beet salad and the quail as well, finishing with some fresh doughnuts (which the kids happily shared).

All of the cooking was technically faultless and well-executed. Among the more notable items, the pork terrine had a flavorful and well-spiced forcemeat, and was wrapped in bacon to give an extra salty porky punch. It was plated with pistachios and fresh nectarines, whose flavors paired nicely. The risotto, studded with summer vegetables, was also good, simple and satisfying. But - and this was likely a result primarily of the flux in the kitchen and the lack of time for a new chef to put his stamp on a new menu - very little that we had was particularly striking or memorable in any way. It was also less (in the way of quality, not quantity) than I would expect from a $65 meal, and the mandatory 3-course agenda was a downer.

Edited to add: Perhaps the greatest revelation of the meal was the wine we had with it: Couloir Monument Tree Pinot Noir (2006). Monument Tree is a cool climate, Anderson Valley vineyard, and the winemaker for Couloir is Jon Grant, who is also the assistant winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars. I am a big fan of Anderson Valley pinots and this was a great example. It retails from the winery for $44 and we had it from the wine list at $77.

The kitchen showed enough technical proficiency to suggest that they're capable of some good cooking. Just don't go expecting Citronelle (no matter what the resort's emails may tell you).

Carmel Valley Ranch
One Old Ranch Road
Carmel, CA 93923

Citronelle on Urbanspoon

[*]Chef Richard actually first made a name for himself in Southern California before shifting coasts to DC.

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