After its opening in 1999, Melisse restaurant in Santa Monica quickly became the hallmark of fine dining in Los Angeles. Chef-owner Josiah Citrin has since earned two Michelin stars for his sophisticated dining room and the thoughtful and exuberant California-French cuisine that comes from his kitchen. When other chefs were re-imagining their menus in the face of the recession, Citrin plowed on with his intricate dishes, artful showcases of premium ingredients at their inspired best.
Now he’s written a cookbook to show the rest of us how it’s done. “In Pursuit of Excellence” is not for the dabbler cook. When Citrin suggests reading his recipes several times before starting, believe him. A call for a quarter-cup of grape juice means blending a cup of grapes with water and passing the mixture through a chinoise. A rabbit recipe involves turning a whole bunny into a rillette.
Line up the pots and pans
The chapters, organized like a menu, begin with amuse bouches. These are not your average appetite whetters: Fennel flan with orange gelee, cashew foam and vanilla; Kabocha squash agnelotti with pomegranate seeds, black trumpet mushrooms, walnut crumble and sage froth. Next comes a parade of first courses: Seared foie gras with banyuls-poached figs and ginger spice; Alaskan king crab with asparagus puree, asparagus royale and passion fruit-rosemary emulsion. (Citrin likes to present a single ingredient in different styles on the same plate.) After completing any one of these dishes, your guests will understand if you order out for the rest of the meal. You can pass the book — large format, glossy-paged, with gorgeous photos by Matt Kiefer -– around the table to show what you might have done with a bit more time and kitchen help.
But for the indefatigable and ambitious, Citrin and writer Patricia Aranka Smith provide a cornucopia of expert possibility, a take-home course in out-of-the-park fine dining. True, these dishes tend to require an involved series of elements, but Citrin holds readers’ hands through each: Côte de boeuf with mini potato leek tortes, pan-simmered little gems lettuce, sauteed mushrooms, herb butter and herb jus; Chatham Bay cod seared and confit, with purple Peruvian potatoes, red wine onions, red onion puree and Melisse broth; paper roasted rabbit with white bean hummus and Meyer lemon gastrique. Conceivably overwhelmed at a glance, a beginner cook can start by choosing just one element, the hummus say, or the leek torts, and work their way up the ladder — as they would in a restaurant kitchen. The soups –- fava bean, creamless pea, potato leek –- are well within reach (put Argan oil on your shopping list), as are several seasonal salads.
A chapter on cheeses and appropriate accompaniments such as walnut bread and candied kumquats precedes the chapter on desserts. The latter, no surprise, are complex, but, again, any cook can find a single element and call it a day — forget the mousse, flan and bon bons of the chocolate chocolate chocolate extravaganza and just make the soufflé. The sticky toffee pudding can stand proudly on its own, minus the hibiscus consommé and mocha malt ice cream.
Help is on the way
Citrin, aware that his recipes are challenging, offers plenty of support. “In Pursuit of Excellence” begins with tips on Melisse methodology. For instance, store sauces in a thermos so they stay hot, and invest in an immersion blender to make soups. He suggests a garnishing salt-and-pepper mix of three parts Fleur de Sel to one part cracked Telicherry pepper, and tells us what olive oils and vinegar he prefers. Various cutting techniques are described alongside vibrant photos of vegetables reduced to dice, batons and julienne strips. The final chapter comprises what Citrin considers base recipes: preserved lemons, duck confit, banyuls vinaigrette and Maine lobster with butter made from its coral.
Melisse has stayed at the top of the heap in a notoriously fickle restaurant town through dint of Citrin’s unfailing passion, an expertise forged through decades of hard work, and a creative genius that seems constantly renewed through expression on his plates. With this self-published book, Citrin shares his pursuit of excellence to inspire ours.
Zester Daily contributor Margot Dougherty, the food editor for Los Angeles magazine for many years, is a freelance writer and Zester contributing editor living in Venice, Calif. Her work has appeared in Saveur, More, Town & Country and Conde Nast Traveler among other magazines.
Top photo composite:
Josiah Citrin. Credit: Charles Park Photography
Book jacket. Credit: Matthew Keifer