Mélisse's Citrin stays close to his roots with French-American fare

Mélisse's Citrin stays close to his roots with French-American fare

Santa Monica is a city that wears flipflops most of the time. Though urban, it has the soul of a beachside village. But when people here feel the need to put on their designer shoes and go out for some serious fine dining, they think of Mélisse.

Chef-owner Josiah Citrin says he was aiming for something “over the top” when he opened the restaurant in 1999. The tableware is silver. Ladies are offered little stools on which to put their purses. A generous amount of space separates tables to allow celebrity guests more privacy. The service is seamless and discreet. And Citrin’s sophisticated dishes stand out in the Los Angeles area’s fine-dining scene.

The restaurant is only a few blocks from Santa Monica’s famous farmers market, and Citrin makes good use of the freshly picked produce available there.

ASanta Monica native, Citrin has cooked with some of the Los Angeles area’s finest chefs, including Wolfgang Puck at Chinois [3] on Main and Granita, and Joachim Splichal at Patina [4] and Pinot [5] Bistro. Before that, he spent three years in Paris honing his culinary skills.

In addition to Mélisse, Citrin also co-owns Lemon Moon [6], a more casual venue in West Los Angeles, with longtime friend and chef Raphael Lunetta. In 1996 the two opened JiRaffe, a California bistro that Lunetta now owns and operates. Citrin sold his interest in JiRaffe to open Mélisse with his wife, Diane Citrin, who operates the business side.

You’re from here originally?

Yes, I went to “SanMo” [Santa Monica High School]. I graduated in 1986. My mom was a caterer, and she had a cooking school here called the Southern California School of Fine Cuisine. It was a school for amateurs, but she had really good taste, and she did great things. I used to help her, peeling carrots and things like that.

My grandmother is French, and she used to cook pretty traditional French. That was a long time ago, and you didn’t have a lot of the ingredients here that you have now. You can get fresh flageolet beans at the market now, but she used dried beans.

When did you decide to become a chef?

I decided when I was in 12th grade that I wanted to be a chef. So I went to talk to chefs about it, and I asked, “Should I go to school or should I work?” They said work.

So after high school, I moved to France and lived there for three years. My dad’s French. I worked in a restaurant in Paris called Vivaroi, which later was a three-star restaurant.

I also worked for a chef named Georges Vernotte at Le Montevideo. He really helped me get situated and taught me a lot about working and filleting fish and all that basic stuff. There were only three of us in the restaurant so I got to learn a lot.

At what point did you decide you wanted to come back?

BIOGRAPHY

Title: chef-owner, Mélisse, Santa Monica, Calif.Birth date: June 30, 1968Hometown: Santa Monica, Calif. Career highlights: having Mélisse voted best restaurant in Los Angeles by Zagat in 2006 and best new restaurant by Food & Wine in 2000; cooking with chef Paul Bocuse at an event with Joachim Splichal

I think it was at the point where I’d lived there three years. I missed home, I guess. You get tired of living out of a bag. I had to decide: Either I was going to stay a lot longer and invest in being here, or go home.

So I came back here and worked in the morning at Granita, at night at Chinois. Later I did the same thing while I was at Pinot Bistro. I worked there in the morning and at night at Chinois. I used to drive a big circle through L.A.—and for peanuts. I was paid in knowledge.

You worked with Raphael Lunetta before you opened JiRaffe?

We met in elementary school. We’ve been friends going way back. We worked together at a small place in Venice, Calif., called Capris, then later at a restaurant called Jackson’s in West L.A. Then we opened JiRaffe.

Can you describe that concept?

It was a more casual bistro. That was 1996, and we were coming out of recession. The prices were lower then. We wanted to open a great California bistro with good food. But my dream was always to have a true fine-dining restaurant, so I sold my interest in JiRaffe.

How would you describe your style of cooking?

I call it contemporary American with French influences. I like to take classical preparations and give them a twist. I want to create an experience that’s simple and complex. I don’t want people to come here and have something they could do at home on a barbecue.

Your menu is very seasonal, but are there dishes you never take off the menu?

Yes. I do a whole roasted Dover sole, which is filleted tableside. I have a couple versions: one with corn and chanterelle mushrooms and almonds; another with potato gnocchi, spinach and mushrooms, usually porcini, depending on the time of year.

Another dish we never take off is a poached egg yolk in a shell with cauliflower mousseline, crème fraîche and caviar.

You’re very hands-on here. Aren’t you here pretty much every night?

CHEF’S TIPS

Sear foie gras in a lukewarm pan and then turn the heat up. Searing at a high temperature renders the fat too quickly.

Taste [7] your ingredients raw. If they’re sweet and taste really good, they’ll be even better cooked.

I’m hands-on, but I don’t believe I have to be here all the time. If these guys can’t make it just the same as if I’m here, then I’m not doing my job right. I want to be a great chef, not a great cook. A great chef leads people to make great food.

Is Mélisse doing well?

Revenues of $3 million last year, doing five nights and no lunch.

You’ve gone back to casual dining with Lemon Moon?

We just wanted to have something fun and easy and to offer healthier fast food. Lemon Moon opened in April 2004. It would be nice to open more Lemon Moons.

When you dream about your next step, what do you imagine?

I like the idea of doing a more interactive concept, like you have with a sushi bar, where people sit around the chef. Except maybe I’d do more traditional American foods, with different things coming out one after another.

I want to open more restaurants, but I’m taking some time to spend with my kids now. They’re 7 and 9. I’m still young. I have plenty of time.