Occasionally, (and I mean truly occasionally) I am upset by the fact that I do not live in a big city, like New York or Los Angeles. I say occasionally, because at heart I am a small-town boy, and like all the space that the suburbs have to offer. However, small town Jewish communities such as Silver Spring or Baltimore (which really isn’t such a small town anymore) have had a hard time supporting the existence of kosher fine dining restaurants, and unfortunately, routine trips to New York do not fit into my current schedule. This translates into me not having had a nice restaurant meal in quite some time.
(Surprisingly, Washington D.C., with it’s large Jewish population, only has one fairly mediocre kosher deli. I’m as puzzled about that as you are.)
As much as I know that I am not a professional chef by any stretch of the word, I do however, know that I have made some pretty tasty things for others, some of which I have shared with you on this blog. I have cooked food that has truly wowed me, the same as I have made things that have fallen short in my own eyes. I am most often critical of food that I make, only because I have recreated dishes from some of the world’s best chefs, and know what perfect plate of food should taste like. I suppose this also translates into me not being the easiest dinner companion when going out to eat. In my defense, when I’m critical of a plate of food, it’s often not because I’m thinking, “Oh, I could do this much better.” Rather, I’m thinking “If I could do this, what could I do to make it better.” I am on the lookout for a restaurant that can wow me as do the mere printed recipes of my favorite cookbooks.
This past weekend, we had the opportunity to dine at Citron and Rose–Philadelphia’s newest (and lone) kosher fine dining establishment. I was intrigued to see how they would present classic Jewish home food in a new, exciting light. I will say right now that I am supremely jealous that Philadelphia gets this place, while Silver Spring, D.C. and Baltimore combined do not have anything remotely comparable. Citron and Rose does so many things right, and provided me an experience that I have not had at any other kosher restaurant. Please allow me to share my thoughts of this experience with you.
One would not be able to tell from the location alone that the restaurant would be of such a high caliber. In fact, if one were to judge from the location, it would be easy to forgive the suspicion that what lay behind those doors is nothing more than another greasy, mess hall of a restaurant. Thankfully, this is not the case. Instead, the sight greeting you behind those doors is that of a stylish and modern, but simplistically decorated space, with an inviting bar, and a beautiful open kitchen. The restaurant was clean, and the kitchen–organized and efficient, which I could clearly see, using the direct view I had from my table.
This is the one picture I am comfortable sharing with you. The few others that I took with my camera phone did not come out too well, and for that, I apologize.
While at the end of the day, I did have a few critiques about the food (more on that later), I was, however, blown away by the quality of service and attention to detail which the front of the house staff, and particularly our server (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) provided.
As I was eager to get as complete a picture of the dishes being offered in my one visit, my first question to our server was to see if a tasting menu was offered, even though one was not listed on the menu. Unsure about the answer, he left us for five minutes, during which time I assumed that he forgot about us, and would return with a response in the negative. To my surprise, our server informed us that he had been sitting with the chef and the manager, and they had worked out a five course menu, which, while sounding great, did not in my opinion reflect the dishes currently on the menu. I declined this option, in favor of ordering from the menu what amounted to be four appetizers, two entrees, one dessert, and three drinks (which turned into four.) I thanked our server for the effort, and was excited to see how I would be impressed next.
While we waited for our first course, two rolls were brought to the table, one challah, and one rye, along with a schmaltz aioli. Score one for the C & R kitchen staff. If you’re like me and enjoy mayonnaise on your warm challah, this treat was a great first impression, one that made me feel like I was going to be enjoying the best Shabbos meal I’ve ever had. Bear with me as I run through the courses one by one.
Salmon Gravlax– everything spice, walnuts, radish, smoked bagel
If you’ve been to a bris in the past year, I’m sure that the flavors here are nothing new. This was what many would call a “deconstructed” bagel and lox. The neat trick here, was the shuffling around of the original’s flavors. In place of a cured and smoked slice of salmon, the smoke was shifted over to the house made bagel, made with smoked flour. The fish itself, a beautifully marbled specimen, was lightly cured and coated in “everything” spice. You know, the stuff that gives an “everything” bagel it’s name. I think this little trick allowed the salmon to shine a bit more on its own, and added a measure of surprise to the all too familiar bagel. The texture of the bagel, however, wasn’t quite right. Lacking the shiny exterior and chewiness of say, a Goldberg’s bagel, it lead me to believe that they’re not using lye at C & R in the bagel making process. Not surprising, but slightly disappointing still.
Chopped Liver– sour cherry, chocolate, pumpernickel
While I desperately wanted to love this dish, with its interesting interplay of flavors, there was something I found to be slightly off-putting about it. Presented exquisitely, the chopped liver was formed into spheres attached to toothpicks, coated with sour cherry glaze. They resembled cherries themselves, atop a bed of crushed cocoa nibs, with pickled vegetables to cut through the richness of the liver. Indeed, the liver was rich and smooth as butter, and to my delight, still faintly pink in the center. This richness became an issue as it was impossible to finish a single “cherry” in one bite, and they had difficulty maintaining their shape once a single bite was taken. While I did appreciate the pickled vegetables to cut through the richness, I felt that the tastes clashed slightly. Like I said, I wanted to love this dish, but only ended up really liking it.
Celery Root Soup– veal kreplach, pickled celery
The whole dish had a perfect balance, between the creaminess of the soup and the crisp but not oily kreplach. The soup was poured atop the kreplach at the table, which is a presentation touch I love. By the time the soup arrived, I had forgotten about the pickled celery component of the dish. They were smartly hidden beneath the kreplach, and getting one on my spoon was a lovely surprise, a burst of brightness to reinvigorate the palate before the next bite of the smooth and rich soup. Outstanding.
Beef Tartare– pastrami spice, bone marrow croquettes
I order tartare whenever I get the chance, as I expect it to be light and tasty, and this case was no different. The pastrami spice was a welcome addition, bringing a nuance of flavor that fit perfectly with the rest of the meal. And the marrow croquettes were like little breaded nuggets of heaven.
Sholet– braised lamb shank, kishke, haminado, flageolet beans
A regular guest at my parents Shabbos table was fond of theorizing that the word “cholent” is derived from the French “sho let” meaning, warm beans. Who knows. But Sholet was on the menu, and having theorized myself for sometime the best way to modernize cholent, I was more than curious to see how this dish fared. By far the best cholent you have ever had, the Sholet was good enough to stand on its own right, even without the Shabbos food nostalgia. I was impressed that our server could explain to me how the haminado egg had a brown exterior, which normally comes from overnight slow cooking, while still maintaining a custard like texture for the yolk (I’m sure I could have been the first to ask about that.)
Barley Risotto– chesnuts, wild mushrooms, kale, sweet peppers, pearl onions
As perfect as a risotto should be when made without cream and butter, the barley risotto was al dente and creamy, with expertly sauteed wild mushrooms. This was my favorite dish of the evening.
Pear Flodni– poppy, walnuts, pear sorbet
The obvious choice for dessert was either the chocolate babka or the mousse. I did not want the obvious smash hit, and instead opted for this curious combination, and was not disappointed. We needed something refreshing after this long and filling meal. I, for one, could barely walk when we were done. I have never been a huge fan of poppy, so my love for this dish either has to do with my getting older and beginning to lose my hair, or the fact that it was a better and more interesting, perfectly executed version of an apple cobbler a la mode. I did not know until then that parve puff pastry could be so flaky and rich, but I am dying to find out how this trick was accomplished.
I want to devote a separate post to the service at Citron and Rose, as it was even better than the excellent food. I hope you can tell that any critical comments I made regarding the food was me being exceptionally nit-picky, and only food with no other mistakes warrants that kind of scrutinizing. If you have the chance, I highly recommend paying a visit to the city of brotherly love, and checking out the newest, and one of the greatest, kosher restaurants anywhere.