It isn’t easy to impress a table full of restaurateurs, chefs, winemakers, and food critics, but that’s exactly what happened last week at Citronelle, as the restaurant officially presented its newly appointed chef, Patrick Becquet, in a winemaker dinner with Bill Cates of Tantara Winery. It was a coming-out party in many respects: for Becquet, new sous chef David Sundeen, and Tantara’s 2004 vintage, all of which are showing beautifully. Becquet — who came to Citronelle five years ago after a long history of studying in prestigious kitchens throughout his native France — was appointed Chef de Cuisine a few months ago, and is now joined by Sundeen, just up from Los Angeles’s highly regarded Table 8. They seem to be operating in perfect harmony, creating a delightful but comfortable blend of superb French training and edgy, modern aesthetic.
The meal opened with simple, perfectly ripe prosciutto-wrapped melon, and roasted Alaskan halibut was accompanied by delicately aromatic baby fennel. The main entrée was a sinful double-header of foie gras and duck leg confit, each magnificently complemented by crisp frisée that was just bitter enough to set off the richness of the périgueux sauce.
Undoubtedly a tough act to follow, but Becquet’s cheese and dessert courses were brilliantly simple and refreshing. Crottin de Chavignol, a goats’ milk cheese from the Loire region, is perhaps one of the finest goat cheeses. Characteristically tangy, with a balance of sweetness, it is traditionally paired with Sancerre. But here, served on a simple toast, it made an excellent companion to the chocolatey Tantara Syrah, the only wine poured from the 2003 vintage. The dessert was almost a coda to the cheese course: a cheesecake (in the same small, round shape as the Crottin) with a hint of caramel and chocolate. Becquet wisely kept the sweetness to a minimum, providing enough creamy contrast for the late-harvest pinot blanc that rounded out the evening.
Citronelle has had its ups and downs over the years, but with this new duo in the kitchen, it looks as though they may finally have a menu that’s as exciting and delightful as its million-dollar views.