Top of His Game

Top of His Game

Chef Josiah Citrin's passionate and contemporary interpretation of French cuisine has won Mélisse two Michelin stars in the latest LA guide. Citrin's devotion to culinary mastery started early and contrasted sharply with his other early love, surfing. He and best buddy Raphael Lunetta burnished their reputatations at jiRaffe, which opened in 1996, and Lemon Moon Café in 2004. In between those projects, Citrin opened his acclaimed Mélisse. Citrin recently spoke with RH contributor Libby Platus about perfection, whether it's reflected in artichoke soup, Dover sole filet or how many times servers visit a customer's table.

RH: Are your Michelin Guide LA stars affecting what you do at Mélisse?

Citrin: We've always tried to be a Michelin-starred restaurant. It's what I wanted as I grew up working in France. You're always working for that third star. It's scary! We can lose or gain. Obviously, we would love to have three stars because it's the top of the game. Guests believe two-star restaurants put everything they've got into capturing that third star.

RH: How does Michelin compare with Zagat, where the community votes and you received No. 1?

Citrin: They are two different opinions. I feel good that we are on the top of both, so we are doing something right. With the two stars in Michelin and the Zagat No. 1, expectations get really high. At the end of the day, it's only food and service. It depends on the guests' mood, how they feel when they come to dine in the restaurant and how well my staff makes them feel. Everything else doesn't matter. Patrons need to leave here with a sublime experience.

RH: Part of the restaurant experience for customers is the chef's visits to the dining room. But some chefs are shy or do not want to leave the kitchen. Do you include this in the experience?

Citrin: I like to talk to people. It's important to talk to everyone, otherwise customers feel slighted. Sometimes, I want to go home at 9:30 or finish paperwork, but if I visit guests, I won't leave until 10:30. One of our big sayings here is the Fernand Point quote, “To receive a guest is to take charge of their experience the whole time they are under your roof.”

RH: You have a sign at the front desk asking patrons to turn off their cell phones. How are you dealing with the new tech etiquette?

Citrin: Everybody makes a comment about the sign. Most people really like it, but some disregard it. If they get a little too loud, we tell them. I don't think it's proper, in a restaurant like Mélisse, to have a cell phone ringing or people talking, often loudly, on the phone, when other people are trying to enjoy their evening. I consider my restaurant an escape from the world, kind of a throwback to those times when people used to dine for a long time, uninterrupted. Sometimes people pull out a computer and start a presentation. We ask them to stop and suggest they use one of our private rooms.

RH: We are in the midst of a downturn in the economy. How has this affected you?

Citrin: I don't know, we will see. The dollar is really weak. Everything I import is expensive. But our restaurants could get a lot of international visitors because of the weak dollar and the Michelin Guide.

RH: You and Raphael Lunetta started your own restaurant, JiRaffe, together. With all the competition, what did you do to bring people to your door?

Citrin: We had both worked at Patina for Joachim [Splichal], and before that I had worked for Wolfgang Puck and we both did Jackson's in West Hollywood for two years. We had a good story: we had worked for those guys, we were young kids, surfers, from LA, grew up in Santa Monica, best friends. When we graduated into owning JiRaffe, we already had built up a pretty good client base and knew a lot of people around town. By the third day we were open, we had a nice impression in the LA Times. We were really busy from that time. Generally, the press here is not willing to review an unknown restaurant. You need the press to come right away, or nobody comes to your door.

RH: What's the most important decision you've had to make?

Citrin: The decision to open this restaurant. When I got into it, I was 30 years old. Santa Monica doesn't exactly open up its arms and say: “come open a fine dining restaurant.” Especially nine years ago. It's just what I was going to do. No ifs or buts about it. Another huge decision, closing Sunday and Monday, took a lot of research, number crunching and nervously watching what's going to happen. I would never, ever want to go back to seven days a week in a restaurant like this in this part of town.

RH: Are you considering any other restaurants besides Lemon Moon?

Citrin: At this point, I'm not willing to step that far away from this restaurant. I don't know if I want to open another. I'd rather consult, set up menus and teach other people the organization systems we use.

RH: You use sous vide. Why do you like it?

Citrin: If you are cooking 20 ducks and three lambs and seven other items on a busy night, it is a way for everything to come out perfect. We do it with meat, fish, chicken and vegetables. We don't even boil our potatoes, it's always under a boil. We don't lose a lot of vitamins or flavor.

RH: Michael Mina says he counts servers' visits to the tables. Do you find a need to do this?

Citrin: We watch everything. I count how many trips we make. For example, we don't set silverware on the table because every course is a little different and we don't know what the customer will be ordering. Plus, I don't like clutter. If I have to send someone over to pick up the unused silverware, it's extra trips. We will bring the bread knife when you get your bread. We set only one glass, for water. If you have wine, we bring out those glasses. Bringing all the glasses out and then taking them back is a waste. And washing all that is a waste of energy. The patron doesn't want to be bothered every five minutes. Fine dining has a lot of service already.