Citronelle is the latest of a number of new restaurants cropping up along the corroded corridor of upper Biscayne Boulevard. Situated in a corner location, its large plate-glass windows look out upon a mostly infelicitous street scene. Peering inward: a modern, minimally decorated 40-seat room with sleek, dark wood tables, a gray industrial-style ceiling, and cranberry-tinged, blood-red walls brightened to varying extent via dimmable white lighting fixtures that lower as the night gets later.
Executive chef Dannin DeFalco, who hails from Florida's west coast, has put together a short menu of "Caribbean fusion" cuisine: one soup of the day, two salads, three starters, and five main courses -- sometimes fish du jour makes up a sixth. It was therefore somewhat surprising that relatively early on in the evening we ordered an appetizer of honey lime shrimp, only to be told they were sold out. That shrimp are bought and stored frozen makes this shortage even less comprehensible. We managed to hook up with the dish on our next visit, a quartet of medium-size crustaceans centered by a small thatch of mixed greens, seared to just the right point of doneness. The caramelized honey, along with squirts of chipotle aioli, created a sweet heat and sunny flavor.
A "napoleon" of smoked salmon was likewise spiked with sweetness and spice by way of a zesty wasabi citrus vinaigrette. Three circular fried wonton skins formed the crisp "pastry" layers between which were sandwiched smooth slices of smoked fish, strips of roasted red pepper, and mixed field greens. Nice to look at until you attempt cutting the first portion, at which point the structure collapses and you're left with a chopped-up mess of nonetheless delectable tastes and multifarious textures.
Belgian endive and spinach salad brought another brilliant juxtaposition of flavors, the two main components julienned and tossed with Roquefort cheese, smoky bits of bacon, snippets of dried apricots, and a stimulating lemon walnut dressing.
I was considerably less enthused over a starter of seafood gratinée. Served in a small porcelain oval, the nuggets of swordfish were moist enough, and the cream sauce offered a mild Dijon kick along with whispers of garlic and unsubstantiated rumors of tarragon. What I objected to was the thick crust of melted Parmigiano-Reggiano, which with the potent fish flavor and rich sauce combined for more than my taste buds cared to handle. Still a tip of the toque to chef DeFalco for savvily serving a side of vinegary, quite piquant cabbage slaw (flecked with peas) to serve as a foil to those fats.
Main courses were splendid, excepting a couple of miscues that were mostly in the way of missing ingredients. Like the cashews that didn't make it to an otherwise faultless rendition of slow-roasted duck, a fleshy breast and leg cooked to a moist, medium point and surrounded by a thin, terrific brown sauce sweetened with dates and ginger; disks of sweet potato underneath the bird were barely cooked through.
While inquiring about doneness for duck may be deemed debatable, a waiter should definitely ask about such preferences in regards to pork. Ours did not, and a meaty pork chop, rubbed with cumin, lightly breaded with panko crumbs, and pooled in a sauce sweetened with orange and peaches, arrived, like the duck, cooked to a medium (but juicy) state. Promised pearl onions and bacon were undetectable, but sautéed spinach made a surprise appearance in their place; pumpkin purée was a softly satisfying starch.
A hefty, irreproachably prepared snapper fillet, served crisped-skin side up over thick slices of malanga, was aptly accompanied by tart capers, sweet red onion confit, fried leeks, and a savory orange sauce redolent of cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and a little anise.
Desserts were disappointing: a flourless chocolate cake too dry; a lemon grass-ginger crème brûlée lighter than the traditional, but with a caramelized topping that was uninvitingly cold. Better were a variety of delicious ice creams and sorbets in enticing flavors (green apple, sweetsop, black sapote), purchased from a Haitian-owned farm in Homestead. The best dessert is "pain patate" homemade by the owners' mom, a huge hunk of cake featuring sweet potato, banana, ginger, and spice. Unfortunately they only serve it on weekends during these dog days of summer.
Service was excellent on one occasion, sloppy and neglectful on another. Management was on hand both times to see that we were being accommodated, and the staff does a commendable job of making diners feel at home. The kitchen crew does a swell job of cooking up food freshly by the order, but they need to pick up the pace -- on both visits there were noticeable lags between courses.
Excepting a $14 roasted free-range chicken with herbes de Provence, all of Citronelle's main courses are priced at either $18 or $19. That's about $10 less than what you'd pay on South Beach, but salads and appetizers are $8 or $9, desserts $4 or $5, cappuccino $4, and, well, if you're adept at math you can see that in the end it adds up to more than what one might expect to pay at a neighborhood restaurant in, to put it kindly, a nonscenic neighborhood. To put it less kindly: If you're going to fork over $90-$100 on dinner for yourself and a mate, you might prefer to look out upon radiant Rollerbladers or a breezy bay, rather than some forlorn soul with spittle running down his chin.
I'm also a bit flummoxed by the inclusion of fusion, which serves mainly to dilute the focus on island cooking. There are plenty of places to partake of global concoctions like wasabi citrus vinaigrette or chipotle aioli (including Cafe 71 and Magnum, both very close by), but almost nowhere to go for compelling coo coo or callaloo. Guess we'll have to wait awhile longer for that (or drive to Ortanique). In the meanwhile, Citronelle is a recommendable restaurant with fresh, well-prepared, somewhat Caribbean cuisine.
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