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The American in the French Kitchen

“It‘s so French,” said a friend on first stepping into Melisse, Josiah Citrin’s ambitious, classical French restaurant in Santa Monica.

Indeed, my recent meals there kept bringing to mind my first fancy French restaurant meal in France. I‘d rented a house in the south of France -- not in the stylish part, but deep in the scruffy hills of Languedoc. One day, I took a bumpy bus ride into the provincial capital of Montpellier, visited the local art museum with its Corots and Courbets, and went to lunch at a one-star restaurant I’d found in the Guide Michelin. I had been to French restaurants in America, of course, but they were Franco-American fantasies with chicken Kiev and trout amandine on the menu, and movie stills from Gigi on the walls. In Montpellier, I was surprised by the room, which was stuffy and hushed, with sound-swallowing draperies, layers of table linen and dark oil paintings dwarfed by huge, ornate, gilt frames. Being from California, I had expected something more sophisticated. This place seemed, well, stodgy. Yet here I met my first cheese tray, my first dessert trolley, my first elegant professional waiters. I was in my early 30s, alone, self-conscious, non-French-speaking and basically terrified. The prices seemed horrifying even at lunch, the complicated cutlery (a fish knife in particular) confounded me, and the process itself reminded me of going to a strange church with an unfamiliar liturgy. But the cumulative civilized touches -- the cool kindness of the staff, the heavy silver, the very good food and inexorable progression of courses from the amuse bouche through the final truffles -- eventually calmed my fears and finally suggested pleasure -- and even spiritual replenishment.

So why does Melisse evoke that French restaurant and not the dozens of others I‘ve been to since? Well, partly because the decor seems similarly expensive and somewhat stodgy, and partly because, to the great majority of people, the prices are horrifying even at lunch. But also, Melisse delivers that same quintessential French experience -- the cumulative, steady seduction into pleasure and satisfaction.

The dining room, abundantly beige, is bounded in windows and full of light. The centerpiece is a magnificent chandelier, with some crystals as big as the palms of my hands. A tier of elevated booths lines two walls -- the step up into them is tricky; you have to both sit and climb at the same time. The dining room opens onto an indoor patio with a glass roof and a floral arrangement worthy of Sea Biscuit’s winning circle. Clustered about the tables are little upholstered ottomans -- just for your Gucci bag.

Many of the customers here look well-heeled -- film-industry and high management types, gold-encrusted matrons -- but the crowd in general is diverse: young and old, hipster and frumpy, Valley and Venice. And judging from the number of wine caddies carried in by customers and lengthy consultations with the sommelier, it‘s safe to say almost all of Melisse’s customers are serious wine lovers.

French meals are built around and for conversation -- witness the long hours the French spend at table. So it‘s best to order one of Citrin’s tasting menus, well-constructed, well-priced series of courses; one menu is vegetarian, another offers several choices for each of four courses (with an optional cheese course for $7), and a third, the “carte blanche” menu, is the chef‘s choice. All items on these menus can be ordered a la carte, though building one’s own four-course menu can get very expensive.

Chef-owner Citrin haunts farmers markets and has established relationships with small farms. His formal French training is obvious, but so is the time he spent cooking at Wolfgang Puck‘s Granita and Chinois -- and, it turns out, Puck’s influence in his cooking is the liveliest. One night, I stuck closer to tradition: Breaded sweetbreads with crayfish and morel mushrooms in a pastry cup was fussy and rich. A $23 lobster ceviche on an odd, slippery gelatin lozenge was overwrought and underrealized, whereas, at that price, the lobster alone should have been transcendent. My entree, tender and deeply flavorful roast rabbit with a summer vegetable mix, was served with yet another pastry cup. Meanwhile, my friend ate dreamy foie gras served with a roasted peach, then sweet corn ravioli, both lovely and very reminiscent of dishes chef Lee Hefter cooks at Puck‘s Spago. Then -- who would guess that Dover sole served “bone-in” would be the evening’s showstopper? The fish was perfect: snow white and moist within, buttery and golden outside. I did wish that the chanterelles, and almost all the other mushrooms and vegetables on our plates, had been nudged for more flavor -- but Citrin‘s flavor range is somewhat subdued (especially when compared to Puck’s), and nowhere is this clearer than in the treatment of vegetables.

Melisse‘s wait staff is attentive, intelligent and well-informed -- so much so, it’s impossible to refuse the cheese course, the waiters do such a good job selling it. In fact, the cheese expert described his offerings so knowledgeably, we chucked our plans to share one plate and ordered two full cheese courses, just to taste all the ones he made us desire. The cheese comes with lovely candied kumquats, figs, and fresh walnuts cracked tableside.

Lunch is served Wednesday through Friday, and it‘s a quiet affair. The a $40 tasting menu is a good introduction to Citrin’s method and, if you have a meal anything like mine, you‘ll be sold. An heirloom-tomato salad not only looked like a plate of jewels, but also, even so late in the season, featured perfectly ripe tomatoes of impeccable sweetness served with burrata -- an extremely fresh mozzarella bursting with a fluffy, creamier center. More prim, but also charming, was poached asparagus with a “roasted shallot emulsification” -- a light-as-air mayonnaise-like substance. Pan-roasted striped bass had an Asianlemongrass edge, while the roast chicken had ideally crisped skin and the best wine-spiked jus perfect for sopping up with the accompanying French fries.

Pastry chef T’ai Chopping makes several memorable desserts: Vanilla-scented crepes are smooth as skin, eggy and buttery; her eye-catching fig amandine croustillant, a long skinny wedge of fig-studded short pastry, is not too sweet, great with coffee. And the apple tart is a thin disk of pastry with apple slices that taste as if they‘ve been slow-fried in butter until angelically crisp.

In the end, it all adds up, plate by plate, element by element, to a complete, pleasurable and singularly French experience.

1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 395-0881. Open for lunch Wednesday--Friday, noon--2 p.m., and dinner seven nights. Entrees $27--$38. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards.

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Melisse

1104 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401

310-395-0881

www.melisse.com