When we walk into Cafe Citron on Lemon Avenue in Monrovia, the first thing we see is a voluptuous display of frozen desserts: A dark black-cherry gelato bursts with huge, wine-dark ripe cherries; embedded in snowy-white coconut sorbet are large shards of a freshly cracked coconut; plump red strawberries are nestled into the tub of strawberry gelato. The whole display looks as if the transformation from fresh fruit to sweet, ice-cold bliss were taking place before our very eyes. Desire is instantaneous. We want sorbet now, but we haven‘t had dinner. And isn’t the ability to delay gratification a mark of adulthood?
Okay. So we sit down along the banquette, read the menu, take in the pretty, small room of this chic new restaurant. Cafe Citron looks like the intelligent result of much market research; it‘s precisely the restaurant du jour, a well-executed melange of best bets in contemporary Los Angeles food service: an American bistro with the requisite butter-yellow walls, the well-framed photographs, the dark-wood chairs and cozy banquette, the short designer menu and chalkboard specials, all in a plum, no-fail location. It sits right across the street from the monumental new Krikorian multiplex, and thus unabashedly volunteers as the easiest solution to the dinner part of the dinner-and-a-movie dilemma. It also faces Restaurant Devon, for which it provides at least a modicum of competition. Devon has a more serious wine list, and more serious food, and slightly more serious prices, but there are times when a person doesn’t feel quite so serious . . .
The food at Cafe Citron seems as well-designed as the rest of the place. Those in a hurry can have a ”theater sandwich“: feta cheese and tomatoes, or turkey with Swiss. The dinner menu covers today‘s must-haves: caesar salad, crab cakes, mussels, roasted chicken, ahi tuna, steak Florentine, pasta. The staff is friendly and helpful; farther west, deeper into L.A., you’d expect more professionalism along with these prices (dinner entrees are $12 to $24). But this is Monrovia, whose charming downtown is a mix of California Yesterday, innocent Americana and set-dressed yuppie gentility — urban sophistication is still, refreshingly, at bay.
The reliably popular dishes, we discover, are executed neither disastrously nor with great finesse. Indeed, you‘d have to be fairly inept to wreck these recipes — but also fairly skilled to make them memorable. Cafe Citron staunchly treads the middle ground between these extremes. The caesar needs more lemon, and the endive salad with pecans and blue cheese is too sweet. The standard green salad ($2 with dinner) has sweet little tomatoes and a dressing with too much balsamic vinegar. The fried calamari is good: appealingly crusted, crisp and chewy, and served with a punchy little marinara sauce and a rich green basil aioli. Crab cakes have another good aioli, and sit on beautiful micro-greens, but the cakes themselves are gooshy — too much stretcher, not enough crab. Bruschetta — grilled bread with juicy chopped tomatoes — could also use less balsamic.
Entrees can evince the same indifferent-to-passable execution. The seared ahi tuna on creamy white beans with sauteed spinach is pretty darn good, and just what we want — but it’s not remarkable. The steak isn‘t a great cut of meat (thin, and a trace mealy), but it’s flavorful with butter-drenched garlic mashed potatoes and tasty greens. The stuffed pork chop, however, is off on several counts: The chop is overcooked and forms a hard, dry casing for the filling, a misguided combo of chunked prosciutto and a strong fontina cheese that lends the whole affair an unpleasant barnyard funkiness. The tomato and basil linguine is lackluster, and the overcooked roasted chicken comes with undercooked haricots verts and roasted potatoes. Nothing is terrible, but nothing is just right, either.
But we‘ve eaten our dinners, and finally, we can try those frozen desserts. ”Are the sorbets and gelatos made here?“ we ask the waitress. ”Or are they just gussied-up here?“
Just gussied-up here. They’re from the reputable Ciao Bella company.
That profoundly dark black-cherry gelato is icy and not too sweet, and the coconut sorbet is creamy and sweeter, the perfect cooling-off agent for a hot day. Peach gelato, with frozen chunks of peach, tastes like summer itself.
On one visit, as we‘re leaving, one of my friends pauses to gaze again into the beguiling ice cream case. ”You know,“ she sighs, ”it would’ve been a great meal if we‘d just stuck with sorbet.“#0
110 E. Lemon Ave., Monrovia; (626) 358-1908. Open Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. till 11 p.m. Beer and wine. AE, Disc., MC, V.