On a recent afternoon, in the pristine kitchen of Mélisse restaurant in Santa Monica, chef and owner Josiah Citrin demonstrates how to make a tuna tartar tower he created years ago when the restaurant first opened. He looks slightly disheveled, with his hair standing straight up on his head -- a look he's become known for over the years, but in his chef's whites, he moves with the grace of a trained dancer and the purpose and ease of someone who has been cooking in this kitchen all his life.
"Look how '90s the plating is," he says with a laugh as he draws lines of bright green fennel puree around the tuna tower. A final swipe with a white towel to wipe away a little runaway sauce and the dish is finished.
With his Dover sole, a dish that's been on the menu since the beginning, he now takes a more modern approach to plating. In the early 2000s, the deboned fish would be put back together on the plate so that it resembled a whole fish, with a small sliver left down the middle for vegetables. Now the fish is left in pieces, arranged in flat rows with its accompanying sauce.
Citrin has spent a good portion of his life in the Mélisse kitchen. On Monday, Bastille Day, Citrin celebrates the restaurant's 15th anniversary. In a city rife with restaurant openings, turnovers and closures, that's quite a feat. But Citrin insists he isn't sentimental about it, unless you're talking about his family, or his two Michelin stars.
"Sometimes, when I see my son working here -- and he’s a back waiter now -- and I think about when he was 2 years old, kicking the stuff around in the parking lot when we were tearing the place apart," said Citrin. "Wow, 15 years, he is a child who grew up, and now he’s working here. That's how I think about it."
Citrin, a California native, opened JiRaffe in 1996, then opened Mélisse when he was just 31 years old. He's been a fixture at the Santa Monica Farmers Market since he was 17 and started doing farm-to-table cooking before it became a trend.
Since Mélisse's opening, he's turned the restaurant into one of the city's premier fine-dining destinations, and it remains so today, landing a spot on Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold's 101 best restaurant list for multiple years.
We followed Citrin into the kitchen to discuss the progression of the restaurant and to watch him prepare two of his original dishes, one of which is still on the menu and one new dish meant to represent the current direction of Mélisse.
In a city like L.A., what does it mean to have a successful, lasting restaurant for all these years?
It didn't start how it is now. I didn't know how to lead all these people, and most of them were older than me. Now the systems are all here, but it took a lot of work. From 1999 to 2005, it was a lot of pushing everybody to get to the next level. I have a great staff, it's not just me. I think back at all the great people I've worked with all these years. In terms of accomplishments, I don’t really look back like that. I’m just moving forward, always. Especially now, things move faster than they used to. It used to be you’d have a good 10 years. I'm just always trying to better myself and my staff.
What do you think has happened to the L.A. restaurant scene since you opened back in 1999?
It seems like it’s all become very casual now. The food is really good in a lot of places, but I see this craze going on now where people say the food is really good and the food isn't good. Food has become such a hype that no one says it's not good anymore. You could have horrible service, horrible stuff and people still love the restaurants and I think it's crazy. But I do think there is some good food in town, and there are chefs that are doing a really good job.
The biggest change in the food scene is it's become more of the culture of America to eat out. The guest is much more informed and willing to try more. Now you can do things like rabbit terrine and rabbit rillette, things you could never do or sell before. Pork belly 10 years ago? It wouldn't sell. And now everything is gluten-free. It used to be no butter, no oil, now it's no gluten.
With the restaurant scene becoming increasingly casual, how do you feel about being a fine-dining restaurant?
There are two really fine-dining restaurants in L.A. What happens when Providence and Mélisse are done? We’re classic fine dining, but not in a sense of snobbishness. People sometimes don't realize that, and I think it’s important to hold on to that. Luckily we have a kitchen full of people who want to do this. But who's going to do it after? Because if there's no one training for this, you can't just do it. There are so many little details, and it's so challenging. The silver, the copper pots, it's a luxurious type of dining. We create a moment in time people will remember for the rest of their lives, and that is what fine dining is all about. In France, people would save for their whole lives to have dinner in a two- or three-Michelin-star restaurant. We're busy and Providence is busy. We both do pretty well business-wise, so I think there is a demand for fine dining, but it doesn't seem like there is a desire to do it.
What has been your most meaningful accomplishment at the restaurant?
The Michelin was pretty much the one. Especially for a guy like me, who was trained in France and is half French. I already had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to move back to France so I can get stars. It was always my dream before Michelin came here. Then when they came here, it was, like, I can have my cake and eat it too. We won best food in Zagat, like, three times. That's great, but the Michelen Guide ... I wish they would come back to L.A. When we got the stars, I took the whole staff out to Spago.
How has your food progressed during the past 15 years?
The food has changed in the sense that when I look at the menu, all the ingredients are the same, but now it's a little bit more subtle and refined. When you're younger, a lot of times you're cooking food and you add more, and it's, like, 'What does this need?' Now it's, like, 'What can I take away?' I know produce better too now. I always bought the best product, I was always seasonal, but I wasn't as seasonal as I could be. Now I have much more restraint. It used to be if the customer likes this then I'll get it. Now if it's not perfect, I'll just tell them it's not great. It's just confidence in what you're doing more. We stay pretty current with techniques between myself and chef de cuisine Ken Takayama.
Give us an example of a dish from the beginning, that you still make today, and a new dish on the menu.
The Dover sole dish has been on the menu since the beginning. The only way it's changed is in the presentation, not really the way we cook it. People have been coming here for 15 years to have this dish in the summertime. (The dish he's referring to is the almond-crusted Dover sole with sweet white corn, chanterelle mushrooms, scallion and brown butter corn jus served tableside.)
A newer dish on the menu is the Santa Barbara spot prawn. We had another prawn on the menu with eggplant compote and curry sauce and it was just a lot. Now, the prawn is served with pressure-cooked sesame seeds, sea lettuce that has been blanched and heated with some garlic butter, cucumber broth and prawn stock with warm cucumber on a plate.
What's next for you and for Mélisse?
I'm always striving to be better, and in a city that doesn't really have a fine-dining footprint, just seeing the restaurant full on a Tuesday night, I think, OK, we're going beyond the odds. We're always pushing that Michelin is coming back and we tell the staff we're pushing for that third star. Sometimes I think I've worked so hard, and at 19 years will we be popular enough to say I'm going to close at 20 and be sold out every night? But then I think in my mind, 20 years, it would be nice to just end it like that. I'm working on a project right now [according to LAist, it's a new, more casual restaurant called Charcoal]. I just think I want to make sure I keep it on a high note until it's over.
Getting hungry? Follow me on Twitter @Jenn_Harris_