Chef Josiah Citrin of Mélisse in Santa Monica, which earned the prestigious four-star rating from Mobil Travel Guide just 18 months after opening and was named Zagat's No. 1 Restaurant in Los Angeles for French-American food, is a down-to-earth former competitive surfer, a mensch who participates in cooking and charitable events, and a serious chef who still loves his mom's soy and honey-glazed chicken.
Check out Zagat: "Finest French food in L.A.," "a classic deserving of its reputation," "delicate flavors in every bite," they warble.
But I did not come to discuss the osetra caviar or seasonal truffle menu. With Passover approaching I was looking for ideas. I aim high.
Citrin, who never took a formal cooking class, developed a love of cooking and fine food early in life. His father's family is from France, and he grew up hearing his grandfather tell stories about the great French chefs.
But grandpa Ivan Citrinovich had other more frightening tales to tell. "He fled Poland during World War I when he was 13 and was injured in a bombing," Citrin explained. "He escaped to Germany, made millions in steel there and then lost it. Most of his family were killed. He was very paranoid that it could all happen again. But for me, it's hard to be scared when you grow up in California."
Citrin's mom was a caterer who ran a cooking school, and he took to cooking at home from the age of 12 as naturally as he took to surfing the Malibu waves.
In a bold move, he left for Paris after high school, reconnecting with his ancestral roots, to work at Vivarois and La Poste, developing a solid classical French background before returning to Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main and Granita, and Joachim Splichal's Patina and Pinot Bistro.
"I worked for a kosher caterer in France too," he recalled. "We did parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs. The rabbi was always drunk and would show up late. We couldn't turn the stoves on without him!"
"But my worst experience was one time we had to make cow tripe. I cut a hundred kilos of tripe. You simmer it and it makes this beautiful Moroccan tagine. I left it out to cool, and the crew was supposed to come in and put it in the fridge. When I came in the next day it was still outside, bubbling."
Citrin fondly recalls his childhood seders ("It's the first time you get drunk, right?") and will gather with his family this year at home. "I've done it with them coming here, and sometimes families reserve a private room for a seder. We use a reform hagaddah. It's got a rap song in it!"
Brisket is on the menu, but with a twist. The oven-braised beef is compressed flat, then cut into squares and reglazed. "This is the same way we do braised short ribs here all the time," Citrin said. "You can slice it the usual way if you want, but what's the point of giving you a recipe if it's going to be the way you always make it?"
The dish is an homage to his wife's grandmother. "She made the same brisket for all the holidays: Passover, Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah," Citrin recalled. "I had never seen it before. When I was growing up we had lamb or lemon chicken, different stuff on Passover. When Goldie passed away I started making it. The meat is so tender, but all the flavors ooze out into the liquid. When you glaze it down the flavors are reabsorbed."
The stuffed gefilte fish is his mother's recipe. "Sometimes I make it in a terrine, using the same fish mixture, and then cut slices. We serve it with the same sauce and a julienne vegetable salad."
Citrin, dubbed "a farmers market junkie" by Los Angeles Magazine, emphasizes fresh ingredients. In fact "mélisse" is French for lemon balm, a Mediterranean herb.
"Because of the freeze, we're behind right now," he observed, "so we're using root vegetables." The recipe below was another from his mom. "They taste better just a little beyond crunchy -- no California crunch," he advised.
What's in the future for Citrin and wife/co-owner Diane ("the first Jewish person I ever dated")? There's a cookbook in the works, and "I'd like to do Jewish second weddings. We're closed on Sundays anyway. This is the perfect room for 40 to 50 people," he said, pointing to the sun-filled atrium, "with the aisle here and the chuppah at the end. And the glass always breaks on cement, not like on the grass."
Charoset 1 cup pitted chopped dates 1/2 cup dried apricots 1/3 cup sweet Manischewitz wine 1 small red chili pepper, seeded and minced 3 tablespoons chopped almonds 2 tablespoons matzah meal 1 tablespoon chopped Meyer lemon, zest and rind included, or 1 tablespoon lemon zest 2 teaspoons chopped orange zest 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger Pinch of ground fennel
In a large bowl, combine dates, apricots and wine. Add chili pepper, almonds, matzah meal, lemon, orange zest, ginger and fennel. Mix well. Set aside at room temperature until ready to serve. Makes about two cups.
Gefilte Fish Wrapped in Napa Cabbage With Tomato-Tarragon-Horseradish Emulsion For the fish: 1/2 cup matzah meal 5 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock 2 heads Napa cabbage 1 pound whitefish fillet, cut into cubes 1/2 pound pike fillet, cut into cubes 1/2 pound carp, cut into cubes 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced 2 tablespoons tarragon, minced Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 3 large eggs, separated 1 tablespoon paprika 1 teaspoon cayenne Zest of 3 limes, finely chopped 2 carrots, peeled and cut into julienne strips 2 leeks, cut into julienne strips For the sauce: Yolks of 2 large eggs (use only farm-fresh eggs kept under refrigeration or a pasteurized egg product) Juice of 1 lemon 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup vegetable oil 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 3 tablespoons grated fresh horseradish 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon
Place matzah meal in a bowl. Mix with 1 cup of the stock and set aside.
Submerge cabbage in a large pot of boiling water. As the leaves soften, remove and place in ice water. Separate leaves, keeping them whole. You will need 12 unbroken leaves. Dry well. Trim the central rib so the leaf is of uniform thickness all around and will lie flat.Grind the fish in a meat grinder on medium setting (if you don't have a meat grinder, pulse in food processor until mostly ground with a little texture remaining). Place in a mixer bowl and set aside.
Heat oil in a small skillet and sauté onion over medium-low heat until translucent. Add onions, parsley and tarragon to fish and season with salt and pepper.
In a separate bowl, lightly beat egg yolks and mix into the fish. Add matzah meal mixture and mix well with the paddle attachment.
In another bowl, beat egg whites until medium peaks are formed. Fold into fish mixture. Taste for seasoning by poaching a small amount of fish mixture in simmering water. Chill in cold water; then taste and adjust seasonings.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
In a small bowl, mix paprika and cayenne. Place cabbage leaves on a flat work surface and sprinkle with lime zest and paprika-cayenne mixture. Place 2 heaping tablespoons of fish mixture on each leaf. Roll into balls, completely enclosing fish mixture. Place cabbage balls, seam side down, in a large sauté pan. Pour remaining 4 cups of stock over cabbage balls; scatter carrots and leeks over them and bring to a simmer. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Let cool completely in stock, then remove and refrigerate.
Prepare sauce: In a food processor or blender, place the egg yolks, lemon juice and salt and process until very well blended. With the processor on, slowly add oil until the mixture thickens. Transfer to a large bowl. Fold in chopped tomatoes, grated horseradish and chopped tarragon. Cover and chill in refrigerator until needed.
To Serve: Place cabbage balls on a plate; then arrange vegetables on top and drizzle the sauce around.
Makes 12 servings.
Roasted Root Vegetables 4 pearl onions, peeled 4 red pearl onions, peeled 4 cippolini onions, peeled 6 tablespoons olive oil 3 teaspoons sugar Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 8 baby turnips, peeled 8 baby carrots, peeled 8 small fingerling potatoes 1 celery root, cut into large dice 12 large grapes, peeled 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme 1 teaspoon chopped lemon zestIn a sauté pan over medium heat, glaze all the onions with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook until onions are nicely glazed. Set aside.
Repeat this process with the remaining vegetables, using the remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil, the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar, a pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside. (If it becomes too oily as you cook it down, add water by the tablespoon.) Up to this point, this can be done the day before.
When ready to serve, heat the vegetables in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat until nicely glazed. Add grapes, herbs, lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste and toss through to heat.
Makes eight servings.
Red Wine Braised Brisket 6 cups dry red wine 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 6 to 7 pounds brisket, trimmed of excess fat Salt, to taste 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed Matzah cake flour, for dredging (after Passover all-purpose flour may be substituted) 6 cups reduced-sodium beef or chicken stock 5 cloves garlic, chopped 1 medium onion, sliced into 1-inch pieces 1 medium carrot, sliced into 1-inch pieces 1 rib celery, sliced into 1-inch pieces 1 medium leek (well washed and dried), sliced into 1-inch pieces 2 sprigs thyme 6 sprigs Italian parsley 1 bay leaf 1 tablespoon tomato paste Freshly ground white pepper and salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Pour wine into a large saucepan set over medium heat. Bring to a boil and allow wine to reduce by half. Remove from heat.
Heat oil in a Dutch oven or casserole over medium-high heat. Season brisket all over with salt and crushed pepper. Dust the brisket with cake flour. When the oil is hot, sear the brisket four to five minutes on each side, until well browned. Transfer to a plate and remove all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the pan. Lower the heat and toss in the vegetables and herbs. Brown the vegetables lightly, five to seven minutes; then stir in tomato paste and cook for one minute, stirring to blend.
Add wine, stock and browned brisket to the pot. Bring to a boil; then cover the pot tightly and put in the oven to braise for three hours or until brisket is fork-tender. Skim fat from the surface every 30 minutes or so.
Remove brisket and place on a baking tray lined with wax paper. Place another piece of wax paper on brisket and put another tray on top. Put brisket in refrigerator and place a 2 pound weight on the top baking tray. Let press overnight. Strain cooking liquid and let cool. The next day scrape the fat from the surface.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Cut brisket into eight equal squares about 5 to 6 ounces each. Place pieces in a baking dish. Bring cooking liquid to a boil and cover brisket. Place in the oven, basting often, until brisket is nicely glazed, about 35 minutes. Carefully remove meat to a heated dish, cover and keep warm. Strain liquid through a chinois into a saucepan. If it is too watery, reduce until it coats the back of a spoon. About 3/4 cup will remain. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
To Serve: Heat a large platter. Place brisket on the platter, drizzle with half the sauce and serve the remaining half in a sauceboat. Arrange vegetables around the brisket.
Makes eight servings.
Mélisse is located at 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 395-0881 or visit http://www.melisse.com.
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of "Cooking Jewish: 652 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family (Workman, Summer 2007), www.cookingjewish.com.