Best Milkshake, Best Bar Snack, Best Wine List at a Beer Bar, Best Homage To an Iconic Philly Food… It would be hard to argue that there weren’t enough awards in Philly Mag’s 2013 “Best of Philly” issue. We gave out 286 in all. But for me, the most interesting was the one I came to think of as number 287:
Best Evidence That God Looks After His Own.
Because isn’t that really what made Citron & Rose the most compelling restaurant opening of the past year? Sure, we could have slapped a Best Kosher Restaurant label on the place. But talk about a backhanded compliment. You might as well tell people, “Yep, if you’ve truly got no other option, that’s the place to go.”
No, what distinguished C&R was that it was good, period. Here was kosher food that anybody would want to eat.
But then, right around the time we were narrowing down the winners, everything seemed to change. Michael Solomonov, the Zahav chef who’d been instrumental (as a consultant) in making Citron & Rose what it was, parted ways with owner David Magerman. Citron & Rose chef Yehuda Sichel was leaving with him. Nobody quite knew what was going on. But it was starting to seem like Best Evidence that God Gets The Chosen People’s Hopes Up, Just To Totally Harsh Their Buzz.
It would take a little while for the picture to get clearer. Magerman wanted to branch out in a bunch of directions—lunch, breakfast, a catering arm—all aimed more at community-building than kitchen artistry for its own sake.
But culinary ambitions didn’t go out the window. Into Sichel’s shoes stepped Karen Nicolas, whose work at Equinox in Washington, D.C., won her recognition as one of Food & Wine’s best chefs of 2012. Nicolas is a journeywoman (New York, San Francisco, Sydney, Las Vegas) who liked the idea of moving back to her home state. The fact that she “didn’t really know anything about Jewish cooking” made her an interesting choice to run C&R’s kitchen—all the more so because that’s apparently what Magerman was looking for. When Nicolas responded to the Craigslist job posting, “I didn’t realize it was kosher, or Jewish,” she says. “It wasn’t in the ad.”
She learned on the fly, assuming kitchen duties in May and implementing a new menu toward the end of July. I went to check it out in August.
I found a subtly different restaurant—and many of the changes weren’t improvements. For starters, general manager Eilon Gigi, whose attentive hospitality made a real difference to one of my meals under the old regime, was gone. There’s really no replacing his particular brand of low-key charm. I feel sure that he would have stepped into the void created by our server, who pounced on our table seeking our order before we’d had as much as a minute to look at the menu, and then seemed to punish our inability to speed-read by ignoring us for long stretches during the remainder of the evening.
What is there to say about the crawling pace that was the result of his inattention? It may have been a boon, I suppose, to lovers of Elton John, who featured heavily in a pop playlist that slid from “Rocket Man” to “Your Song” by way of “Hotel California” and “American Pie.” There might not be any dairy at Citron & Rose, but there’s a fair bit of cheese.
The food, though, has come through the transition looking and tasting better than I expected. With a couple of exceptions, Nicolas’s cooking was lovely. It was often lighter than I remember Sichel’s being—in tune with the summer—but not at the expense of full-throated flavors. Standouts included crispy bourekas filled with eggplant and some terrifically smoky smoked lamb; house pastrami served with toasted rye bread that had been kicked up with mustard seeds and powder; and a salmon filet flanked by delicate Swiss chard blintzes, smoked hazelnuts, and a basil-flecked hash of corn so fresh and sweet you could practically still feel the sun’s warmth in its kernels. Twice I wished for a little restraint—or just better menu disclosure. There was a lot to like about an appetizer of roasted marrow bone, snow-dusted with shaved horseradish, accompanied by a salad sporting thin slices of pickled veal tongue. But the contrasting textures and flavors were eclipsed by an overdose of truffle oil that hadn’t been part of the dish’s menu description. And when I ordered the chicken schnitzel—which was delightfully crispy but not oily, and complemented by peaches that were just as refreshing as I’d hoped they’d be—I wish I’d have known that half the plate would be given to a ferociously intense chicken-liver emulsion.
I wouldn’t order those again. But I couldn’t have asked anything more of the broccoli-raisin-treviso salad, which got a creamy mouthfeel despite the dairy prohibition thanks to a rich hazelnut dressing. And I’d jump at the chance to get a second round of Nicolas’s veal pierogies. They swam in a veal-braise broth that hummed with an infusion of sauerkraut, and the shredded meat within the delicate pierogies packed for flavor than any veal I can recall.
“Wow, this is like pulled—um...” said one person at our table, cutting himself off before he could finish his forbidden porcine thought. And so it was.
I’m glad there are still such moments—like the surprise discovery of a pitch-perfect tiki cocktail (“The Jerusalem of Gold,” which tempers the sweetness of Drambuie and pineapple juice with Fernet and lime)—to be had at Citron & Rose.
I may not be part of the community David Magerman’s has narrowed his focus around, but I would still be glad to join them for dinner from time to time.
Citron & Rose [Official]
Review: Keeping It Kosher At Citron & Rose [Philadelphia magazine]