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Hotel Minimal

An unorthodox approach gives zest to Hotel Valencia's Citrus

By Aaron Robinson

HOTEL RESTAURANTS may be culture's last refuge for the single gourmet. The number of tables with one-person occupancies the night we dined at Citrus, in Santana Row's Hotel Valencia, made it look as if we'd crashed a singles-club dining party, but these were just hotel guests, hungry strangers looking to socialize. This initially peculiar aspect turned out to be one of our favorite things about Citrus. Here, camaraderie between tables doesn't have to be forced—people are so interactive it's almost comical.

The loungelike dining room is very clean, almost sterile, with red-sand ceilings that look as if they had been brushed with a Zen garden rake. From the dining floor, you can't see a bar or a buser station, just symmetrically situated booths. Earth-toned colors invoke a sense of peace and meditation.

The gentleman sitting to our right was quite eager to fill us in on his experience with Citrus' somewhat unorthodox style of cooking—starting with his recommendation of the warm apple and onion tart ($9), a large crepe that is set up, pizzalike, with hardy, barely cooked sliced onion and apple and spackled with pungent Maytag blue cheese.

After the piquancy of the tart, we summoned tequila shrimp with orange chimichurri ($9). The spectacle of flaming skewered prawns sizzling on a metal plate inspired visions of flavor that were not delivered on. Though the prawns were fresh, there was no detectable marinade or seasoning, and the chimichurri sauce went missing.

This scourge of underseasoning continued in our soup course in both the watery French onion and the lobster and cognac bisque (both $4 a cup)—but it was nothing a few pinches of salt and a dash of pepper couldn't make better.

The Citrus menu's main charm is that it allows the diner to configure his own recipe for jazzing up the otherwise unembellished main courses. There is a selection of rubs, intended to spice up any meat or fish, the add-on of prawns or a lobster tail, the sauces and the sides. Basically, you get to create a personal masterpiece. My attempt at this very amusing concept resulted in a 6-ounce filet mignon ($22) with a coffee-spice rub, baked acorn squash filled with dried fruit, apples and fresh herbs ($5), roasted garlic fries with black-truffle essence ($5) and a very well seasoned, grilled 6-ounce lobster tail with drawn butter ($14).

I decided to forgo the cognac-peppercorn sauce I had in mind, in order to allow the coffee rub some space to shine. As a result, I savored my tender, though slightly overcooked, tenderloin without much flavor; the rub proved too subtle. I then became envious of the gentleman next to me as he spooned béarnaise sauce from a little metal pot onto his steak with murmurs of approval.

The fact that many dishes suffered a seasoning deficiency made me think that maybe this chef's palate is just more refined and acute than the average human being's, or maybe he just wasn't there that night to dole out the final touches.

The side dishes, however, were fantastic and full of robust flavors, most notably the fries, with which my date's swordfish special ($19) with wild rice and citrus butter sauce could not contend, so she munched down as many crunchy golden frites as she could stomach and boxed the fish to go.

Our server bet us the whole check amount that we would fall head over heels in love with the chocolate hazelnut torte ($7). Fortunately for her, we savored every last morsel of the ultrasilky texture, nutty caramel-colored swirl and incredibly fresh coulis that bore the natural sweetness of puréed organic strawberries, and not the sweetness of refined sugar.

I really respect Citrus' culinary approach. Even though the execution of flavor can at times be underdeveloped, it's daring and inventive, which is usually the first step on the road to culinary greatness.

Citrus in the Hotel Valencia
Address: 355 Santana Row, San Jose
Phone: 408.423.5400
Hours: 5:30-9:30pm Mon-Sat
Cuisine: New American
Full bar

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From the July 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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