In the nick of time, a chef from Toulouse

Times Staff Writer

FIRST there was Citrus, Michel Richard's seminal French-California restaurant on Melrose. Then came Citronelle in Santa Barbara, and Citronelle in Washington, D.C. After Richard left California to move East several years ago, he focused his attention on Citronelle there, turning it into one of the capital's great restaurants. Meanwhile the Santa Barbara restaurant languished. But now, for the first time in 10 years, it has a new chef.

She's Isabelle Alexandre, a Toulouse native who worked with Richard in Washington and at his now-defunct Bistro M in San Francisco. After stints as chef de cuisine at Pastis in San Francisco and, most recently, as executive sous-chef at Le Meridien Hotel in Lisbon, Alexandre's peripatetic career brings her to this comfortable French-California restaurant in the Santa Barbara Inn.

The fact that Alexandre wears two Swatch watches, one set to California, the other to France, is a perfect metaphor for her cuisine at Citronelle. Athletic-looking with a strong confident stride, she wears her hair swept back into loose, no-nonsense roll, and a double-breasted chef's jacket curved in at the waist. In her restaurant, she is not at all an aloof presence but comes out into the dining room to check on each table.

The space is airy and light. Ceiling fans twirl lazily overhead. The ample wicker armchairs are still there, but some of them have been replaced with plain wood library chairs, which aren't nearly as inviting. After dark, the restaurant's lights are turned low, the better to highlight the view of sea, sky and the swaying palm trees along the beach -- a postcard dream of California.

It's jarring, though, to walk through a garishly lighted hotel lobby that smells of some obnoxiously perfumed cleaning product to get to the elevator that goes up to the third-floor restaurant. And the open kitchen with extremely bright lights pounding down on a bare tile countertop seems a relic of another age. There's nothing particularly fascinating to see, and the view of stacked plates or rolls of plastic wrap is unappealing. But the view out the windows and Alexandre's cooking go a long way toward overcoming the restaurant's aesthetic handicap.

Refined selection

As soon as I open the menu, I realize Alexandre has sense. Instead of overreaching, she has pared her menu to nine first courses and even fewer main courses. And most of them sound interesting. Though the menu doesn't mention it, our waiter tells us we can order the "tower" of appetizers to share; that is, any three. It's sort of an insider thing, he says.

One that's a must is the "porcupine" shrimp. A signature Citronelle dish, it's meaty shrimp, tails on, enrobed in kataifa dough, which makes them look like they're wearing a shaggy coat of shredded wheat. The shatteringly crisp kataifa and the delicately sweet shrimp are a good foil for the silky potato puree beneath, but a piquant herb mayonnaise is the note that pulls it all together.

Crispy escargots tries on the same idea, but isn't as successful. The snails look like strange sea creatures trailing wavy troll-like hair. But aside from the texture, the taste of the earthy morsels and mushrooms in a dark wine-soaked sauce is delicious. Alexandre's broiled eel carpaccio is terrific. The plate covered in thin slices of tender, slightly smoky eel looks like a piece of Venetian mosaic.

Alexandre has another surprise up her sleeve with her foie gras. It's cooked in a porcelain ramekin and has the texture of a foie gras custard, and is covered with the thinnest brulee of dark caramelized sugar. It's a goofy idea, but it works, precisely because there's nothing sweet about the foie gras itself.

Fortunately, the wine list is bulging with wines that could go with any or all of the above dishes. There's something for everyone from expensive, famed Bordeaux and Burgundies to affordable, interesting bottles, such as L'Ecole Merlot from Washington or Guigal's Crozes-Hermitage from the Rhone Valley that complement her cooking.

One night an enthusiastic young maitre d' answers questions about some new Central Coast wines authoritatively. He knows the winemaker, the history of the label, even the vineyards where the producer gets his grapes. He'll bring the correct glasses for the wines too. Another night, a laconic maitre d' isn't the slightest bit concerned about bringing better glassware for the wines being poured. However, the waiter is.

A creative osso buco

MAIN courses for the most part take fewer chances. Alexandre has some fun with the Italian classic, osso buco, though. Hers is braised veal cut into pieces like a daube, or stew, in a sauce that has gathered up all of the richness of the bones. The marrow bone standing upright on the plate turns out to be trompe l'oeil: It's actually a sculpted, hollowed out potato, which I discovered only when I tried to ferret out the marrow with my spoon. If you feel like beef, she has an enormous cote de boeuf served in a skillful reduction with wonderful salardaise potatoes sauteed in duck fat and a frisee salad in mustard vinaigrette.

Lamb, rolled in a pretty basil crust, is less exciting. But her duck two ways, which pairs slices of rare breast with a typical duck confit served, atypically, atop an apple risotto, shows off her southwest France roots.

When someone at the table asks about special menus, Alexandre says she loves to do them, but during the week when it's not quite so busy. Tuesday or Thursday with a few days' notice, please. Later, a friend who lives in Santa Barbara arranges for a six-course menu for four, telling Alexandre only that we'd like some local seafood and maybe some game. And that we eat everything.

I'm not sure she quite believed him, because the menu she cooked didn't break out much from Citronelle's regular menu. With her background I would have expected a more sophisticated menu, which didn't rely on yet another seared scallop dish or another version of duck two ways. But it may be she's still trying to fathom what will go over in Santa Barbara.

Two of the dishes were absolutely first-rate. She wrapped a striped pasta dough of saffron and squid ink around a gorgeous filling of fresh crab and lobster to form an elegant and very French cannelloni. And then she sauteed foie gras in verjus (the fresh, sour, unfermented grape juice) and perched it on a bed of endive cooked with sugar so it caramelized. The sweet and sour played off the richness of the foie gras.

Dessert brought out the child in all of us. It was a French toast "surprise," brioche with a cushion of creme brulee inside scribbled over with raspberry coulis. Alexandre's first cooking job was as a pastry chef at Epicure in Paris, and her skill is evident in all the desserts at Citronelle.

Now that she's in the kitchen, Citronelle no longer feels neglected. There's a new energy in the dining room and a focus to the cooking the restaurant hasn't had in a long time. And while Citronelle may not yet be a destination restaurant, Alexandre is doing some of the best cooking in Santa Barbara.

*

Citronelle

Rating: **

Location: Santa Barbara Inn, 901 E. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara; (805) 963-0111.

Ambience: A sophisticated, California casual restaurant -- hidden on the third floor of a small beachside hotel with a garish lobby. The dining room feels far away, though, with wraparound views of the Pacific and palms along the shore, and comfortable decor with wicker armchairs, twirling ceiling fans and widely spaced tables.

Service: Considerate and on the mark.

Price: Dinner appetizers $7.50 to $18; main courses $24 to $39; cheese plate $12; desserts $8.

Best dishes: Porcupine shrimp, broiled eel carpaccio, brulee foie gras, veal osso buco style, cote de boeuf, duck two ways, French toast surprise.

Wine list: Bulging list of French and Central Coast wines. Corkage: $20.

Best table: One along the window with a view of sea and sky.

Details: Breakfast, Monday to Friday, 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Lunch, Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday to Thursday and Sunday evening, 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Free valet parking.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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