CARPACCIO of "surf, turf and earth" is laid out on a square platter -- a fabulous mosaic of raw beef, tuna, salmon, scallop and roasted pepper, each round decorated with a wisp of frisee or a pretty pink grapefruit segment, the whole pulled together with a drizzle of basil and kumquat oils. Each bite is different, making a melody of flavors that dances across the palate.
Another dish, listed as "Scallop scramble not 'Eggsactly' " is a play on texture that would intrigue any Chinese chef. A puzzle to solve, it's actually a pillowy scallop mousse cooked with a little saffron that uncannily mimics the mouth feel of soft-scrambled eggs, with bits of delicious sweet scallop standing in for the curds. The whole thing is crowned with a single scallop that wears a crunchy shaggy coating of shredded filo dough.
At dessert time, an adorable meringue mushroom arrives standing upright in a pool of pistachio sauce dotted with chocolate pearls. Cocoa dusts the top of the mushroom cap. When you touch it with a fork, the cap falls away to reveal chocolate ice cream and thick whipped cream inside. The contrast in temperature and texture is a delight, and the artistry behind it so skilled it's almost offhand.
Michel Richard is back -- in a virtual way, as consulting chef at Citrus at Social Hollywood, part of Jeffrey Chodorow's update of the historic Hollywood Athletic Club. The original Citrus, Richard's French-California restaurant, opened in 1987 and defined an era in L.A. dining with Richard's inventive and delicious cooking and the casual setting accented by white market umbrellas unfurled beneath high ceilings. (His pastry shop on Robertson Boulevard was a mecca for foodies too, and though it still bears his name, he no longer owns the shop.)
In 1998, the portly chef decamped with his family to devote himself to his then 4-year-old restaurant Citronelle in Washington, D.C. That launched Phase 2 of an extraordinary career that began when Richard was an apprentice pastry chef in France. Now he's considered one of the best chefs in the country, and on a level with the top toques in France.
Which brings us to this new gig. Despite its romantic decor, the Moroccan-themed restaurant with which Chodorow opened Social Hollywood two years ago wasn't working. The bar crowd wasn't adjourning for dinner, nor were people pouring in from the pounding club scene next door. Without a name chef to draw in the foodies and scenesters, the restaurant never developed a following.
New York entrepreneur Chodorow, who owns Asia de Cuba and China Grill, among others, is no dummy. His solution: Bring in a chef whose name has resonance in L.A. And while you're at it, bring back the name of the chef's signature restaurant as well.
A consulting chef who lives 3,000 miles away could be a recipe for disaster, but Richard has found an extremely capable chef to execute the menu. Remi Lauvand was executive sous chef under Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque and executive chef at Montrachet, both in New York. Most recently, he was chef at Miro at Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. Here, under his direction, the kitchen is executing the menu with grace and formidable skill. But that's not the only change at Social's restaurant.
Reflecting the scene
Citrus at Social now has its own entrance on Sunset Boulevard. Instead of dark and romantic nooks framed by canvas curtains, the room has been opened up and decorated in sunny citrus colors. The pillars are mirrored now, the better to reflect the scene and the original Hollywood Athletic Club's stunning frescoed ceiling discovered during renovations. A rug warms the room and slipper chairs and banquettes are upholstered in mint -- or is that pale lime? -- green satin.
Without the private crannies, the dining room seems more elegant and spacious, with plenty of room between the tables. In fact, this may be the most glamorous room in all of L.A. at the moment.
The food makes just as grand an entrance. Richard's training in pastry and his wonderful eye mean his dishes are flat-out gorgeous. He also loves a visual pun. A tin of beluga is set before you, the lid slightly askew, the better to show off the glistening dark gray caviar. But it isn't beluga at all (and a printer's typo means the tin reads "begula"): It's actually Israeli couscous dyed with squid ink with lobster and a soft-poached egg tucked beneath the layer of faux caviar. Nothing in the appetizer's description would lead you to expect this. It also happens to be delicious.
At the very top of the succinct, one-page menu is a list of appetizers designed for sharing. This includes Richard's chicken "faux gras," a small crock of silky blond chicken liver mousse topped with a layer of emerald gelee to spread on thick slabs of toast. It's a terrific way to start a meal. Another is the onion tart, either plain or with smoked salmon and creme fraiche. Both feature a gossamer-light pastry crust blanketed in soft, sweet caramelized onions. Or an order of the warm gougeres tucked under a napkin, perfect with a glass of Champagne.
Mussel chowder is the color of stone, the soup poured over small, beautiful mussels at the bottom of the bowl. Luscious and ever so slightly creamy, it has a graceful lilt to it. Cuttlefish carbonara is another tour de force, which makes Nobu's famous squid "pasta" seem clumsy in comparison. No noodles are involved. Instead, it's tender, sweet cuttlefish cut to resemble fettuccine -- a subtle ode to texture. Escargots is so rich it's better to share than eat all yourself; it's something like an escargots crumble, with the earthy nuggets disposed in three small crocks, each topped with mixed chopped nuts in a parsley sauce.
Lauvand is turning out very polished food at Citrus at Social. Big question: Will the coterie of fine diners from the Westside make it this far east on a regular basis? And will the condominiums and the W Hotel going up in Hollywood be built in time to save the day? From the looks of it, they don't seem to be turning the tables much, even on the weekends.
Main courses, such as lobster with fennel, hold up their end of the menu admirably. One of Richard's signature dishes, a beautiful curl of lobster tail is presented with the perfectly cooked claw on a bed of braised baby fennel. The simplicity of the presentation allows the full flavor of the lobster to come through, brilliantly. Charred and rare duck breast is accompanied by a stack of thick julienned carrots and a silky, refined orange sauce that comes through with just a touch of bitterness that's lovely.
Monkfish is served with a pine nut risotto pinched into a diagonal line and a swirl of caramel Asian-accented duck jus -- and it's about as good as this meaty fish gets (when it's not dried out, as it was on one visit). But how does the chef cook the short ribs for 72 hours and end up with such a fantastic texture -- as if each molecule of the meat is standing at attention? They're cooked sous vide in a special low-temperature oven. Delicious as the short ribs are, I'd almost order them for the fries on the side. Fried in clarified butter, they're crisp and golden-edged on the outside, fluffy and moist inside. Watch out: You'll have to guard these from your dining companions.
The wine list is sophisticated, but not super-extensive, rich in Burgundies and other French wines with California selections that are, on the whole, less interesting.
A fine finish
The dessert course is strong. There's that mushroom-shaped vacherin (filled meringue). The "Kit Kat Bar" is a long rectangle of chocolate with a layer of fine hazelnut praline inside and crowned with a cookie that looks like a chocolate sunrise. There's an intriguing orange souffle that comes on a plate with four sections. One part is the free-standing souffle (not baked in a mold) with its intense orange flavor and a cloud-like texture. The dish is finished with citrus wedges, caramel sauce in a little pitcher and a bowl of softly mounded whipped cream. Dig in.
Service from waiters in long-sleeved solid-colored shirts and ties is genial and relaxed. But the front of the house can be ditsy. Sometimes the welcome feels lukewarm, other times calculated.
No one who arrives on time for a reservation should be asked to wait in the bar when there are obviously plenty of empty tables -- nor should the party be led to the worst table, as we were one night. The next time, fully expecting the same stupid move, we're given a spacious corner banquette instead, which is a great place to watch the goings-on. It's an entertaining parade of metrosexuals in cocky hats and fashion victims in weirdly wonderful creations checking the place out. They're mixed in with older couples who savor each bite and each sip of their wine over the course of the meal.
With all that the new restaurant has going for it, it may not have enough action for the trendy Hollywood crowd and probably not enough for the fine-dining crowd either, who crave specials and tasting menus and more pomp and circumstance. This is not Citronelle or even the original Citrus but an abbreviated take on Michel Richard's cuisine performed by an excellent chef and his team. Even that is quite a lot, and Citrus at Social easily outshines most of the recent newcomers in town. There's not a boring dish on the menu. Well, maybe the lobster burger, but it does have its fans.
The surprise is coming out of the restaurant on a weekend night to the parade of girls in shivery dresses with no wraps and guys in leather jackets and hip-hop gear lining up to get into the club that occupies another part of the building. Two crowds, the dining and the club, passing in the night.
Citrus at Social
Location: Social Hollywood, 6525 Sunset Blvd. (at Schrader Boulevard), Hollywood; (323) 337-9797; www.citrusatsocial.com.
Ambience: Chic new iteration of the restaurant at Social Hollywood in the historic Hollywood Athletic Club building. Now it's all sunny citrus colors with mirrored columns and a stunning frescoed ceiling. The menu is from consulting chef Michel Richard (now of Citronelle in Washington, D.C.), one of the best chefs in the country. As executed by chef Remi Lauvand, the food is witty and polished.
Service: Genial and attentive.
Price: Appetizers, $10 to $21; main courses, $29 to $46; sides, $8; desserts, $11 to $12.
Best dishes: Chicken "faux gras," onion tart, mussel chowder, mosaic carpaccio, cuttlefish carbonara, lobster with fennel, 72-hour short ribs, duck orange, mushroom vacherin, orange souffle, kit Kat Bar.
Wine list: Stronger on French and global selections than California ones. Corkage fee, $15.
Best table: One of the corner banquettes.
Details: Open for dinner from 6 to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, until 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $10.
To see a photo gallery, go to latimes.com/food.
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.