The fryer in the kitchen at Mélisse crackled and sputtered to life on a recent afternoon as chefs Ken Takayama and Josiah Citrin fished out two golden-brown spheres the size of ping-pong balls. The smell of fried chicken and sharp cheese filled the air.
The orbs, sprinkled with cheese and jalapeño powders, were fashioned from ground chicken legs, herbs and sweetbreads, encasing a molten center of Mornay sauce that explodes like a soup dumpling when bitten into. It was a mix of old-school French ingredients and technique repackaged for the Instagram era.
It’s been 10 months since Citrin closed Mélisse, which he opened in Santa Monica 20 years ago. It was awarded two Michelin stars in 2009 and 2010, and was long a standard-bearer for fine dining in Los Angeles. But in March, Citrin closed the restaurant and announced he would split it in two: Now there’s Mélisse, a 14-seat, tasting-menu-only restaurant, and Citrin, a bistro serving what he calls California progressive cuisine. Citrin is scheduled to open later this month . Mélisse will open on Dec. 23.
“It was a huge risk and challenge to shut this down and do this,” Citrin said. “But I look around and see what happens if you don’t evolve. You go away.”
Of the fried chicken cheese balls with cheese and jalapeño powders, which will be on the menu at Citrin, the chef said they’re “something I would have never done 10 years ago.”
“We had to do some snacky things at the bar. When you have a la carte, you wonder who is going to actually order an entree themselves with the way people dine now.”
Citrin, who is a California native, opened Mélisse in 1999 when he was 31.
I always hear people say that fine dining is dead. I think it just evolves.
The chef said he has been giving a lot of thought to how fine dining and dining out have changed since he first opened Mélisse. He said he’s trying to balance the need to innovate with the desire to please Mélisse’s regulars.
“It’s really important that it’s fun food,” he said. At the a la carte Citrin, that looks like a potato dish with pancetta, persimmon and mint; oysters with fermented cucumbers, sorrel sauce and salmon roe; and a square of pumpernickel topped with a pink dollop of velvety potato-buttermilk-beet puree and a spoonful of caviar.
Along with the new stuff, Mélisse’s lobster Bolognese and egg caviar will soldier on at Citrin; its signature Dover sole has been reimagined, now served with fermented green tomato juice, green tomato butter and bits of salty dried olives.
“In 2008, I lost a lot of regulars when I went to a prix fixe-only menu,” Citrin said. “I’m hoping with Citrin we could go back. I want that crowd.”
The majority of the old Mélisse dining room is the new Citrin, with booths along the walls and tables in the center. Hot pink tiger-print Gucci wallpaper covers the ceiling of one restroom while a Gucci pearl-eyes print covers the other.
The revised Mélisse is a dimly lit, studio-apartment-sized space with a dining room that faces a large chef’s counter and kitchen. The white tablecloths are gone, replaced by bare wooden tables.
Guests will be taken to the chef’s counter for a house-made soda and a snack, then seated for dinner. Citrin anticipates serving about five canapés, followed by nine courses.
He’s still developing the Mélisse menu, but early iterations included king crab tartlets with hazelnut, Granny Smith apple, horseradish and dill; golden osetra caviar lightly smoked with buttermilk mousse and grilled seaweed bread; turbot slowly grilled over embers with chanterelle mushrooms and yellow wine sauce; and hay-baked chicken glazed with plum and Calypso bean miso.
“I always hear people say that fine dining is dead,” Citrin said. “I think it just evolves.”
1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-0881, citrinandmelisse.com.
Tickets for dinner at Mélisse will be $295 per person, plus optional supplements; the beverage pairing costs $195.
Mélissewill be open Tuesday through Saturday evenings. Citrin will be open daily from 5:30 to 10 p.m.