L.A.’s Spectacular $295 Restaurant Is Also a $13 Restaurant
Fine-dining king Josiah Citrin's happy hour is the city's best kept secret.
One of two restaurants Citrin opened in December at the Santa Monica space where he debuted his original in 1999, the new Mélisse is a 14-seat dining room with an open kitchen that serves an elegant and elaborate 10-plus-course tasting menu. Citrin and his longtime right-hand man, chef Ken Takayama, might start the $295 meal off with canapés like a wagyu tartare beggar’s purse, followed by a leek chawanmushi with an abalone base, uni-laden scrambled egg, and caviar. A gently warmed Hokkaido scallop, cooked on a Silpat with a layer of seaweed, is at the perfect temperature to showcase its sweetness and firmness. A duck press is used for spiny lobster when it’s not used for duck, wild game, or vegetables.
The other restaurant Citrin has opened in his 4,500-square-foot-space is the eponymous 99-seat Citrin, an upscale à la carte neighborhood restaurant that has one of the best happy hours in the city. And Citrin's dinner menu includes two of the chef's greatest hits: the caviar egg and lobster Bolognese that were showstoppers at the old Mélisse.
Here, Citrin really lets loose. He’s got a whole “dirty chicken” that’s a nod to home cooking and a celebration of those caramelized bits you get when you roast it. In this case, there’s chopped Meyer lemon, garlic, and sautéed brioche bread crumbs on the chicken.
From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the restaurant’s 22-seat bar, you can order a UFO oyster for $4.50, a wagyu meatball for $7, some Japanese yellowtail for $8, or a smaller portion of lobster Bolognese with capellini and brown-butter truffle froth for $14 (compared to the $34 version on the dinner menu that’s a little more than twice the size) while you drink $10 cocktails, $10 wine, or $7.50 beer. There’s also a bar-only cheeseburger, which is called the Mélisse Burger even though it’s at Citrin for $13.
The chef, who also serves a version of this cheeseburger at some of his other L.A. restaurants, including Charcoal, Openaire, and Costa Manhattan Beach, says that it’s a “super simple burger.” But if you talk to him for a little bit, you’ll realize that the burger is made with the same kind of attention to detail as his fancier food.
“I use sirloin, short rib, chuck, some rib-eye scraps,” Citrin says. “But more than anything, it’s about the ratio of the burger.”
He takes a Rockenwagner bun and cuts out the middle. He puts on a single piece of lettuce and some housemade Persian-cucumber pickles. He makes sure the slice of tomato on the burger is one-third the thickness of the patty. There’s a “secret sauce” that includes soy sauce, ginger, honey, rice vinegar, ketchup, wasabi, and mayonnaise.
The sourcing at both Mélisse and Citrin is impeccable; you'll find ingredients like Badger Flame beets that are grown in California with seeds from Dan Barber’s Row 7. Mélisse serves UFO oysters from Blue Island Oyster Company with green tomato juice, fermented plum granita, and daikon. (Citrin laughs as he points out that Blue Island calls these oysters UFO because they are the “ultimate fucking oyster.”) Citrin is a master of French technique, but this is very much modern Californian food.
“I want people to come in all the time,” Citrin says of his happy-hour pricing. “So far it’s working. I want to draw in a young foodie crowd who might not be able to afford everything else, but they can eat this. I want this restaurant to be available to everybody and to have that vibe. When you walk in and you see the bar, the vibe changes. It becomes less stuffy. It becomes the place to go.”
Citrin and Mélisse, 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 310-395-0881