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Pop the Cork!

Pop culture: Drink in the atmosphere at Citrus Champagne and Vodka Lounge.
Mark A. Manger

When the woman in the little black dress spit a mouthful of Champagne at her date, everyone in Citrus Champagne and Vodka Lounge tensed up. Was she now going to slap him across the face? Throw her glass across the room? Shoot him and drop the gun on her way out?

He wasn't going to wait to find out. "It's a ring, it's a ring," he yelled, and she held the glass up to the light to inspect it. "Oh, my God, oh, my God," she said, alternately laughing and crying, "I thought it was a bug." She calmed down enough to answer "Yes" to the big question, and they fished the ring out of the glass. Then they slurped down the rest of its contents to the cries of "Go, go!" from nearby diners.

There are few luxuries in life more accessible than Champagne. It's there for the wedding toast, the new baby, the promotion, the housewarming gift. Bottles of bubbly are broken across ships and uncorked with tomahawks; anniversaries and retirements are made all the more sweet when a sparkling glass is raised in observance. And, of course, the question can be popped while the ring sits at the bottom of the glass.

But more and more people are discovering that Champagne isn't just for special occasions. Bubbly's increasing availability in a wide range of prices means we can start thinking of Champagne as the other white drink when it's time for dinner. It goes well with most foods -- you can drink it as an aperitif, with the meal and then with dessert -- and comes in a variety of flavors. And there's no denying that even the most mundane experiences suddenly seem special the second the cork pops and the first fizzy splash hits the flute. You don't even have to wait for it to breathe.

We're talking, of course, about real Champagne with a capital "C," the beverage invented by Benedictine monk Dom Perignon. In order to be called Champagne, the wines must be made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or Chardonnay grapes grown in the Marne, Aube, Aisne, Seine-et-Marne or Haute-Marne départements, and the entire arduous process of turning the wines into Champagne via méthode champenoise -- which involves a lot of pressing, racking and blending -- has to take place in the Champagne region as well. The stuff made in the United States, while sometimes fabulous, is technically not Champagne but sparkling wine.

Citrus offers both Champagne and sparkling wine, and the restaurant is as bubbly and refreshing as the beverage it celebrates. The four-month-old eatery and lounge occupies an odd but interesting Union Station space that had been A Bar, Larry Walker's and Flat Pennies. Owner Francois Safieddine (he also owns Blue 67 and used to run the Purple Martini, Cosmo Lounge and Fettoush with his brother, Phillipe, who retained ownership) dealt with the high ceilings by hanging light fixtures that look like enormous orange corn husks; he addressed the room's awkward shape by putting a bar and tasting lounge in the front and about a dozen tables for serious dining, including a handful of very groovy, very cozy booths, in the back. Hanging here and there on the industrial-style walls are photos of blindfolded women smoking cigarettes with their breasts exposed. I don't know what it all means, but it has an undeniable appeal.

The bar is particularly intriguing, a great grazing area that's usually filled with beautiful people. The preening cocktail waitresses wear little black dresses that make them blend right in with the clientele; the servers wear black shirts, black pants and black aprons, with their choice of orange or lime-green ties. Despite what would seem a high potential for pretension, though, on our visits the staffers were friendly, efficient and reasonably knowledgeable about food and drink. (Server Haidee Chayman deserves special mention for being so charming we almost hated to leave.)

The Champagne roster was a joint effort of general manager Chad Smith and chef Sheamus Feeley, and while it is one of the more extensive in town -- over forty regular-sized bottles, four splits and four magnums -- it's also one of the costliest. For instance, a bottle of Bruno Paillard's non-vintage Brut Rose retails for about $43; at Citrus, it's $90. The Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label costs $33 at a wine store; here it's $85. You can get Iron Horse's Russian Cuvee for about $20 around town -- unless you're at Citrus, where you'll need to fork over $55. And that's the cheapest bottle they've got, baby. Granted, eateries make their money from booze, but a 300 percent markup on this stuff is pretty rough, and as one local wine merchant points out, "Restaurants usually get better wholesale prices than I do." (Citrus's vodka by-the-bottle list seems equally overpriced.)  

What makes the Champagne prices easier to swallow is the reasonably priced menu that Feeley created to go with the bubbly. "That was the fun part," he says. "I love Champagne, and I really worked hard at coming up with dishes that would complement it." Although he's just 24, Feeley has spent the better part of his life learning about food, starting as a youngster in kitchens run by his father, a French-trained chef. "Legitimately working -- that wasn't until I was fourteen," Feeley adds. "And I started at the bottom, cleaning toilets and prepping -- although not at the same time, of course." By the time he was out of college, where he studied journalism, he'd realized that he was only putting off the inevitable. "Being a chef," he says, "is in my blood."

In addition to cooking, Feeley also likes to fly-fish, so he left his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for Denver. "Okay, I was a little wrong on that one," he admits. "The fly-fishing is actually better there." After stints making sushi at Wolfgang Puck's and then serving as chef de cuisine at Sacre Bleu, he and his wife decided to go to Europe for a while, where Feeley worked at Maxim in Paris and La Capoule in Monte Carlo. "When we came back, we found out my wife was pregnant, and we decided we either wanted to go to France or San Francisco," Feeley remembers. "But then Francois asked if I'd be interested in working here, and so that's what I'm doing."

He's doing it with the kind of flair and savvy that usually requires much more age and experience. Feeley's dishes -- are we calling this kind of cuisine "New American" or "fusion" these days? -- are simple but sophisticated. They're all about balance: using good ingredients and keeping the number of components small. So his crisp potato cake topped with smoked salmon tasted like nothing more than potatoes and smoked salmon (too many versions pack onions in the spuds), with just a smooth crème fraîche and a tiny dollop of sevruga caviar to augment the main flavors, adding the ideal amount of creaminess and saltiness. Crème fraîche also made a difference in the golden corn soup, where its sour flavor hit just the right note against a sweet, super-smooth liquid that had the perfect not-too-thick, not-too-thin consistency. Adding curry to the mussels while they steamed was another smart move, as was the scattering of lemongrass, lime leaf and fresh basil; the Asian-influenced dish had a likable ying-yang of sour against the sweet mussel flesh.

The standout starter, though, had to be the baby lobster with potato gnocchi. (Lobster goes very well with Champagne, by the way.) The two petite lobster claws had been cooked flawlessly so that the sweet meat was still soft and juicy; they'd been paired with fresh, also-sweet English peas and buttery gnocchi whose thin, golden crusts protected hot, velvety centers. Pancetta provided the needed salt, and a reduction of amontillado, a well-aged and nutty-flavored Spanish sherry, gave the dish a unique final twist.

Lobster was also the key ingredient in the risotto, creamy rice enriched with the lobster's coral and augmented by just enough rosemary to inject a faint lemony element without overwhelming everything else. Judicious seasoning also boosted the pan-roasted walleye, which arrived awash in a saffron- smooched fennel broth that was well matched by plush pieces of summer squashes studded with pine nuts and golden raisins. Feeley's love for freshwater fish explains the walleye -- a rarity in these parts -- and he did right by the pike perch in searing the exterior until the interior of the dense, mild flesh just started to turn opaque. He also handled the yellowfin tuna well, grilling the fillet and then pairing its strong taste with an equally strong kalamata-dotted butter sauce.

The true testament to Feeley's way with ingredients, however, was a most unlikely dish to find in a place like Citrus. The brick-roasted free-range chicken was drop-dead delicious, its crispy skin more reminiscent of fried chicken than baked, and the flesh inside dripping with juice. The bird arrived atop a mound of potatoes so smooth, creamy and fluffy they seemed almost unreal. "The trick there is working it about 300 times," says Feeley. "I use Joel Robuchon's technique of only salting the water and then putting the potatoes through the ricer and the tamis." (A tamis, also known as a tammycloth, is a strainer covered in cloth that separates things like potatoes into their tiniest molecules.)

With the exception of a massive bowl of that risotto, the portions at Citrus weren't generous. But they were just right: big enough to fill, but not so big that we didn't have room for dessert. And we tried all three that were offered. A molten-center chocolate cake was served warm enough that the center was almost liquid, with a pungent Armagnac-spiked custard sauce adding still more moisture. The rich, tongue-tempting mascarpone sorbet qualified as a true sorbet, made from a simple syrup (a solution of sugar and water), mascarpone (a buttery, triple-cream, cow's-milk cheese from Italy) and lemon juice. For the unusual black-tea-and-cinnamon crème brûlée, Feeley used lapsang souchong tea, a smoky brew that doesn't leave a bitter aftertaste but rather a softer, rounder quality that was punched up by the cinnamon. It sounded weird, but it worked.  

Citrus is a worthy addition to the restaurant scene -- and that's reason to celebrate. Break out the bubbly.


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