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At Citrus Bistro, Good Things Come from Big Packages

Never trust a skinny chef, you say? Didier Viriot, chef and owner of Citrus Bistro.
Eli Luna

Remember the old saying "never trust a skinny chef"?

Well, our waiter—the one with gunmetal hair—nods toward the back room where Didier Viriot ambles back and forth, carrying his bulk confidently. The implication is clear: Have faith in the chef and his restaurant, Citrus Bistro.

But should you trust a man based on waist size alone? Hell, Karl Rove and John Sununu look like over-stuffed Butterballs. Viriot, happily, has the belly but not the bluster. Consider, for example, his menu descriptions. There's no "hand-minced prime Texas Wagyu-Angus hanger steak with Pantelleria capers, Maldon salt and Vidalia onions" or anything like that. Nope, just a listing for beef tartare served with French bread that barely describes the old-school presentation with raw egg and all. The line for duck confit just says that—nothing more except a mention of green lentils.

This is a place without posturing or braggadocio, the kind of restaurant where the chef doesn't worry about putting a pretty face on things, and the diners who stumble upon it don't really care. One night it was a middle-aged man entertaining his grandmother. As they left, he leaned over to ask about my calamari. Wanted to order it, he said, but out of respect to his squid-fearing grandma...

The calamari is brilliant, with light breading that cracks easily to reveal a malty flavor sparked by crystals of salt. Inside, the meat resists slightly, releasing a warm flavor before melting away as much as squid can melt away. It's irresistible. If a big screen were mounted in one corner carrying the game, you could shovel down a few platefuls without noticing. Keep in mind that Viriot's kitchen, which he shares with Gaspar Stantic, is probably smaller than those in many of the Dallas sports bars. If he can do this with rubbery seafood, why can't they?

Oh, yeah—training. Viriot and Stantic learned classic French technique, and it shows. The duck confit is just what it should be: hearty, brown and savory. Built over sweet sausage, lifted by explosions of spice, the gamy taste of the meat lingers. It's like well-cured bacon, except in this case the salty presence clings so tightly to the duck it seems like part of nature, subtle and warm. There's nothing subtle in the chef's use of salt in the tartare, on the other hand. If the dish were, say, a Rush Limbaugh speech (hmm...a fat glob of meat? Yeah, that works) and salt represented vitriolic absurdities, there'd be enough of it in there to keep the big man fuming for three or four days—kinda like an insane old guy on drugs or something. But when you spread the tartare on toasted French bread, the piercing flavor calms dramatically.

The minced beef starter is one of a few items without noticeable citrus. Even the duck confit has a slice or two of mandarin orange on top. Sometimes the chef can get carried away by the Citrus Bistro theme. Other times, the heavy-handed use of fresh citrus works—for instance, a row of perfectly prepared scallops, cushy and tender, sits under crust developed from...well, something sweet and salty.

Mostly salty—so they ruined the tricky shellfish, right? Fortunately, no. The pool of sauce spreading around the plate comes across like mandarin-infused buttermilk, so it needs a handful of Morton's to slice through it. And setting scallops on puffy couscous adds a pillow of soft, soothing comfort.

This is eating for either the smart set or for cheapskates who want to bring their own wine. The restaurant refuses, for now, to suffer through the painful process of getting an alcoholic beverages license. While the rest of the world basks in freedom, a world where people can order decent table wine or bring their own without fear of breaking some law, we live in the 12th century...I mean, the Bible Belt. Of course, if you are, "unaware" of the restaurant's BYOB policy the first time you drop by, the suckers—uh, I mean servers—pour up freebies. (They can give wine away and be right with the blue nosers' law, but they can't make you pay for it without a license. Go figure.) Your second trip, you can try the old "I didn't have time after work to pick up a bottle" ploy and score some free wine, but only a desperate cheapskate would pull that trick.

It worked for me. Sure, they give away a table wine of dubious pedigree, but it's f-r-e-e. (What part of desperate cheapskate didn't you understand?)

I don't know how long I could have kept up the plausible excuse thing. Citrus Bistro is in a well-heeled neighborhood not known for freeloading—although a couple across the aisle one evening proudly displayed a bottle of Walmart's finest, which is as next to nothing as you pay for wine without a couple of 20s on the label.

Women in Ann Taylor Loft; the men with Trent Lott haircuts and jackets so dated you half expect to see leather patches sewn onto the elbows; bring your own booze and lot parking with no valet stand...yeah, this is not exactly what you'd expect for Preston Hollow. Maybe the funky, "coat of many colors" exterior threw everyone off, 'cause this certainly isn't a place for hipsters. Well, those who were groovy in the '70s, yes; the PM Lounge crowd, no.

Perhaps the Walmart couple didn't expect to find a kitchen worthy of a better bottle. One from Costco, for instance.

But Stantic and Viriot's cooking is generally right on. The Chilean sea bass is stark and flaky, sitting on a bed of crisp green beans seemingly rinsed in garlic broth. The delicate, house-smoked salmon curls around avocado drizzled with citrus (of course), the entire plate framed by colorful pebbles of roe. And the tomato sauce brought out alongside the calamari slips from sweet to bitter and back, with a bold peppery note lurking in there, as well. If they miss, it's when the kitchen stretches beyond classics. Soft-shell crab is far too chewy, for example, the meat pummeled by a rich and butter-garlic drizzle. Fortunately, it's a non-menu special. The desserts can seem like afterthought items too. We finished up with a chocolate ganache topped in something advertised as crème Anglaise but smacking of aerosol and tin.

Oh, well. The chefs were trained in France. They would naturally scorn anything of English name. The Brits only really saved their cross-channel friends once, after all, unless you count that meaningless spell on the beaches of Normandy.

Anyway, Citrus Bistro is not a dapper place. Narrow, rickety and convivial as hell, it feels just like the neighborhood spot the owners designed it to be. But the food deserves destination restaurant status. And if you can't trust a chef with some added heft, at least appreciate a place where waiters feel free to call their boss "fatso"—out of earshot and without using that precise word, of course.

5930 Royal Lane (southwest corner), 214-750-6282. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$$

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Citrus Bistro

5930 Royal Lanene
Dallas, TX 75230-3849

214-750-6282

www.citrusbistro.com


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