Bring the taste of France to your Passover table

One might expect the chef-owner of a haute cuisine, award-winning French-American restaurant, where l’addition can easily top $300 per couple, to be an egotist. One would be wrong.

Chef Josiah Citrin of Mélisse in Santa Monica, which earned the prestigious four-star rating from Mobil Travel Guide just 18 months after opening and was named Zagat’s No. 1 Restaurant in Los Angeles for French-American food, is a down-to-earth former competitive surfer, a mensch who participates in cooking and charitable events, and a serious chef who still loves his mom’s soy and honey-glazed chicken.

Check out Zagat: “Finest French food in L.A.,” “a classic deserving of its reputation,” “delicate flavors in every bite,” they warble.

But I did not come to discuss the osetra caviar or seasonal truffle menu. With Passover approaching I was looking for ideas. I aim high.

Citrin, who never took a formal cooking class, developed a love of cooking and fine food early in life. His father’s family is from France, and he grew up hearing his grandfather tell stories about the great French chefs.

But grandpa Ivan Citrinovich had other more frightening tales to tell. “He fled Poland during World War I when he was 13 and was injured in a bombing,” Citrin explained. “He escaped to Germany, made millions in steel there and then lost it. Most of his family were killed. He was very paranoid that it could all happen again. But for me, it’s hard to be scared when you grow up in California.”

Citrin’s mom was a caterer who ran a cooking school, and he took to cooking at home from the age of 12 as naturally as he took to surfing the Malibu waves.

In a bold move, he left for Paris after high school, reconnecting with his ancestral roots, to work at Vivarois and La Poste, developing a solid classical French background before returning to Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main and Granita, and Joachim Splichal’s Patina and Pinot Bistro.

“I worked for a kosher caterer in France too,” he recalled. “We did parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs. The rabbi was always drunk and would show up late. We couldn’t turn the stoves on without him!”

“But my worst experience was one time we had to make cow tripe. I cut a hundred kilos of tripe. You simmer it and it makes this beautiful Moroccan tagine. I left it out to cool, and the crew was supposed to come in and put it in the fridge. When I came in the next day it was still outside, bubbling.”

Citrin fondly recalls his childhood seders (“It’s the first time you get drunk, right?”) and will gather with his family this year at home. “I’ve done it with them coming here, and sometimes families reserve a private room for a seder. We use a reform hagaddah. It’s got a rap song in it!”

Brisket is on the menu, but with a twist. The oven-braised beef is compressed flat, then cut into squares and reglazed. “This is the same way we do braised short ribs here all the time,” Citrin said. “You can slice it the usual way if you want, but what’s the point of giving you a recipe if it’s going to be the way you always make it?”

The dish is an homage to his wife’s grandmother. “She made the same brisket for all the holidays: Passover, Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah,” Citrin recalled. “I had never seen it before. When I was growing up we had lamb or lemon chicken, different stuff on Passover. When Goldie passed away I started making it. The meat is so tender, but all the flavors ooze out into the liquid. When you glaze it down the flavors are reabsorbed.”

The stuffed gefilte fish is his mother’s recipe. “Sometimes I make it in a terrine, using the same fish mixture, and then cut slices. We serve it with the same sauce and a julienne vegetable salad.”

Citrin, dubbed “a farmers market junkie” by Los Angeles Magazine, emphasizes fresh ingredients. In fact “mélisse” is French for lemon balm, a Mediterranean herb.

“Because of the freeze, we’re behind right now,” he observed, “so we’re using root vegetables.” The recipe below was another from his mom. “They taste better just a little beyond crunchy — no California crunch,” he advised.

What’s in the future for Citrin and wife/co-owner Diane (“the first Jewish person I ever dated”)? There’s a cookbook in the works, and “I’d like to do Jewish second weddings. We’re closed on Sundays anyway. This is the perfect room for 40 to 50 people,” he said, pointing to the sun-filled atrium, “with the aisle here and the chuppah at the end. And the glass always breaks on cement, not like on the grass.”

1 cup pitted chopped dates
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/3 cup sweet Manischewitz wine
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and minced
3 tablespoons chopped almonds
2 tablespoons matzah meal
1 tablespoon chopped Meyer lemon, zest and rind included, or 1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons chopped orange zest
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
Pinch of ground fennel

In a large bowl, combine dates, apricots and wine. Add chili pepper, almonds, matzah meal, lemon, orange zest, ginger and fennel. Mix well. Set aside at room temperature until ready to serve.
Makes about two cups.

Gefilte Fish Wrapped in Napa Cabbage With Tomato-Tarragon-Horseradish Emulsion
For the fish:
1/2 cup matzah meal
5 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
2 heads Napa cabbage
1 pound whitefish fillet, cut into cubes
1/2 pound pike fillet, cut into cubes
1/2 pound carp, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced
2 tablespoons tarragon, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne
Zest of 3 limes, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into julienne strips
2 leeks, cut into julienne strips

For the sauce:
Yolks of 2 large eggs (use only farm-fresh eggs kept under refrigeration or a pasteurized egg product)
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons grated fresh horseradish
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

Place matzah meal in a bowl. Mix with 1 cup of the stock and set aside.
Submerge cabbage in a large pot of boiling water. As the leaves soften, remove and place in ice water. Separate leaves, keeping them whole. You will need 12 unbroken leaves. Dry well. Trim the central rib so the leaf is of uniform thickness all around and will lie flat.