Chopped liver is to Jewish grandmothers as Sunday gravy is to their Italian counterparts. But while that simmering, sputtering vessel of blood-red tomato sauce has been memorialized, fetishized and obsessed-over by chefs both amateur and professional, humble chopped chicken liver hasn’t generally benefited from that sort of thought.
The reimagining of it at Citron and Rose, though? This shifts the paradigm.
Silky orbs of grilled-then-pureed liver glistened in their sour-cherry gelee, the enrobing layer like some kind of couture for offal. These were impaled on toothpicks and set atop a soil-looking mass of cocoa nibs and pumpernickel bread crumbs, lightly pickled baby carrots and raw turnips and radishes scattered throughout. It looks like some kind of beautiful diorama of a farm, and finally makes clear the potential for the grandmotherly classic to be a star outside of the quintessentially matzoh-ball- smelling kitchen.
The chickens that gave their lives for this dish did not die in vain, nor did they for the more classic preparation of rotisserie-roasted breasts and thighs. Whole birds were marinated in honey, paprika, lemon juice and more, allowed to dry for several days (almost Peking-duck style), and then roasted on the spits rotating behind the chefs in the open kitchen by the bar. A breast and thigh, as well as their accompanying potatoes, were finished in a pan with schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, and arrive glazed an evocative shade of red-brown.
The magic here is about working within strict guidelines and perfecting what you can do. Citron and Rose, after all, is kosher, which means that, in order to avoid any possibility of meats coming into contact with dairy, the latter is cut out of the equation entirely. What’s so bracingly exciting about the work that executive chef Michael Solomonov and chef de cuisine Yehuda Sichel are doing is that it’s the clearly defined limitations they have to work within that have led to the explosive flavors they’re creating.
This Main Line restaurant uses the traditional Jewish foods of Europe as inspiration, but never finds itself mired in accepted cooking wisdom simply for tradition’s sake. The flavors are familiar, but often recast as something more elegant than they typically achieve in this country. (That liver dish, Sichel later told me, was inspired by one at a kosher restaurant in Paris. The team at Citron and Rose hopes to usher in a new era of exploring these foods like any other regional or ethnic cuisine; they’re really trying to change “the way that people really look at kosher food.”)
House-blended pastrami spice is used to brilliant ends, both in a velvety salmon crudo accompanied by orange supremes and beets, all beneath a snow-flurry of microplaned horseradish, and luscious beef tartare vibrating with pickled green tomatoes and celery. Accompanying bone marrow croquettes were a thoughtful, addictive addition.
All this is accompanied by a wine program that, though the offerings are mevushal—pasteurized, essentially—is food-friendly and thoughtful. A California Chenin Blanc, mouthwatering and kissed with ripe fruit, was perfect with the schnitzel, especially forkfuls loaded with the remarkable puree of apple and celery root.
Cocktails, like the food, embody a sense of joy in the exploration of flavor and spice, and occasionally with a wink. The spicy Magyar Daisy gets its heat from tequila infused with pepper, and a whiff of smoke from rinsing the glass with Laphroig. The hilariously named “Reb Roy” is defined by a sophisticated, almost Port-like sweetness obtained by aging Manischewitz, that notoriously sweet mule-kick of a wine, in little barrels. If only I’d had the option of drinking something like that at my bar mitzvah all those years ago ...
Desserts, perhaps a hair less ambitious than what precedes them, are nonetheless well-wrought updates on classics. Chocolate hazelnut blintzes are essentially rolled-up Nutella crepes; the accompanying scoop of sour-cherry ice cream lent it a sense of brightness. And babka demonstrated just how complex a spice good cinnamon can be as opposed to the slowly dying canisters of powder most of us keep in the pantry.
Kosher food, perhaps more than any other in this country, is deeply misunderstood. Citron and Rose, however, is fantastic food regardless of classification. Jewish grandmothers should start getting ready: Their star turn may be just around the corner.
Citron and Rose
370 Montgomery Ave., Merion. 610.664.4919. citronandrose.com
Cuisine: Updates on European Jewish cuisine.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 5:30-10pm.
Price range: $9-$31 (and a dry-aged ribeye for two is $79).
Atmosphere: Sophisticated and convivial.
Food: Exciting and stereotype- demolishing.
Service: Friendly, professional and very well trained.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014