Cafe Reviews

French Fried

Perhaps it's not fair of me to be so disappointed with Café Citron. It could be that I'm too jealous of one of my friends, he being a very lucky guy with an adorable new villa in Provence, that magical, picturesque region of southern France. He's spending the summer there, basking by the seaside, gazing at glorious mountainscapes, frolicking in lush forests and traipsing across bucolic villages for his daily repasts of fine country food and drink.

I, meanwhile, am sitting at a bare patio table at the French-themed Citron in Scottsdale, just about fainting from heat exhaustion. I'm supposed to be meeting another buddy here for dinner -- it's 7 p.m., my friend is late, and Café Citron is closed. It's about a million degrees out, and this is the second time this has happened, the me-trying-to-get-dinner-at-Citron thing, and being shut out.

I am not a happy camper. Yes, I realize that the Valley is a place where during the hot months so many of our restaurants take on such weird operating hours that sometimes it's almost too much bother to go out for a meal. But I'd called a mere two hours earlier to check on dinner service, and the restaurant staff had politely faxed me a menu without mentioning they wouldn't be serving it that evening. It's a repeat of last week, when my lunch server told me that Citron had just opened for dinner hours -- but when I returned at 8 the following evening, the place was dark. A wandering security guard shrugs that the place had shuttered early since things were so slow. Then, just a few days later, I discover that Citron has decided to take August off, closing for "remodeling." Like I'll be willing to come back in September for this?

So now, I'm not only mad at Citron, I'm thinking dark thoughts about my French home-owning friend. He stopped back into town recently, to negotiate a book deal no less, and if that weren't maddening enough for my envious little mind, he insisted on sharing his photo album, packed with pictures of his adorable new pied-à-terre. The walls are painted the color of fruit; the kitchen is tiny and perfect, and in one shot, my pal has captured a sprawling landscape of rolling hills directly outside of his windows, the shutters thrown open to capture the breeze. Each day, he tells me, he begins with a delicate pastry and fresh-pressed coffee at a street-side bistro; each evening, his day winds down with a platter of artisan cheeses and a bottle of some brilliant wine or another.

Which is exactly why I wanted to go to Café Citron. The place seeks to be a European coffee shop just of this sort. It's set appropriately enough in the Renaissance castle-like upscale shopping oasis that is the Borgata of Scottsdale, a mall I've always enjoyed not because I can afford to buy anything at its luxe shops, but because it's so pretty to see. The bistro is cute as a button, too, quite French looking with its racy lemon-hued walls, white linen tablecloths and soft classical music playing gently in the background. There's nothing lacking in the service when I can actually get in, quiet and friendly with complimentary tastings offered of the cafe's signature gelatos and sorbets. And there's little wrong with the way the menu reads, brief as it is with an acceptable handful of Parisian-style breakfast and lunch dishes, pastries and teas.

But it takes me only one visit to get completely bored, bored, bored. If this restaurant's owner is putting his heart and soul into this eatery -- opened this spring by William Nasralla, also owner of Davinci Collezione, a fancy fashion and home accessories shop in the mall -- I'm not getting the message. No matter what time of day I visit Citron, no matter what I order, something always goes wrong. Ultimately, I never feel like I'm anywhere but in a sizzling baked-brick shopping mall, trying to survive another Valley summer and paying too much for only okay omelets, salads and sandwiches.

Picky? I know the muggy weather has me feeling cranky, but I don't think I'm asking too much for some physical comfort along with my $11.95 pear-chicken salad. It's difficult to feel too cosmopolitan when one lunch finds me sweating through my shirt because either the restaurant's air conditioning is broken, or management is saving some cash by leaving the front door open and cooling us with the breeze of spitting, sputtering misters spraying the front patio. The nibble-size plate of grilled chicken breast is good, decorated with peppery baby greens, slices of sweet pear, tomato, red onions, candied walnuts and goat cheese in a splash of fresh raspberry vinaigrette, but I'm too sticky to enjoy it.

Other visits find the pastry case stripped almost bare, with just a few stray muffins, one lonely crème brûlée, and assorted diners gulping plain iced teas instead of selections from Citron's lauded cache of loose-leaf teas like first-flush Darjeeling, Yunnan green tea, Assam, and a raspberry concoction flavored with hibiscus, apple and rose hip. I won't be returning for a silly club sandwich either, served on superb baguette but extraordinarily meager with a few thin deli slices of chicken breast, limp bacon, tomato, lettuce, a slice of Swiss and a slip of mayonnaise. It could be that management thinks my lighter, inferno-afflicted appetite won't mind the petite portion of Mediterranean salad, layered with little bits of couscous, Kalamata olives, feta and a non-remarkable gazpacho vinaigrette. But I do, when I'm paying $9.95 for a dish I could get for a lot less many other places.

No, I've decided I'm being completely fair in not appreciating this mediocre restaurant. Café Citron is no French fantasy I care to inhabit.

Over lunch at another French cafe, the always lovely Sophie's in central Phoenix, another friend and I are comparing notes on our crazy summer dining scene. She's convinced nobody goes out to eat after the temperatures hit 110, and if they do, the restaurants can't be making any money. Given the flurry of half-off coupons and special "sizzling savings" offers that arrive in my mailbox every day, I'm thinking she might be right. That Café Citron doesn't open for breakfast until 9 a.m. doesn't work for me -- it's already too hot by then to consider wolfing down seven-grain French toast filled with mascarpone and bananas under Frangelico syrup. When other restaurants are practically begging for my business, I'm not exactly charmed by forking out $8.95 for a nice enough but hardly notable omelet tucked with mushrooms, onions, fresh herbs and Gruyère, or $7.95 for a spinach, garlic, tomato and fresh basil model.

I adore the niçoise salad served at Sophie's. It's a masterpiece of seasoned and grilled ahi tuna fillet with romaine hearts, fresh white anchovies, hard-boiled eggs, olives and roasted garlic aioli. My server at Café Citron promises me this bistro's version is like "seafood filet mignon," and it's fine stuff, with ahi seared rare, tossed with boiled red skin potatoes, crisp green beans and pear tomatoes in a light red wine vinaigrette. Still, what's up with charging $14.95 for an appetizer-size plate, in a place that has gorgeous views of a babbling fountain in the mall's open-air courtyard, but requires that I dribble ice cubes down my chest so I don't swelter?

Some dishes are just lazy. Café Citron has a croque monsieur -- it could hardly be a self-respecting French bistro without one. There's so little of the excellent grilled ham, though, virtually no trace of cheese, and nary a lick of béchamel that I resent being charged $6.95 for what's essentially a bread sandwich. Sophie's has taken its excellent croque off its summer menu, but I can still get a superb rendition at Christopher's French cafe in the Biltmore, bargain-priced at just $9.95 at happy hour through the fall (all the free A/C we can suck up included). There's barely any roast beef in a watercress, tomato and horseradish sandwich; and just a thin veil of prosciutto in an asparagus, poached egg and Gruyère concoction.

Amazingly, Café Citron doesn't serve wine. There's no cheese plate (need I point out that both Sophie's and Christopher's have some of the most tempting, well-priced imported cheese selections in town?). Small food portions maybe I could overlook, even at these prices, but no goblets of sparkling grape to sip? Sacrebleu!

My friend, basking in the glory that is his true, fantastic French palace, could only laugh.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet