Pretty Vacant

Photo by Keith MayOur county has an early-to-bed reputation, and there is evidence to support it, like the fact that you don't need a reservation to get into most great restaurants, even at the last minute, even on a Saturday night. I walked into a French place a few nights ago, a Saturday at 7 p.m., height of the dinner hour, the place not quite abuzz with conversation and porcelain/flatware clatter, approached the keeper of menus and asked for a table. Did I have a reservation? she wanted to know. I looked over her shoulder at the half-full hall. Did I need one? I asked. She drew her breath in sharply, really alarmingly, her hair falling across her face as she consulted her seating chart under a cone of soft light. She might have a table for me, she allowed.

Which brings us to Citrus City Grille. How can a place that combines the solidity and mathematical predictability of a diner with interesting juxtapositions of flavor be this freaking empty? The place is cavernous—there's a long, bending wall along a 60-degree curve on one side, as if this is half of what used to be a roller rink—with what looks like enough tables for a marching band or a papal visit, a severe tile floor that appears hacked from some serious stone like granite, and a bar as brightly lit and crowded with bottles and glass as the duty-free at LAX. And almost no customers.

My only mistake is the Seven & 7; I'm half in the bag after half a glass, lose my control before the foccacia, start dipping a loaf's worth into the oil and balsamic, and begin to feel as fat and drunk as Churchill by the time there's nothing but ice in my glass. This gluttony on my part intrudes on my abilities as a reporter, I'm afraid—leashes me in just a bit when the thick, peppery broccoli soup arrives alongside a warm spinach salad about which I could wonder endlessly: How did the first egg eater persuade his or her friends to eat unborn birds? What is it about the warmth of the bacon dressing and the photosynthetic properties of the spinach leaf—which, despite the heat of said dressing, remains hothouse firm—that makes such a salad feel like we've consumed a sunny park?

And there's a disco tune. Who chooses the music in our restaurants? I mean, really: What if I'd brought someone from New York?

My guest is from OC, though, and has chosen a chicken thing done Southwestern. I'm over Southwestern—grew up in the 1980s and couldn't use something as sharp as Occam's razor, even, to separate Southwestern cuisine from new-wave music, Ronald Reagan in the White House, and creepy pink-and-white Santa Fe interior design. But my companion, having none of my hangups about the whole Southwestern thing, is pretty much delighted by the tender chicken and the sharp-as-curry-but-not-curried white corn and side of wild rice. The latter (viz., the wild rice) has always struck me as staff-of-life stuff, heavy on the staff—woody, splintery even, good for you, but not good. But she's deeply enchanted by this and urging a forkful on me, which, it turns out, is not barkish at all but quite tender.

More disco. And now Madonna, doing "Beautiful Stranger" from the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack. Really.

My companion isn't as wild about her chicken as I am about my ravioli—even though I'm near-inebriated. As a child, my tastes were blunted by an Italian-American chef whose visage appeared on a can, but not so dulled still that I can't detect the myriad fine flavors—"fine" in the sense of highly detailed, delicate or subtle—of Gorgonzola or the weird balance achieved by sun-dried and regular, diced, sautéed tomatoes.

In the past, we've tried—and relish trying again—the pork chop in a demi-glaze that emerges from a reduction of beef broth and red wine and then (here's the surprise) figs. When my companion says her chicken and her pork chop experiences at Citrus City Grille are "interesting," she doesn't mean it ironically, as in "indescribably bad" or "perpendicular to human taste receptors." She means "Who the hell thought this up?"

More disco.

CITRUS CITY GRILLE, LOCATED AT 122 N. GLASSELL ST., ORANGE, IS OPEN Tues.-sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. (714) 639-9600. DINNER FOR TWO, $40-$50, FOOD ONLY. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted.


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