Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
The summer roll at Citrus & Spice in downtown San Rafael is stuffed with ribbons of roasted duck and fresh, juicy mango brightened by a wand of red bell pepper. The thin rice paper wrapper bulges almost to the size of a small burrito, tucked with chopped iceberg, purple cabbage, carrot, cellophane noodles and cucumber. There's no expected cilantro, no chopped peanuts and no highly fishy sauce (nam pla ); the dip is instead a thick, sugary-fiery blend that's friendly enough to eat with a spoon.
The appetizer ($8, lunch; $9, dinner) is nontraditional, but darn, it's delicious. Cut into four massive sections and propped color-side-up on an electric-orange fan of shaved carrot, it looks like edible pop art.
It's also a perfect example of what Citrus is trying to achieve since opening last spring in a small, avocado-and-tangerine-painted space that, while chic, would feel sparse if the food itself weren't so decorative.
Essentially Thai, C&S adds a "California" accent, meaning the occasional addition of fruit (a terrific spicy calamari and grapefruit salad, $8.50 and $10), a few fusion nods (mild Indian chicken curry wrap, $7.50), and hard-to-categorize bites like sweet corn and taro fritters ($6.50 and $7.50).
That also means a light touch with the brilliant herbs and seasonings that are traditionally Thai. Which would be a shortcoming if the kitchen weren't as meticulous in the seasonings it does use.
Coconut chicken soup ($6.50 and $8) is so lightly sweet it's floral, bobbing with fat slices of mushroom, lemongrass and a drizzle of hot chile oil. The peanut sauce ladled over satisfyingly chewy slices of beef is subtle, too, velvety and studded with crunchy bits of nut on a bed of spinach and wilted bok choy ($7.50 and $8.50) alongside crisp-blanched broccoli and a heaping scoop of jasmine rice.
For such a small space, the kitchen puts out an ambitious menu, ranging from a complex curry noodle soup bobbing with chicken and pickled mustard cabbage ($8) to ginger-curry baby-back ribs decorated in lemongrass and shrimp paste atop green beans ($14). Not all of it works. I couldn't get my mind around what a roasted eggplant wrap with red bell pepper, mushroom and garlic-goat-cheese yogurt ($7.50) might be, and indeed, it was pretty much nothing but mushy.
But I ordered the "emerald salmon green curry" ($11) because it sounded so pretty, and I wasn't disappointed. The fish was expertly meaty and crisp-edged, the sauce balanced lots of fleshy chile heat with lime, sweet roasted peppers and a nest of fried basil leaves, and the whole tasted sparkling fresh.
I don't often order dessert at a Thai house (enough with the sweet sticky rice and red bean ice cream), yet C&S offers a creative selection. House-made pumpkin spice cake with ice cream ($5) is moist and fragrant, though a banana crêpe ($5) was gummy.
It's an evocative name for a cafe, Citrus & Spice, and, largely, the experience is just as stirring.
Citrus & Spice, 1444 Fourth St., San Rafael. Open for lunch and dinner Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. 415.455.0444.
Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.