.First Bite

Citrus & Spice

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.

View All

Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren’t your standard “bring five friends and order everything on the menu” dining reviews.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

North Bay Bohemian E-edition North Bay Bohemian E-edition