Food & Drink Elephants on parade

Why does Citrus sit empty while V Bar is packed?

The V Bar at the Valencia Hotel on the River Walk is reputed to be one of the Alamo City's current hot spots for the swell set. Must be the slinky chain curtain that divides the bar from the second-floor lobby. Or maybe the lure of coconut lobster tails washed down with a La Vanille Sky. But if the bar sometimes sizzles, across the lobby serene Citrus sits practically patronless. And this is a shame.

Pan-seared diver scallops with jumbo shrimp risotto and a tomato, basil, and shellfish reduction. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Granted, Chef Jeffery Balfour's menu lacks a certain focus, leaping as it does from Asian to Mexican to Italian to Cajun. But critics are generally the only people preoccupied with thematic consistency; most diners would be delighted with appetizers that range from jumbo blue-crab cakes with roasted jalapeño and toasted pumpkin seeds to Parmesan-crusted calamari steaks, white oyster and chicken gumbo, and pan-fried shrimp tortelloni.

Pale and creamy, the "gumbo" proved irresistible, if only for its anomalous nature - no dark and rusty roux here; fried oysters and okra were the only real nod to convention, though there was a hint of heat. Pulled chicken added a Southern accent to the soup, which was a success despite its mongrel pedigree. Less convincing was a wonton-wrapped tortelloni: Large and free-form, it floated in a green onion and ginger ponzu that was too assertive for the subtle shrimp filling of the chewy but otherwise malfatto packet. Good idea, impressive presentation, unconvincing execution.

Of course, we could have gone back to the V Bar for a La Vanille Sky, a drink that contains Amarula Cream, an exotic South African liqueur made from the fermented fruit of the Marula tree, a favorite of baboons and elephants.

At the beginning of the evening, there were only three occupied tables in the dining room. Now, we were down to two, but our meal was just beginning to sizzle. Passing on sea bass (over-fished), South Texas ostrich (texturally risky), and shallot-crusted pork tenderloin (too obvious), we tucked readily into a plate of pan-seared diver scallops with risotto and a tomato, basil, and shellfish reduction. This was one of those rare cases in which the plate delivered was even more luxurious than the plate promised. The seared scallops were large, luscious, and possessed of perfect texture; two jumbo shrimp were interlocked atop the very creamy risotto; and copious amounts of lump crab were blended into the rice. Just on the edge of being too much, the dish suited its sparkling Piper Sonoma partner spectacularly well.

The bubbly, ordered for the entire evening, was also acceptable with the next dish, a pairing of black-peppered and honey-lacquered duck breast with a sidekick of partially boned quail stuffed with savory duck sausage. A hard-cider reduction bathed the entire production, supporting the rare duck as well as the crisp and savory quail. More black pepper might have fostered better balance, and the starchy side of sweet potato-apple pancake was neutral, but the dish was still one to store in the memory banks.

The dining room of Citrus at the Valencia Hotel.

With all tables but ours now empty, it was obvious we were going to close the joint this particular evening. However, our accommodating waiter didn't seem to be in a hurry, so we lingered over conversation and the remains of the still-perky Piper. Having stretched its limits with the duck, we were in no mood to push even harder with chocolate; a strawberry charlotte with white-wine sorbet beckoned. Individually molded, the bread-based dessert had strawberries within (few) and without (more) and was a light and lilting finale to the meal. Even the sorbet, which could have been a throwaway, seemed to fit right into the composition.

Citrus at the Valencia Hotel

222 E. Houston
6:30am-2pm & 6-10pm daily
Price range (dinner): $23-33
Credit cards
Wheelchair Accessible

Of course, we could have gone back to the V Bar for a La Vanille Sky in lieu of dessert. The drink is based on Grey Goose La Vanille vodka and contains Cointreau, half and half, and Amarula Cream, an exotic South African liqueur. The calorie count is likely more than double anything on the Citrus dessert menu, but that's not the only reason to think twice about ordering such a concoction: The liqueur itself is made from the fermented fruit of the Marula tree, a favorite of baboons and elephants. No reflection on the denizens of the V Bar, but I think I'll stick to sweet charlotte.

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