Sweet and Sour Citrus 

We have reservations about this hotel restaurant.

The porch-like waiting room at Citrus - WALTER  NOVAK
It's too bad about our recent dinner at Citrus, the six-month-old restaurant in the Inter-Continental Hotel on the Cleveland Clinic campus. We knew going in that the spot was no Classics, the marble-and-white-linen-bedecked bastion of fine dining in the former Omni Hotel, which was torn down last year to make room for the more commodious Inter-Continental. And in light of its more casual ambiance and its grueling schedule of breakfast-lunch-and-dinner service, we didn't expect the restaurant to meet the very highest of gourmet standards. But after a pleasant weekday lunch on Citrus's bright and airy "sun porch," we had no doubt we would enjoy a satisfying Saturday night dinner in a spot that, manager Duncan Clements says, caters to travelers and Clinic guests as well as to hungry locals from nearby University Circle.

But we were wrong. Despite some nice touches in decor, hospitality, and food presentation, the excruciatingly slow service, an assortment of less-than-top-notch ingredients, and careless preparation managed to turn the meal into a painful operation that we would have preferred to avoid.

How slow was it? Our party of four arrived a few minutes early for 7 p.m. reservations and were seated with a flourish by our host, who held our chairs, settled our napkins on our laps, and warmly wished us a pleasant meal. But it was 7:15 before our server appeared to take our beverage order, 7:45 before appetizers arrived, 8:30 before we saw our entrées, and nearly 10 p.m. before we made our escape. And this, in a restaurant containing no more than six other parties at the peak of business!

By contrast, a Thursday lunch had seen us in and out in less than an hour, ministered to by a soft-spoken, soothing server who seemed perfectly matched to the needs of potentially stressed-out hospital guests. The midday menu included the usual lineup of soups, sandwiches, meal-sized salads, and gourmet pizzas, along with a handful of routine entrées like deep-fried cod and sautéed chicken breast. The soup of the day -- a creamy potato, full of tender spuds -- came in a lovely white pedestal bowl adorned with lions' heads. A cup of vegetarian minestrone, crammed with beans, corn, and herbs, had a mild, fresh flavor. And a warm spinach salad, with plump raisins, bits of dried apricot, a few slices of field mushrooms, some red onion, and a cider vinaigrette, was delicious, with a good balance of the sweet and the piquant.

A triple-decker toasted cheese sandwich -- thick slices of melted Swiss on hearty rye bread -- was one of several meat-free sandwich options and had been attentively grilled to a golden turn. Our vegetarian pizza was also very good, with a savory collection of slender chopped asparagus, tender artichoke hearts, fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, and toasted pine nuts, all settled between a mild red sauce and a thick cheese topping, on a pleasantly chewy crust.

Dishes came out of the kitchen with surprising speed, and we were never given an opportunity to order desserts -- a state of affairs that we chalked up to the restaurant's otherwise laudable commitment to getting business guests in and out in short order. (A handsome luncheon buffet, with a rotating menu of various international cuisines, is also available for those on an even tighter schedule.) Still, we wouldn't have turned down an excuse to linger a bit longer in the pretty, porch-like dining room, with its glass-topped wrought-iron tables, skylights, and tall French doors leading to a snug, walled garden set up for warmer-weather dining.

The irony of being whisked out of lunch wasn't lost on us as we endured our interminable dinner in the slightly more formal main dining room, a sophisticated space filled with curvaceous shapes, beautifully grained woods, and magnificent potted plants. Each white-clothed table was topped with a votive candle and a live stag-horn fern in a raffia-beribboned basket. Each course was stylishly plated on colorful, oversized dishes, with hot foods traveling beneath a silver dome, which our server removed with the necessary flair.

But all the little niceties in the world couldn't compensate for the kitchen's shortcomings, which ranged from the flavorless, out-of-season fruits that starred in several salads and desserts to the overdone meats that were at the heart of two of our main dishes.

Entrées came with a basket of warm, slightly stale hard rolls, individual servings of aluminum-foil-wrapped butter, and a simple house salad of mixed greens, slices of cucumber, and pale hothouse tomato in a sharp balsamic vinaigrette. Two of us opted to substitute more exotic salads for the house number, including a nicely put-together mesclun salad topped with a rectangle of lightly fried goat cheese, sided with a pile of bacon-like fried prosciutto bits and toasted almond slices; the flaccid garlic crostini that garnished it was its only flaw. The other, a wonderful-sounding Citrus and Seasonal Berry Salad, included a fan of orange and grapefruit segments, and several slices each of pineapple, star fruit, and kiwi, arranged alongside a pretty radicchio "bowl" that cradled some mixed greens, sliced grapes, a few cubes of mango, and a scattering of toasted almonds. Be assured, this sounds much better than it tasted, as none of the fruits, other than the grapes and mango, were at their peak of ripeness, and what little flavor they had came only from a big dose of sweet honey-lime dressing.

Two hot starters were also well-conceived, but less than perfectly executed. Coarsely chopped roasted duck, mixed with chopped oyster and shiitake mushrooms and wrapped in crisp phyllo, was rich and succulent, although the heavy brown sauce beneath it tasted more like cornstarch-thickened beef broth than the alleged demi-glace and sherry reduction. And two modest crab cakes, served over grilled greens with a spicy, stone-ground mustard garnish, were heavy on the bread crumbs and light on the crustacean.

Among the entrées, a grilled filet mignon was full of flavor and as tender as a baby's kiss. But while we had ordered it medium-rare, it came to us just a few BTUs short of raw. Considering how long it had taken to get the meal in the first place, we weren't about to send it back, but pickier people than we may not be as flexible. The menu description had called for the filet to be served on a robust-sounding sun-dried tomato bruschetta, but in actuality the bread beneath it seemed like nothing other than plain old white.

Another entrée, a Chef's Special Recommendation of Lemon and Oregano Rack of Lamb, was a disappointing assemblage of three overdone chops arranged around a slice of roasted eggplant and tomato, and served over a bland mushroom risotto in which we discovered only one speck of mushroom. Stuffed roast pork tenderloin, identified on the menu as a Heart Healthy Selection, had a delightful aroma and a big, wholesome flavor, with its sweet and savory stuffing of tender flageolet beans, chopped apricot, dried cranberries, and pecans; unfortunately, the meat was again overdone and chewy. All the main courses came garnished with a sprig of fresh rosemary and sided with a dull mélange of undercooked, underseasoned carrot slices, haricots verts, and baby asparagus spears.

The evening's desserts were no more special than what had preceded them. An enticing-sounding bowl of mixed raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, topped with a thin sabayon sauce and a bit of caramelized sugar, lost points for its flavorless fruit. Similarly, a melon-and-berry platter featured slices of disappointingly bland cantaloupe, honeydew, and seed-studded watermelon (and how we hate spitting out seeds onto the carpets of fancy dining rooms!), as well as those tasteless berries and two mostly green strawberries, in a not-sweet-enough honey-and-poppyseed dressing. Two slices of warm, baked apple-and-raisin strudel were flaky and sweet, although the crème Anglaise beneath them was no thicker than milk. Probably the most satisfactory of the evening's sweets was a straightforward serving of fudgy flourless chocolate cake, with a bit of raspberry and passion fruit coulis as garnish.

Citrus's executive chef, Robert Oberschneider, came to Cleveland from the Chicago Inter-Continental Hotel and ought to be capable of showing off his new kitchen to better advantage. While we applaud his menu's focus on fruits and vegetables -- along with "heart healthy" and vegetarian options -- such an approach has to be paired with a commitment to procuring the most flavorful seasonal ingredients available and preparing them attentively. Without this, and reasonable and consistent pacing in the kitchen, Citrus seems bound to leave a sour taste in the mouths of unwitting diners.


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