Citrus is sweet, but not quite ripe

To sum up, the latest big-city dining concept from the boys who brought us Hue, Central City Market and Kres Chophouse is unquestionably slick, boisterous, even metropolitan; the food, indisputably top-notch and expertly prepared. And the service? Too loose, unrefined and, unlike chef Alex Brugger's dishes, in need of a little seasoning. That's the short of it.

The long of it starts with a fawningly apologetic maitre d' informing me that my reservation time couldn't be honored as a result of too many parties outstaying their projected seating durations. My table would be ready in 20 minutes, I was told, but I could enjoy a cocktail in the bar (at my expense) while I waited. Now, what's the point of giving the restaurant your phone number if they won't call to inform patrons of a cancellation or, as in my case, a seating delay? The logistics fundamental to reservations are typically fine-tuned in the first couple of weeks ' at least that would be expected of a restaurant run by the savvy folks at Urban Life Management. (Officially, Citrus has been open since April 30; their soft open was two weeks prior.)

Furthermore, after being seated, I was told two waiters would tend to me, though when a need arose during the course of my meal, neither were anywhere to be found. And let it be noted that the principal waiter was an affable chap, but his jejune struggle to recall the soup of the day was simultaneously laughable and maddening.

OK, on to what they do right. For one, the décor ' stylishly simple, chicly crepuscular and tinged with appropriate hues of blood orange. The din can be deafening, but the joint's got that asphalt-jungle verve that trendsters dig, so for now this Orange Avenue sup-spot will revel in 'It Place� status.

Then there's the food. Nothing overly trendy about it, but it's delicious and worthy of the toplofty pricing. Shrimp cocktail ($14) came with three dipping sauces for four chilled and fattened curls of Gulf crustaceans with a crunch to match; a garnish of key lime halves was a fitting touch. Lobster and sweet corn fritters ($11), spiked with nostril-flaring jalapeño and dressed up with pineapple-mango salsa, evoked Southern hush-puppy comfort. A lack of basil muted the creamy yellow tomato bisque ($6), but essence of fire-roasted peppers redeemed it from the throes of mediocrity.

The prime cut of bone-in New York strip steak ($34) is an enormous citrus-rubbed slab, all 18 ounces char-grilled to order and served with fennel-whipped potatoes. I pan-seared a good chunk of it the next day and it was every bit as juicy as the night before. Red snapper ($27) was seared to a flaky succulence, and though I didn't care much for the blood orange'peppercorn drizzle, the exceptional lobster risotto cake, lightly crisped on both ends, is proof positive of the kitchen's competency.

What a pleasure it was to crack the surface of the café cubano crème brûlée ($7): thick, hardened and glassy, as opposed to the brittle, thin, caramelized layers I've sampled elsewhere. Banana cheesecake rolls ($8) resembled giant egg rolls, but puncturing the delicately crisp pastry skin yielded a silken filling. A scoop of Edy's dulce de leche ice cream and a dollop of homemade chantilly cream elevated it to gluttonous heights.

When the service is raised to similar heights, Citrus will be ripe for the picking.


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