Fried Chicken, Paella, and More At Citrus at the Valencia Hotel
Chef Ocean Orssten acknowledges his parents were hippies who happened to be living in Capitola at the time he was born. Hence his unusual first name.
But the chef with the water-themed moniker also knows the land equally well. He grew up in the Napa Valley, raising heritage breed pigs at age 12 and developed a love for agriculture.
Is it any wonder that by the time he was a young teen, he knew he wanted to be a chef?
After stints at Arcadia in San Jose, La Folie in San Francisco, and Campton Place restaurant in San Francisco, Orssten took over the helm at Citrus at the Valencia Hotel in San Jose’s Santana Row in 2011.
It’s a restaurant I’ve longed wish more people would find out about. You have to know it’s there, as it’s not at visible at street level as all the other eateries at Santana Row. Instead, you have to take an elevator up to the third floor to get to it. But that trek rewards you once you arrive with a tucked away, intimate dining room that feels cloistered from the hubbub of the rest of the retail-residential center around it.
Recently, I was invited in as a guest to try Orssten’s recently revamped menu. There’s the expected rib eye and flatiron steak. But also offerings you don’t expect. Like the Jamaican curry goat arepas ($14). The stewed goat was tender and full of flavor atop the soft corn arepas. The poblano creme fraiche added a smoky, creamy heat, though, there may have been too much of it on the plate.
The Maine lobster salad ($14) was sizable, and could have easily been a main course for a light eater. The lobster was plump and succulent. I appreciated the use of the Ecopia Farms greens, which always have such a punch of flavor. Jalapeno bacon added a kick of heat as well as fatty crunch.
The sweetness of corn always marries so well with lobster, but I wondered about the use of it in early December. In fact, the only real quibble I had with the menu was that so many spring-summer ingredients were still being used in late-fall. There were ingredients like asparagus, strawberries and blackberries showing up on dishes when their local, prime seasons had long passed.
Corn showed up again in the dish of fried chicken ($24) with creamy potato puree, which was a knockout. Fried chicken is hard to get really right. Orstten does it justice here with sage and paprika seasoning lightly battered, very crunchy chicken pieces that were super juicy, even the white meat. My friend who ordered it is always on the lookout for classic fried chicken and she was not disappointed in any way.
My Valencia paella ($32) doesn’t come to the table in a traditional pan. Instead, it’s served on a plate, brimming with a generous amount of day boat scallops, large prawns, and neatly cracked Alaskan king crab legs. Chorizo added a nice hit of spice to the saucy rice. Unfortunately, you don’t get the prized crispy bits of rice here as you would in a traditional paella. Still, the rice is so tasty, you almost don’t miss it.
We shared two desserts, which were $9 each. First up, a blackberry chocolate mousse cake with layers of meringue, cremeux and berry crumble. It was pretty as can be, but not as intense in flavor as expected. The berry mousse also had quite a bit of gelatin in it, making it more Jell-O-like and less airy that we would have liked.
Next was the strawberry green tea cake. The deep green matcha cake was striking in both its color and its deep grassy, earthy tea flavor. This was definitely our favorite of the two.
Next time you’re shopping on the Row and feel the hunger pangs coming on, don’t forget that good eats await not just at eye-level but a few floors up, too.
And: More on Ecopia Farms