Because of its name and the critics' praise, Robert Perez's Citronee Bistro and Wine Bar on Nevada City's Broad Street has a reputation that is decidedly French and ritzy.
Problem is, neither are true, protested the chef-owner in a recent conversation with Table for Two!
"We are all-American," said Perez, 48, who was reared in Glendale in Southern California. On the other hand, the chef de cuisine, who pronounces his first name "Ro-BAIR," can't disguise the continental influences of 15 years spent in the Netherlands.
An affinity for cooking came early for Perez, who began putting food on the table for his father and younger brother after his mother died when he was 11.
His father, Gonzalo "Corky" Perez, was a political and community activist and always on the go. (Perez remembers that California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, on learning Robert was the son of Corky Perez, told him, "It was your dad who got me into politics.")
"I was in a band, too, and told my friends if they would bring the food to practice at our house, I would cook," said Perez.
So how did Perez end up in Holland? Two reasons: the Army, and a girl.
He enlisted out of high school and ended up in Germany as an inspector of nuclear warheads on a Pershing missile crew. (Talk about good training for the high stress of running a top-end kitchen!) Then he met a Dutch girl, Marianna, who became his wife.
His military service at an end, Robert's life was at the fork of a road. On one hand, he was learning Dutch and had become a budding artist - his work was starting to sell and be exhibited. On the other, there was the cooking.
"I applied to the top academy of art, at Mastricht, but I also applied to the top culinary school in Holland," said Perez. "Whichever one accepted me, that would be my life."
And so it was that Perez started training to be a chef, first as a "commis," or apprentice, cleaning pots and peeling potatoes, then working in some of the top kitchens in Holland.
"It was the late '70s, and we began to hear about this new way of cooking - nouvelle cuisine," said Perez. "I knew right away this was the way I would cook, not heavy sauces and butter, but light, healthy and natural. I have never compromised from that."
But by the late '80s, Perez heard there were exciting things happening in the California restaurant scene, and knew that it was time for him to return home with his young family, which now including three sons.
Perez's skills were immediately recognized, and he worked in a series of high-profile jobs, from pastry chef at Auberge de Soleil in the Napa Valley, to head chef at Tango's in Sacramento, to executive chef at the Sacramento Radisson.
As top chef and part owner of C'est La Vie in Granite Bay, Perez also learned that the line between success and failure in the restaurant business is a fine one.
"It was a real lesson in the school of hard knocks," said Perez, who struggled to keep the restaurant afloat despite the unforeseen burdens of debt left by the previous owner. Eventually, despite a remarkable turnaround engineered by Perez, the other investors decided to pull the plug.
But, as they say, when one door closes another one opens. Marianna had visited Nevada County and urged her husband to check it out. They fell in love with the area, directing the kitchens at the Holbrooke Hotel and Kirby's Creekside, and continued to live here even during a stint as head chef at a top restaurant in Sacramento, Enotria.
But Perez and his wife had been yearning for their own restaurant, and for some time they'd had their eyes on a small place in Nevada City that once housed Selaya's, then Potager. After several attempts, the place was theirs, and they opened the doors in March 1998.
"The building had been built in 1856, and it was a bakery for 100 years," Perez said during a mini-tour. "It had a wood stove, and a third of the kitchen was a walk-in oven. The ceiling has six inches of sand as a fire barrier. They used two cords of wood a day for baking."
Later, the site was a soda fountain, but has housed restaurants since the late 1960s.
The name Citronee, which the Perezes chose from a long list of possibilities, comes from a type of citrus-based dressing, (versus vinaigrette, which is vinegar-based). Perez felt it reflected his type of natural cuisine. But he said Citronee is not French, but American "with a global influence," and definitely not fancy.
"We use paper on the tables, not tablecloths, and functional place-settings and glassware, not silver or crystal," said Perez. "The service is proper but casual, not snobby."
Although Citronee features one of the best wine selections in the area, he recently hosted a beer-tasting night in partnership with Boonville Beer of the Anderson Valley.
A look at the menu reveals an eclectic range of choices, from a veggie sandwich on chipotle corn focaccia bread to the "menu gastronomique," a five-course surprise menu created by Perez.
The Citronee is now family affair, with Marianna and all three sons working at the restaurant. Richard, 25, has developed a love of working the "front of the house," as a waiter and host. Ruben, the youngest at 19, is bussing tables while deciding which direction his life will take. And Ramon, 21, has decided to follow in his dad's footsteps as a chef.
Perez is particularly proud of his desserts, and Ruben shares not only that love, but the skill. Ruben recently entered the father-son team in the National Dessert Championships held San Francisco. To their great surprise, they finished among the finalists against some of the best dessert chefs in the world. "That was awesome," said Perez.
AT A GLANCE:
Citronee Bistro and Wine Bar
320 Broad St.
Nevada City, CA 95959
Lunch, 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. Monday - Thursday; dinner, 5:30 p.m. - closing Monday - Thursday, 5 p.m. - closing Friday - Saturday; closed Sunday.
MasterCard, Visa, American Express
Lunch $6-12, dinner $9-24, not including wine
International, with California emphasis; vegetarian dishes; small bar; street parking; well-behaved children welcome
Richard Somerville is a restaurant fan and editor of The Union. Conversations in Table for Two! are based on the whims of the writer and on reader suggestions, not on advertising or freebies. Send your suggestions for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.