Citrine, one of Oak Park’s best restaurants, opened for curbside pickup on the last day of April.  Chef Michael Taus is culinary director, but in this era of radically reduced restaurant staffing, he works in the kitchen, front of the house, and can even be seen delivering the goods for diners at the curb.

I met Taus in the mid-1990s when he was chef at his Zealous restaurant in Elmhurst. Turns out, Taus had wanted to open his first restaurant in Oak Park, explaining, “I grew up in Riverside and had a lot friends at Fenwick and OPRF, so I’d come to Oak Park all the time. I have the fondest memories of going to Peterson’s ice cream. And I like Oak Park for the El – makes it easy for staff to come in to work from the city.”

Unfortunately, the deal to open in Oak Park hit a snag, so Taus opened his restaurant in Elmhurst. At that restaurant, I was consistently knocked out by Taus’ innovative and witty presentations, including a “breakfast” served for dinner that was a play on “bacon and eggs” but with foie gras and quail eggs, fun and tasty. I enjoyed the way Taus prepared well-known dishes with a twist.

On a warm Sunday evening, we picked up dinner at Citrine and took it home to enjoy on our deck.

Taus and the team at Zealous have a good hand with vegetables. Both the green beans and the KFC (Korean Fried Cauliflower) were cooked just enough to make the veggies easily chewable while still retaining their crunch. It’s easy to overcook vegetables; it’s not so easy to do vegetables to this level of just-right doneness. Korean fried chicken is a distinct type of fried chicken, and with the KFC (funny, right?), Citrine substitutes cauliflower for chicken, lightly breaded and fried, with a spicy seasoning reminiscent of gochugang, one of my favorite Korean condiments, a sweet and savory sauce a little like high-personality ketchup.

The spiced lamb sausage had full flavor amped up with harissa, a subtly hot chili paste from Tunisia, and cucumber-mint raita, a cooling, yogurt-based sauce popular in Southeast Asia. This dish represents the cross-cultural influences characteristic of Citrine’s menu, which features down-home comfort foods as well as globally influenced plates that reflect multiple culinary traditions.

The showstopper in our carryout feast was the Eggplant Gateau, composed of 24 layers of thinly sliced eggplant, interlaid with a light sauce of roasted tomatoes, whipped ricotta, and parmesan, a kind of highly finessed eggplant parmesan.

“This recipe is from my grandmother, who was Sicilian and a genius at cooking,” Taus told us. “She would slice the eggplant super thin,”  and then dredge it in only egg and flour, without breading, yielding a crepe-like delicacy to each slice that enables the taste of the namesake vegetable to come through more cleanly. The sauce and cheese play decidedly supporting roles, there to enhance the hero, the eggplant. This dish was fantastic, so elegantly composed and delicious.

You really should curbside pickup – and eat – Citrine’s Eggplant Gateau.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...