Seared hiramasa, pomegranate, Asian pear, jalapeño emulsion.
Pan-roasted duck breast.
Butterscotch-miso pudding verrine.
Selection of macarons.
The dining area.
I have many fond dining memories at Carlo Middione’s now-closed Vivande location on Fillmore, namely stopping by to pick up one of his little eggplant-mortadella-provolone sandwiches to go when I’d get peckish and wanted a snack (I miss them so—looks like I’ll have to make them my own damn self from now on). And now, as the latest (and third) location for Elizabeth Falkner’s ~CITIZEN CAKE~, I can still easily swing by when the hankering for a bite of a little something-something strikes.
The sleek European pâtisserie case is full of the inventive treats she has become known for, like brightly colored macarons ($1.50 each; I was partial to the unexpected curry and mango combo, while others might be happier with a traditional pistachio), or her classic petits gâteaux ($5.50), like the shag, a tropical kiss of passionfruit, mango, and coconut, and the fantastic mocha-mi-su, a great chocolate dessert, deep with the flavor of my big love: coffee (hello, mocha mousse).
And then there are the verrines ($5 each), clear containers of creams and puddings that are all too easy to get to go for eating in the privacy of your bedroom (I found the butterscotch pudding spiked with miso to be totally inspired). The alfajores ($1.50 each) are pretty amazing, but bring a messy explosion of powdered sugar—with it all over your face and clothes, you’re pegged immediately as guilty of eating dessert (or Tony Montana on a binge).
The clunker for me about the dessert experience here is the plain white plates they’re served on. It’s an opportunity for some fun and style, and the industrial buffalo china plates I’d eat off of at home don’t do the desserts justice. It’s not the only thing that feels plain here—the exposed and unadorned brick wall, the slate floors, and the bare tables contribute to an overall coldness that makes the space feel unfinished, and definitely spare.
But just when you think it all feels a bit spartan, the savory dishes on the menu are also quite visually captivating. Falkner and her chef de cuisine, Amy Glaze (formerly a sous at Le Bernardin), have a fine eye for presentation—along with harmonious flavor pairings, and textures. An appetizer of seared hiramasa ($15) has the fish layered prettily across the plate, alternating with slices of Asian pear, and perked up with micro shiso and cilantro, pomegranate seeds, and a subtle jalapeño emulsion.
Another starter—grilled beef heart ($14)—is thinly sliced and tucked in between lightly pickled halves of red beet and a dressed mache salad—the mineral tanginess of the heart played well with the prickly horseradish-crème fraîche. Oh, and get the clam chowder ($8/$15)—it’s a delicious rendition, with clams still in their shell (and nary a bite of grit), bacon, a creamy broth, chunky croutons and potato, and (just slightly too big) pieces of fennel. Good to the last drop.
The starters are all plated in a manner that makes them easy to share—and even when we ordered the shaved fennel salad ($13), the kitchen kindly split it for us (I just wish they had remembered to salt it). Some of the mains are presented as if you’re sharing those, too: the slices of pan-roasted duck breast ($22) fanned out on a rectangular plate would have almost felt odd to just eat by myself—hopefully your dining companion likes to share. (And they would be richly rewarded, because the ginger-soy braised daikon and tangerine sauce made it an elegantly flavored dish.)
Some nights I just want something healthy to eat, and if I was in the neighborhood, the quinoa ($16), a mix of light and dark quinoa, with Swiss chard, cipolline onions, a purée of butternut squash, and a scattering of pine nuts would satisfy my hippie/healthy urge. On the other side of the spectrum is the braised beef short rib stroganoff ($20), with thick, housemade pappardelle egg noodles, Thumbelina carrots, chanterelles, and turnips—seriously hearty, cold-weather food. (And a lick-your-plate kind of dish.) Perhaps in the middle of this naughty-nice spectrum would be the dorade royale ($24), the fish resting on a caviar beurre blanc and caramelized cauliflower, one night flourished with candied Meyer lemon peel.
The dinner crowd seems to be mostly a mix of couples and small groups populated with a few more ladies than men. I liked the eclectic music, ranging from Gerry Rafferty (took me right back to my 1970s childhood) to David Sylvian (took me back to my teens). The wine list started a bit small—but the list has been expanding over the past few months, with most of them from Kermit Lynch. (The dessert wine selection has an ample six to choose from.)
And for those looking for an alternative to alcoholic beverages entirely (I have no idea why, ha ha, kidding), Falkner has been experimenting with some handmade gum syrups that are almost like tonics: the looking glass (peppermint, Kaffir lime, black pepper, mastic) was almost restorative, and is something I’ll want the next time I’m hungover. (Oops.) There’s also a selection of teas from local purveyor Red Blossom—their refined teas always make me wonder why I don’t drink them more often.
Falkner is a locomotive of creativity, always tinkering, inventing, and investigating. It’s a quality I admire: seeing a chef constantly inspired by flavors, ingredients, and techniques. The restaurant will continue to reflect these qualities of its creator, changing, growing, and fine tuning in coming months. (But that croque-monsieur on the weekend brunch menu and fried chicken Cobb sandwich for lunch better not go anywhere until I get to try them.)
Note: Chef de cuisine Amy Glaze left soon after this review; stand by for an update.