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Let Them Eat Retro-Tropical Shag 

Citizen Cake

Wednesday, Oct 24 2001
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The discipline of baking is an art as well as a science, as any visitor to Citizen Cake, a particularly artistic patisserie-restaurant, will tell you. The eatery is located among the teeming culinary sensibilities of Hayes Valley a block or two from Absinthe, Vicolo, Jardinière, and the Hayes Street Grill. Next door is the Vorpal Gallery, and passers-by would be hard pressed to decide which front window displays a finer aesthetic. Even the interior design of the place is reminiscent of an artist's loft South of Market. Tall windows and towering ceilings let in plenty of light and air, raw wood beams and exposed pipes add that hip industrial look, and the minimal décor doesn't detract from the venue's true focus: the food. Near the entrance is a display case arranged with elaborately sculpted tarts, pastries, petits fours, and such imaginative cakes as the Mint Mi Su (a sort of confectionary mint julep) and the PB & MC (peanut butter and milk chocolate in various configurations). Nearby is a counter for single diners and casual cafe seating for two or three; lined up cheek by jowl against the wall beyond are tiny black tables with comfortably upholstered benches for slightly more posh, if more crowded, dining.

A fine time to experience the bakery side of the operation is Sunday brunch, the traditional setting for croissants, cinnamon rolls, and other carbohydrate-rich delights. Citizen Cake's savory scone isn't the sweet, buttery hunk o' starch we've all grown accustomed to; light in texture and substantial in size, it's studded with scallions and chewy, smoky bacon. The potato tart features thin slices of fried potato, bits of brick-red, fat-ribboned ham, and chunks of fromage blanc on a dense, yeasty crust. House-made granola (available to go at $7 per pound) is packed with almonds, pumpkin seeds, and plump blueberries and is served parfait-style with a pleasantly puckery yogurt. (The granola exceeds the yogurt 3-to-1, resulting in an overly starchy dish, but your waitperson will bring you more yogurt upon request.) The piping-hot doughnut holes, meanwhile, are more beignet than doughnut but lack the original's lusty Creole assertiveness. A more substantial brunch dish is the Cuban pork sandwich, a thick, juicy meal in itself, in which one of the establishment's impeccably tender rolls is stuffed with thin slices of spicy, buttery pork, creamy havarti, house-made sweet pickles, and lots of pungent stone-ground mustard. A crisp, simple salad of jicama, red-onion rings, and orange segments is the sandwich's perfect counterpoint.

This culinary polyphony is also in evidence at dinnertime. What sets Citizen Cake apart from other bakeries is the imaginative, satisfying food served above and beyond its cakes, cookies, and confections. The Tomato Kaleidoscope, for instance, showcases a lovely array of red and yellow cherry, pear, and heirloom tomatoes that are as robust in flavor as they are phantasmagoric in appearance. Complementing them are a spiky red wine vinaigrette, the subtle fragrance of purple basil, and creamy avocado slices sprinkled with crunchy sel gris (gray salt). (Chef Jennifer Cox knows her pomodoros: Every Sunday Citizen Cake hosts a special prix fixe meal, and one recent edition featured green tomato gazpacho, tomato sorbet, charred tomatillo salsa, toybox tomato risotto, and Early Girl tomato tarte Tatin.) The Kaleidoscope is especially good with the trio of breads served at every table: a yeasty rye, a homespun sourdough, and a rough peasant bread liberally dotted with walnuts. Another starter, the three-cheese platter, is initially disappointing because the cheeses are served cold rather than at room temperature, robbing the diner of roughly half their flavor. But even the muted taste of San Andreas combined with a wedge of juicy Mutsu apple and a comb of peppery clover honey is thoroughly worthwhile.

The entrees are equally gratifying. Particularly satisfying is the oven-roasted chicken, a hearty bowl of comfort food starring the succulent bird served in a rich, spoon-worthy broth with tender kernels of corn, black-eyed peas, and sliced okra. A fine example of the kitchen's creative skill with balanced flavor combinations is the bavette (skirt) steak, in which the rich taste of seared, expertly medium-rare aged beef is combined with watercress, wasabi, caramelized turnips, and potatoes.

Dessert, of course, is the raison d'être of Citizen Cake. There are a half-dozen choices on the official menu, but it's fun to stroll over to the patisserie and pick something from the display case. In addition to making its own marshmallows, granola, and just about everything else, the kitchen whips up sorbets and ice creams, and the latter in a sweet-corn flavor is remarkable: It's like a custardy, nectarous polenta. Among the several tarts are variations combining caramel, chocolate mousse, and sea salt; another layered with chocolate, banana, and coconut creams; and a third in which three kinds of rice pudding suspend pistachios and kumquats. Shuna's Out-of-Control Tart (named for Shuna Lydon, a pastry chef at Citizen Cake) is as exhilarating as it sounds: a light, buttery crust oozing with thick caramel, a fluffy layer of marshmallow, and a liter or two of the venue's incomparably lush peanut butter. A handful of salty roasted peanuts adds the crowning touch.

The pièce de résistance among the patisserie's other treasures is the hazelnut bombe, a deep brown hillock of moist chocolate génoise, chocolate-hazelnut mousse, a layer of rich fudge, and big hazelnuts on top, a chocolate bark antenna projecting from the side. Featured on the dessert menu is the rose petal crème brûlée, which has no discernible rose petal flavor but is a cool, creamy example of the genre. The cocoa and coco parfait is Citizen Cake's only major misfire: a weird, murky mess of second-rate chocolate sorbet, tough chunks of coconut, flavorless tapioca, bay laurel, and further ingredients beyond identification. On the other hand, there's the spectacular huckleberry financier, an exquisitely presented, deliciously complex creation with a lightly textured polentalike cake serving as a foil for the disparate yet harmonious flavors of sweet-yet-sour huckleberries, puckery lemon sherbet, and spicy ginger vinaigrette.

The brief wine list doesn't begin to accommodate the wide range of flavors on the menu, with only five vintages available by the glass out of a grand total of 16, although the 1999 Charles Joguet Jeunes Vignes is a nice match for the steak. (Another lusty companion is Anchor Steam's dark, intense Foghorn Ale.) Less intoxicating beverage options include a fragrant but acidic mixed-berry tisane and a disappointingly flat, watery hot chocolate somewhat redeemed by the honey-sweetened marshmallow melting into it.

Citizen Cake is a fine pre-performance dining option, with the Opera House, Symphony Hall, and various theaters only two blocks away; as a result the noise level can be elevated until the matinee or evening curtain. After 8 o'clock or so the mood becomes quieter, more relaxed, and more reflective -- i.e., the perfect setting for the contemplation of an After Midnight Chocolate Cake, a Retro-Tropical Shag, or some other gorgeous gustatory still life.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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