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Grub and Citizen's Band try to reinvent comfort food 

Wednesday, Dec 15 2010
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To hear this city spoken of on TV, you'd think that our streets were paved in lapis lazuli. Apparently, we're the blindingly blue core of one of the nation's bluest states, so blue that those who look at the U.S. map through red-tinted glasses see us as a scary black splotch.

Yes, we do drink a lot of lattes and scarf down organic vegetables. But there's as much red, white, and blue in this city as pinkos and Green Party members. Take the food world: For every farmers' market here, there's a McDonald's — count 'em if you don't believe me — and for every Coi, a Sears Fine Food. Few of us eat the way most of the world, including us, thinks we eat.

Two new bistros visited this past week — Grub and Citizen's Band — are blending the red and the blue, exploring classic Americana in interesting ways. Notice I say "interesting" as opposed to "successful." Both restaurants need to tighten control of their kitchens, and they both screw up mac and cheese. That's practically a capital offense.

Grub, which opened at the beginning of November, takes its decorating inspiration from DC Comics. Blue lights announce the doors and spray the underside of the counter near the kitchen. The walls and tables are aswirl in Captain America colors, and the most striking feature of the room is a swath of red leather upholstery that crosses the walls and ceiling.

Grub's calling cards are two make-your-own sections of the menu, one for burgers and the other for macaroni and cheese. The burgers can start with ahi tuna, buffalo, veggie burger, and portabello mushroom in addition to beef. The base price of each sandwich gets you one cheese, one sauce, and two toppings, with extras costing $1 apiece. The standard Prather Ranch ($11) burger I tried was respectable: High-quality meat, cooked right, with caramelized onions and cheddar is as all-American as it always has been. While the Design-a-Mac menu option is even more novel — a base bowl costs $9, plus $1 for add-ons such as broccoli, bacon, and truffle oil — the pasta floated in a creamy, pale-orange bechamel flavored with two kinds of cheddar. There was no ooze, no crust, no random bits of oven-crisped cheese to hunt down and devour.

Grub's more classic bistro entrées are divvied up into "earth" (vegetable dishes), "surf," and "turf." Chef Enrique Vives' kitchen produces some solid cooking — pan-seared scallops were translucent-centered and tender ($14), a lamb Porterhouse ($18) came to the table textbook medium rare, and a ginger-vanilla crème brûlée ($6) was the kind of lovely, simple dessert you'd expect from a restaurant specializing in nouveau Americana.

Their approach to upscaling comfort food is to throw in as many tweaks as the chef thinks the dish can sustain — and he and I often disagreed in that regard. There was a salad of grocery-store mixed greens ($8) with a sweet vinaigrette and too many ingredients to accord with one another. Those scallops? Laid out over a ruddy stir-fry of Mexican chorizo, corn kernels, and watercress leaves that overpowered them. A side of truffled shoestring pommes frites ($4) turned out to be regular old Sysco fries untouched by truffle oil.

Grub's uneasy mishmash of higher-end culinary aspirations and comfort food made me feel like it didn't have a clear vision of what it was trying to do.

The same wasn't true of 5-month-old Citizen's Band, whose point of view is personal, considered, and consistent. From the restaurant's logo through its dessert course, it's evident that chef and co-owner Chris Beerman is a California-trained, technique-curious cook who loves making Any Highway USA road food.

Beerman cooked at Boulevard and Conduit before starting a lunchbox operation in Potrero Hill named Bento 415. It shared kitchen space with Pinkie's Bakery, owned by Cheryl Burr. When the two lost their lease, they went into business together and rented a pair of attached storefronts; in addition to her own breads and pastries, Burr makes desserts for Citizen's Band.

Even though the businesses opened quickly and with little seed money, Beerman came up with a space that ably translates the Americana of Bruce Springsteen, Iron & Wine, and Ratt into interior design. There's not much to it — poured concrete floors, bare tabletops, a tiny open kitchen, a J-shaped counter circling the waiter's station. Next to a shelf of CB radios near the door is a blackboard with a scrawled list of wines by the glass. Back past a wall covered in postcards and old magazine pages, a lighted display of pickles and preserves glows. The service rocked the same lo-fi charm. I felt as if I had gone shopping at an Urban Outfitters where all the salespeople were treating me like a fellow cool kid.

Beerman doesn't let his wit and creativity distract him from straightforward American flavors. Even an appetizer as California-cuisine as a beet salad with scallop-edged arugula leaves was tossed in a buttermilk dressing and paired with a smaller mound of pickle-spiked potato salad. He grilled a double-cut pork chop ($20), perched it on roasted root vegetables, and leaned a sweetly braised rib bone up against the meat. His burger ($10 lunch, $13 dinner), made with Snake River kobe beef, was set on Pinkie's high, light brioche rolls and crowned with an inch-high stack of roast tomatoes that melted as we ate, simultaneously ketchup and fixings. I've talked up Pinkie's baked goods in a previous review (Sept. 29, 2010), so when it comes to desserts I'll just say that Burr does right by apple pie ($6.50). Also, caramel sauce — set aside whatever it's paired with and do shots.

However, my meals at Citizen's Band were larded with failures, almost all of which bespoke good ideas whose execution the chef just needed to nail. A tuna casserole ($18) was so deconstructed — into creamy orecchiette, pink-hearted grilled ahi garnished with fried calamari in place of French onions — that the components no longer had anything to do with one another. A lunchtime grilled tofu sandwich ($10) turned out to be an unseasoned soybean curd with mushed avocados and bland mushrooms. Beerman carved mac and cheese ($8) into a block, baked it again, then topped it with a 4-inch-high vortex of onion rings. It looked great, but the cooks had left the pasta in the oven so long it turned leathery and brittle.

The dish that emblemized the not-yet-realized promise of Citizen's Band was the bacon and eggs ($10), my almost-favorite: On top of a slab of smoked, then braised pork belly wobbled a breaded, deep-fried egg. When we sliced through the seemingly hard-boiled egg — surprise! — the yolk sluiced out, and even the white retained a custardy texture. Too bad the meat was still tough. An extra hour on the braise was all it needed.

Perfect a dish like that, and Citizen's Band might find a way to sell molecular gastronomy to truck-stop regulars. Could we figure out a way to do the same with single-payer health care, too?

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Jonathan Kauffman

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