For much of our date night at the new Citizen, my husband’s eyes strayed longingly to the women seated next to us. (Practically cuddled next to us: tables are snugly spaced here.) Both were chomping down on the Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwich, a teetering tower of brown crunch and pale goo tucked in a puffy bun. It had, I allow, serious eye appeal. Sound appeal too: it makes noises, this construct, that blend with the sounds of women moaning.
Our table was covered largely with vegetables and raw fish. Plates of scallop crudo, the rounds of mollusk deluged with tiny, shiny, pretty things; wedges of grilled eggplant smothered with yogurt; black and green broccoli; and a warm salad of roasted squash and wilted radicchio. Plus (fried) falafel, for fibre. All of which my date tucked into with great pleasure, but ever with a roaming eye to the birds next door.
Citizen is the second project for the formidable chef-restaurateur team of Marc Doiron and Lori Wojcik. Their first is the seven-year-old Elgin Street restaurant called Town. This sibling slipped into a former hair salon space, around the corner from Town on Gilmour Street, with a configuration that allows for the Town kitchen to be lengthened and shared. Citizen is a bright space, whitewashed, with design touches that are rustic-refined, quirky and charming. Art matters to this team – Wojcik comes from an art restoration background, and ran a gallery for a dozen years. Music does too. If there weren’t a dozen hungry eyes at the front door looking longingly at my table (no reservations), I could have lingered, ordering this and that, just enjoying the tunes.
As is the modern way, the menu has a snacky sensibility. If you know the food served at Town, you’ll recognize the same focus on big flavours, eccentric-sounding combinations (that work), and pretty plates. Doiron trained as a pastry chef, and his pleasure in detail, colour and form is clear. But unlike the cuisine at Town (mod-Italian with liberties) the influences on the menu at Citizen are more global.
You could start with dates, stuffed with smoked blue cheese, sashed with bacon, brushed with cayenne’d honey, and smothered with almonds, slivered and browned. Though you could also end well with these dates… no matter how much savoury you toss at dates, they remain sweet treats. Or you could start with broccoli. Nothing sweet about them. The kitchen sets the charred spears, showered with manchego cheese, in a shallow pool of Ajo Blanco, the Andalusian soup of almond, bread and garlic, cool and thick, scattered with pickled grapes, and lots of crunchy almonds. Think broccoli’s not your thing? Try this version.
Wedges of smokey eggplant, canoe shaped, bronzed, grill-marked and dredged in punchy spices, are set upon with many things – a couscous salad, soft braised lamb, juicy pops of pomegranate, rings of pickled jalapeno, spoons of cool, tangy yogurt and a big finish of nubbly gremolata, puckered up with preserved lemon.
And on it went, dish after dish of pretty pleasures and out-there combinations. Heirloom carrots perfectly roasted, set in a white puddle of goat cheese sauce. Ringing the dish, an Oz-green swirl of slurried pesto, and (here’s where it gets weird) mounds of orange tobiko (Japanese flying fish roe), preserved mandarin for some sweet citrus, branches of dill and broken bits of a black sesame brittle. A ropey cake of cappelini pasta, enriched with cheese and pepper (the classic caccio e pepe) anchored the bottom of a lovely bowl of mushroom broth, dark and deeply earthy, crowned with dried enoki mushrooms and a coddled egg yolk.
Two types of squash are herbed, roasted and blanketed with charred radicchio, moistened with a lime crema and crowned with seeds. What else? Falafel with beet hummus and a pickled beet salad, heady of cloves. And scallops crudo, the only dish with a slight flaw. Roasted hazelnuts, a brunoise of green apple, pea shoots and snipped chives draped the scallops, ‘cooked’ in a lime-apple gel and anointed with brown butter. But the butter had hardened to shards. Clearly not the plan. So we let the dish sit, turned our attention to other things, and in time the butter liquefied, and the scallops and their mates were pretty darn splendid.
Who needs teetering towers of Korean fried chicken sandwiches with prosciutto and pickles when there’s so much good in vegetables and fish?
We indulged instead with pudding chomeur set in a maple caramel, with spiced apples and whipped cream.
Citizen might have a thoroughly casual feel, but service has a fine dining sensibility. It knows the food inside out and back to front, has solid wine knowledge (the list is as interesting as the food), is focused on the needs of its tables, and the floor and bar staff seem a happy bunch.
As our server said, when asked why she’d come to Citizen: “Well, when you have the opportunity to work with Marc and Lori… you just do.”