By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
I'm not sure I understand the thinking behind Citizen, the new preciously hip Asian restaurant launched by the M Crowd Restaurant Group, the same folks who birthed Mi Cocina, The Mercury, Taco Diner, and Mainstream Fish House. The menu, another one of those Pan-Asian blends glued together with a little French technique, is comprehensible. But a few things make me wonder.
Foie gras is one of them. Crisped foie gras ($13) planted on grilled brioche with a mango essence demi-glace, is mushy and gelatinous with the kind of texture that makes leftovers from the refrigerator so terrifying. This same distracting texture afflicts the grilled filet capped with a sheet of seared foie gras ($28). It didn't taste fresh or rich; it didn't smoothly unfurl across the mouth, blanketing the tongue with velvety savor. Instead, it sort of jiggled and quivered. How, you wonder, can a fussed-over piece of bird liver be so dismal in a restaurant with French influences? Sadly, the foie gras did little to distract from the plate's centerpiece. The filet was little more than a moderately tough, relatively flavorless meat disc.
More perplexities surface as Citizen's depths are plumbed. The area surrounding the sushi bar -- a space named the skylight room for the hole in the ceiling -- is handsomely finished in slate. The bar's back, a gently sloping curve, is covered in red slate. Imbedded in this ruddy wall are black rectangles fashioned in the form of hexagrams from the I Ching, a Confucian text consisting of 64 hexagrams that foretell appropriate future courses of action.
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The symbols cut into the slate express things like success and goodwill, and other warm, fuzzy affirmations. "They're all very positive things and all real safe," says M Crowd director of operations Arnold Nitishin. "We didn't really want to go way out there."
The space does generate good feeling, most notably from the sake service. (Actually, the service in this place from soup to nuts is top-notch.) The sake, served cold, is poured from 1.8-liter bottles into cedar boxes placed on saucers. The fluid flows into the box until it spills over the edges, flooding the saucer. After a few sips, the saucer spillage is poured back into the box. Nitishin says this ritual symbolizes the generosity of the house. In Japan, rice was once dispensed in the same manner, the overflow assuring you that you weren't getting shortchanged.
Citizen's sashimi also boosts the restaurant's positive vibe. Wide sheets of thick tuna ($9) and yellow tail ($12) are cool, silky, and refreshingly rich. Whole baby octopus ($5), stained a ruddy brown from a slathering of sauce made with soy, sake, sugar, and mirin (sweet rice wine), is tender, chewy, and flavorful.
Sushi, however, shuffles lackadaisically in weary warmth. Hamachi (yellow tail, $5) was limp. The spider roll ($5) was pasty and mushy, while uni (sea urchin roe, $6) was runny and lacked a fresh nutty spark. This was in contrast to the tako (octopus, $4), briskly cool and firmly tender, and the tobiko (flying fish roe), supple, fluffy, and stained bright green with wasabi.
One Citizen touch was jarring, considering all of the I Ching exertions. In a private dining nook drenched in deep red, just to the left of the sushi bar, hangs a large portrait of Mao Tse-tung. How can the Confucian divination of the I Ching possibly be reconciled with the antics of the Chairman, a man so full of goodwill he transformed mass crime into a system of government? A man so suffused with positive vibes that his egalitarian-inspired gestures of execution, induced famine, and forced labor resulted in an estimated 65 million dead Chinese.
When confronted with the incongruity of these icons, Nitishin talks not of the brash clash of symbolism, but of how the commissioned portrait didn't quite measure up to their initial expectations. "It didn't come out the way we wanted it to," he says. "We wanted it to be kind of cutting-edge and Andy Warholish." He pauses a little. "It was never meant to be a political statement but was meant more to be on the cutting edge of art. We don't want to be displaying people that don't have positive followings or reputations." Maybe that is why he suggested the portrait will be replaced by a mirror.
But this doesn't mean Citizen isn't suffused with subtle ideological tinges -- or reverence for a famous American film director and actor. "The group has a tremendous amount of respect for Orson Welles," says Nitishin, who adds the restaurant was named after Welles' 1941 film Citizen Kane. Similarly, The Mercury in North Dallas was named after New York's Mercury Theater, founded by Welles and John Houseman in 1937.
But there are other subtexts driving Citizen. Nitishin says Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor figures prominently. "He goes from emperor to citizen," says Nitishin, encapsulating the life of the film's lead character, who ascends to Imperial China's Dragon Throne at age 3 and descends to under-gardener in Beijing's botanical gardens following a "re-education" under the Communist regime.
The name also imparts a world feel. To buttress this touch, the logo was fashioned to depict a rapidly spinning globe -- a red one that Nitishin says is a bit socialistic.