Better fed than red

Citizen rises above its quirks -- sometimes

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.

I Ching hexagrams above Citizen's bar promote happy thoughts -- the foie gras doesn't.
Jon Lagow
I Ching hexagrams above Citizen's bar promote happy thoughts -- the foie gras doesn't.

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.

How does all of this conflicted symbolism coalesce on the plate? Hard to say. The successes are remarkable, the failures regrettable. M Crowd founder Michael "Mico" Rodriguez and chef Chris Ward traversed the country to absorb Asian-inspired menus before adding their personal twists.

Pan-fried dumplings -- singed, supple pillows concealing perfect little balls of pink pork -- are juicy and freshly delicious with an immaculate, simple ginger soy sauce for dipping.

Sesame-crusted tuna was served in a puddle of brown fluid rendered from oyster sauce, onion, and ginger. But instead of coming off like the typical Chinese restaurant salve -- thick, muddled, and cloying -- this sauce is rich, agile, and understated, never lacquering the mouth into numbness. The tuna itself was too gray and stiff for my tastes, though it was still succulent. Plus, the heap of baby corn, straw mushrooms, bok choy, and bell pepper was fresh and crisp.

Even Southwestern touches creep in now and again. Jicama and grapefruit salad is a tangle of jicama strips, carrot threads, and shreds of red cabbage studded with sweet roasted pecans, mint flecks, and bright pink sections of juicy grapefruit. This knot is drenched in a blend of rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and sambal (Thai chili paste). Despite the potential explosiveness of this formula, the salad was dull.

Not so with the crisped scallops, which had a delicate, brittle sheath surrounding sweet, resilient flesh. A bed of jalapeño-red onion jam and applewood bacon speckled frisée add a pulpy sweetness, leafy crispness, and smoky, acidic spark.

Other things were simply adequate. Wok-seared shrimp speckled with cashews, mushy water chestnuts, and flaccid bamboo shoots held lush shrimp trying desperately to surpass their pedestrian, slightly soapy flavors. The dish had no discernible focal point, no real spark. It could have easily been disgorged from a white cardboard carton.

Green papaya salad with calamari seemed misnamed. It should be billed as calamari mound on papaya bed. Not a bad thing, this, except the calamari coating was chalky and bland.

Glazed duck breast ($21) stunned. Slices of moist duck breast tucked near a set of duck landing gear surged with rich, articulate flavors that were well served by a soy plum demi-glace that gently flashed with sweetness as it meshed seamlessly with the meat.

Dessert stumbled. Chocolate souffle with chocolate sauce slapped the mouth like a piece of foam rubber dragged through a mound of chalk dust. No silkiness. No delicate texture. No rich decadence. Just fudged fiber.

Citizen comes off like a retro tech rec room. The bar is sliced with clean, sharp lines studded with white Naugahyde swivel stools. It's softened by an ultrasuede banquet slipped under a big panda bear portrait. The back bar has a post with three white TV monitors pointing in different directions, like some sort of mechanical insect.

The skylight room flows with sensuous curves. White banquets are sloped and fronted with oval tables, and the floor tables are notched on one end and lobed on the other, fitting together in a sort of yin-yang merging. Beyond this section is a more formal dining space, softened with carpeting and buttoned down with rectangular tables.

The M Crowd has a full plate. Citizen follows the opening of Southern Table in Fort Worth, a liver-and-onions, chicken-fried-steak restaurant that occupies that town's onetime Mainstream Fish House location. The company also is planning to open two restaurants -- a Parisian brasserie, and a spot called Food, Water, Bar -- in the West Village development emerging from the freshly broken ground at Lemmon and McKinney.

Here's hoping they refrain from applying their odd twists to brutal dictator portraits. And bird liver.

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