When Citizen opened roughly four years ago, its mix of neo-Asian fusion with a traditional sushi bar threw off so much heat that it was nearly impossible to get near it on a weekend night. The bar area, with banks of white televisions (now converted to plasma screens) bolted onto the back bar and pictures of pandas in the lounge area, was hotter and lustier than a pair of crossed long legs tapering into strappy Manolo Blahniks. It reveled in retro chic stapled to Asian hip: an Andy Warholish portrait of Chairman Mao, plastic wood-laminated chairs, black lacquer, bamboo stalks as big as fire poles and a sushi bar backdrop of red slate embedded with I Ching hexagrams.
The food was mostly unimpressive, especially the sushi, which was warm and seemed largely assembled with listless care.
I didn't notice the chill much because I only slipped in on occasion during off-hours to sip icy martinis (incredible specimens here) and nibble on wasabi-coated fried peas.
That's all I clipped from the Citizen menu until I started racking up Dallas sushi disappointments. Royal Tokyo burned. Blue Fish was permanently written off my list of casual visits after a server chased me into the parking lot one Friday evening demanding a larger tip. Sushi on McKinney seems forever stuck in mainstream mediocrity. Sushi Kyoto II on Hillcrest has let its freshness deteriorate to the point that my last offerings were indistinguishable from sour milk.
So for this reason we found ourselves at Citizen late one Saturday evening. We were stunned, negotiating our way through the space empty of the sparkle and buzz that once filled it.
I was spotted in the void. "Mark, you've got to get in here and write us up; we can't get anybody in here," said a panicked pro from Restaurant Life, Citizen's corporate parent, which also tends to Mercury, Mercury Grill, Paris Vendome and Fort Worth's Chop House. The chill had bitten the bone.
Why, I wondered, should I reacquaint myself with a gutsy but somewhat failed global piece of self-conscious earnestness, one whose only lasting impression on my brain was etched by martinis and fiery peas as hard as buckshot?
Then I tasted the flounder.
It's hard to make a sushi bar work with a kitchen that offers much more than tempura and teriyaki. The timing gets thrown out of whack. The priorities conflict, and it takes a manager of uncommon perception to see it. Someone at Citizen noticed, and to deal with the restaurant's dwindling fortunes, Restaurant Life and corporate chef Chris Ward scrambled with a handful of strategies: menu changes, price cuts and a reshuffled wine list. They also modified the dining room, tearing out the wall behind the sushi bar to open up the main kitchen while knocking out the wall separating the "skylight room" enveloping the sushi bar from the rest of the dining room.
But perhaps the most significant change was undertaken more than two years ago when Restaurant Life began picking the brain of Tei Tei/Teppo founder Teiichi Sakurai. The result was revamped sushi systems and chef Yutaka Yamato. Lucky us. Whoa to all sushi bar posers with panhandling servers and tobiko that could double for Limburger cheese.
Everything, from albacore to octopus to flounder to flathead fish (kochi), bulges with scrubbed flavors wrapped in a satiny disposition. Even mackerel, which often sequesters startlingly strong flavors that can terrify the uninitiated, is elegantly rich, the slices beautifully framed in silvery bands of skin. Digestible toro, the fatty and soft tuna underbelly, can be difficult to find in Dallas, and when you do, it is mundane, sinewy or worse. Under Yamato's touch, the meat resembles a piece of pleated silk draped over an overstuffed footstool--a negligee disposed of after its purpose has been fulfilled. In the mouth it is perplexingly rich and creamy, behaving almost like a mousse.
Sakurai must be a supremely confident being, because with the help of his suggestive powers, Ward has what is easily among the best sushi restaurants in Dallas--rivaling even Sakurai's efforts. And Citizen isn't even a sushi restaurant.
Take, for instance, Ward's peerless seared foie gras on brioche seasoned with a little cinnamon and sugar. It arrives on a square plate, dots of dark berry sauce in each corner. It's an ample bit of flesh, mottled with blotches of yellow, beige and gray. The richness spreads smoothly in the mouth, tempered and heightened by hints of sweetness.
Blurring boundaries creates unexpected whirls at times. Lobster ceviche--lobster nuggets resting with jalapeño, cilantro and pear tomato on lettuce spread across the plate like clover leaves--is not a typical ceviche. It's poached, instead of "cooked" in lime, and bathed in a dressing of ponzu, citrus and olive oil--imaginative and deft. The meat is sweet, but the typical bracing ceviche acidity recedes to the background, a wise move with the complex lobster flavor profile.
Hazards bubble up, though. One of them is being recognized, and I suspect if I were just another diner with a Mercedes instead of one with a Bic, I wouldn't have had the sugarcane tuna experience. We ordered the fish rare, but it arrived milky-gray with a slightly pink core. Texturally it was a sinewy sponge. A manager spotted the inconsistency and insisted the kitchen take another stab at it. The redo arrived with a thin, creamy-gray seared edge enveloping a pink layer that gradually blushed deep rose in the center. Pierced with a stalk of sugarcane, the meat was satiny and rich, perched on a mass of bok choy, soy chum (a Chinese flowering cabbage) and shiitake mushrooms. It was bathed in a delicate sauce rendered from oyster sauce, soy and sugar.
A similar sauce was dribbled on the duck. Like the tuna, the crispy duck bedded down on a lush vegetation mattress: bok choy, baby corn, mushrooms, carrot and broccoli. Duck pieces--bits of breast, a carved leg, strips of rich tar-black skin--were settled onto the vegetables. Glistening brownish-gray without pinkish tinges, the meat was rich and moist, almost buttery and lacking those lurking liver flavors. The sauce was wisely restrained, fearlessly leaving the meat clad scantily so its inherent flavors could work the palate without shame.
The only riveting shortcoming here was Thai chicken on cold soba noodles--a harrowing disappointment. Chicken nuggets, marinated in sugar and fish sauce, are cooked until a shallow crispness forms on the surface. They were deliciously savory with a pleasantly tingling burst of heat. But chewing exposed them: tough and dry. The cold soba noodle tangle was ringed with layers of onion, curved red and yellow bell pepper cuttings, and jalapeños. And the soba noodle chill infected the whole dish, thwarting a merging of flavors.
But maybe they've shrunk Citizen's chill down to this single plate, which doesn't detract from the reasons--now numbering more than martinis and hot hard peas--to become a Citizen.
3858 Oak Lawn Ave., #145, 214-522-7253. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$
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