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On a bright, crisp Winter’s day, I sought solace from the bitter cold in one of my favorite places to open this year – Citizen, tucked away on Lower Queen Anne. Genuine warmth radiates from every corner and from every employee. The distant sun seems just a little more radiant, magnified through towering windows. The space is cozy and genuine, cobbled together, a narrow slice of joy. My glasses fog up when I step through the door.
Citizen has crêpes and coffee, soup and sandwiches, an impressive selection of inexpensive wines and that’s about it. There are a couple of hot plates, a panini press, and a mis en place station tucked under the stairs. Those stairs lead to a tiny balcony with a couple of sofas and a couple more chairs. It’s immensely heart-warming, from stomach to soul. I adore that a small place like this can exist, carved out of the side of an auto body repair shop.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that co-owners Justin Taft and Suzana Olmos are just about the sweetest people I’ve had the fortune of meeting. Taft mans the crêpe station, Olmos crafts sandwiches, everybody wins. Now I know we’ve covered this before, but I’ve never been particularly crazy about crêpes. The Citizen crêpes are thin and fluffy and totally bursting with fillings. These are not simple French crêpes, these are enormous American meals. Like breakfast burrito big. I enjoyed a Black Forest ham crêpe well enough (with Swiss cheese and tomatoes and spinach and crème fraiche). It was substantial, but didn’t exactly win me over. If you like crêpes, sweet or savory, then I’m fairly certain you’ll be satisfied, but I’m pretty much a lost cause.
No matter! Because I love sandwiches, and Citizen has some good ones. Particularly the “Vietnamese Style” with spicy tofu or chicken or roasted pork. The sandwich comes on a soft and flaky baguette, with sweet cucumber and slices of potent jalapeño. Tofu is lightly sautéed and on the eggy side, but has a ton of flavor. Likewise the pickled carrots, daikons and sprigs of fresh cilantro. It’s a nice size too, not grotesquely overblown like so many sandwiches these days. Not a bad little banh mi (which I heart).
As recounted earlier, I am still continuing on my Reuben quest, and the Citizen version is nearly perfect – a harmony of peppery pastrami, tangy pickled sauerkraut and cheesy Swiss. The mustard is sweet and spicy and the crusty rye bread holds up beautifully. It’s really quite exceptional. The Citizen signature sandwich is made with shredded pieces of roast pork and has a sweetness accented by bright banana peppers, caramelized onions and the omnipresent cilantro. The meat is very lightly dressed with a mildly spicy mojo sauce, allowing the pork to speak for itself. Again, I really appreciate the remarkably restrained, delicate hand.
One caveat – just stay the hell away from the B.L.A.T. The avocado is actually used as a spread, which gives the sourdough bread a soggy consistency even after grilling, the “lettuce” is lightly seasoned mâche, the bacon dry and salty. And I really should know better than to eat tomatoes in winter. This was not the reminder I was hoping for, but it has done it’s job. Tomato season is over, folks.
But please, don’t let that dissuade you. Citizen is a breath of fresh air, an authentic venture, a place with real heart. Spend some time reading the detailed, hand-written notes posted next to each wine bottle or admiring the chalk-drawn menu flourishes and you’ll see the care they’ve invested in this tiny gem. With the glut of oversized, mediocre corporate restaurants that have flooded the market this year, I almost forgot places like Citizen can still happen.
Tucked away below street level at the awkward intersection where Denny meets Western in lower Queen Anne, you will find an unlikely oasis of Provençal French cooking that contends with the very best. Down a short ramp and through a petite herb garden and into the best smelling restaurant in town – Boat Street Café, a longstanding and beloved favorite of mine, an intimate sanctuary to forget one’s self over a glass of Beaujolais and a plate of silky smooth chicken liver paté. Upon stepping through the bright yellow sliding garage door, take a minute to catch your breath amidst the twinkling lights and colorful parasols and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The room is whitewashed, the tables topped with slate, the walls hung with Jeffry Mitchell’s playful ceramic elephants. Prepare yourself for a magical evening.
My admiration for chef Renee Erickson is only exceeded by her tireless reimagining of the menu. There is always something new to try. There are rarely any lapses in the kitchen. The grace and execution of her plates are unparalleled. Simple, rustic French food that satisfies body and soul. Steamed mussels, roasted chicken, ribeye steak. Dijon mustard and niçoise olives and Erickson’s famous pickles (rotating seasonal selections of fruits and vegetables). Salt and pepper abounds. The dishes are approachable, and not nearly as intimidating as say, the menu at Le Pichet. There is a singular elegance to the space and the cooking, a distinctly feminine perspective that is plainly obvious and deeply appreciated.
So a few years ago, after returning from a trip to Italy which “cured” me of my pescetarianism, the very first thing I did was make reservations for dinner at Boat Street Café. That fortuitous meal would be the first time I encountered Erickson’s house made pork sausage – coarsely ground and loosely packed with fennel and garlic, spicy and herbal and topped with a magnificent fried egg. It immediately became the standard by which I now measure all sausages. Also in the pig department: herb roasted pork loin chop courtesy of Carlton Farms (or if you’re really lucky, Wooly Pigs) and served over roasted potatoes with a seasonal vegetable. As Summer roared into town last weekend, I found a side of grilled Romaine lettuce with sweet pickled golden raisins very nearly upstaged the meat! And leave it to Renee Erickson to make me a believer in salmon again. Alaskan King served with a bright and wonderful lemony cream and mint sauce and covered with sautéed English peas, meaty Porcini mushrooms and ridiculously tasty shallots. It makes me wonder how places like Anthony’s even stay in business. (Answer: tourists).
And finally, I also hold Boat Street Café solely responsible for teaching me that dessert is not an option. The Valrhona dark chocolate pot de crème is the stuff of legends. Served in an ice cold ceramic jar, the custard is so light and smooth on the tongue, so rich and chocolaty that you’ll need another bite to confirm the breadth and depth of this dessert’s unrivaled awesomeness. And another. Are you going to eat that?
I should also mention that while Boat Street Café is only open for dinner, the adjacent Boat Street Kitchen is equally amazing for lunch. Headed up by Erickson’s partner Susan Kaplan (the owner of the original Boat Street Café – R.I.P.), the same attention to detail and classy sensibility is always on display. I love the ruby trout with basil sauce, and the Magali tomato soup served cold with goat cheese baguette. There’s Croque Monsieur and assorted tartes and the famous rustic cornmeal custard cake with sausage and maple syrup (“better than pancakes”). Get out of the office, take an hour for lunch, relax. Eat a cheese plate. Drink a glass of rosé in the sun. It’s summer. It’s not going to last forever.