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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.
As a self-identified Francophile, I’m often admonished for my general aversion to traditional crêpes. Given a short list of things to eat, I will never, ever choose a crêpe. This is a fact. It’s somewhat perplexing and even a little embarrassing, given the disproportionate number of dedicated crêpe kitchens in Seattle. Maybe it’s the ambiguity of the crêpe that makes me wary – is it breakfast? Dessert? A meal? A snack? Or maybe it’s the inherent simplicity of the dish? An earnest flour batter, straightforward fillings. In any case, here I was, revisiting La Côte Crêperie for the fourth time in as many weeks in the hopes of better understanding the source of my reticence.
La Côte occupies a tiny, well-lit space adjunct to Voilà! Bistrot at the bottom of the hill in Madison Valley (Laurent Gabrel, l’homme génial, owns them both). There’s a retro Breton nautical motif in full effect here, all blue and white stripes from the walls to the waitstaff. An interesting throwback, albeit unsurprising when one learns that the savory buckwheat galettes at La Côte originally herald from the coastal region of Brittany (as does the hard apple cider customarily paired with the thin pancakes). The music is all appropriately French, ranging from contemporary chansons to bouncy 1960′s pop (ladies and gentlemen – on behalf of the internet, I give you, Radio Yé-Yé. Yay?) There are maybe six marble-topped tables total, lots of hardwood, and a colossal chalkboard stretching all the way to the ceiling which lists all manner of crêpe for your perusal. Shall we then?
I begin with savory, acknowledging that sweet is very likely responsible for 75% of my decades-long dismissal of the crêpe as a “proper” food. I am very fond of raclette, and am thrilled to see that the pungent Swiss cheese forms the base of the Savoyarde (in addition to yukon potatoes, prosciutto and crème fraîche). That sounds pretty, um, delicious, I think to myself. The shockingly large buckwheat galette arrives, corners folded over in a square, like a gift. The raclette is used sparingly, but to great effect, complementing the salty cured ham and soft potatoes. It’s generously seasoned with black pepper, which makes me infinitely happy. The crème fraîche being of the squeeze bottle variety makes me far less so. Still – paired with a smooth, dry glass of Cabernet Franc from Saumur, or an earthy, bittersweet cup of Cidre Bouché Dupont, I have to call this a win. Additional wins can found in the definitive La Complète and the eponymous La Côte. “The Complete” being a hearty Emmenthal and ham-filled galette topped with a fried egg served sunny side up, and “The Coast” being comprised of a rich, seafood sauce filled with chunks of fresh shrimp and scallop.
All of the above has led me to reluctantly admit that one of my chief grievances about crêpes couldn’t be farther from the truth – their presumed insubstantiality. In fact, these galettes are exceedingly filling. They can and do constitute a complete meal (especially if you split a bowl of Vichyssoise or onion gratinée soup). The same cannot be said about the sweet crêpes, I’m afraid. Duty-bound to at least try one, I let my partner choose, and she goes for La Citronée. The filling is a simple, sweet, lemony syrup, and the whole pancake is sprinkled with granulated sugar. If such a thing is possible, the dessert crêpes are so light as to be practically ephemeral. They hardly exist on the space-time continuum. For all the world I still can’t imagine myself seeking something like this out on purpose, but as a dessert, I guess it does the job.
There are a handful of other items on the menu besides the crêpes, including the aforementioned soups and a handful of salads, as well as assorted fruits de mer served as appetizers after 5:00 o’clock. That’s all well and good, but I do believe I’m going to keep exploring the rest of this list… Another misconception successfully replaced with appreciation (or at least comprehension). Go, Go, Gastronaut!