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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.