For much of our date night at the new Citizen, my husband’s eyes looked longingly at the women seated next to us. (Practically cuddled next to us: tables are snugly spaced here.) Both were chomping down on the Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwich, a teetering tower of brown crunch and pale goo tucked in a puffy bun. It had, I allow, serious eye appeal. And sound appeal: it makes noises, this construct, that blends with the sound of women moaning.
Our table was covered largely with vegetables and raw fish. Plates of scallop crudo, the rounds of raw mollusk deluged with tiny, shiny, pretty things; wedges of grilled eggplant smothered with yogurt; black and green broccoli; and a warm salad of roasted squash and wilted radicchio. Plus (fried) falafel, for fibre. All of which my date tucked into with great pleasure — and justly so. But ever with a roaming eye to the birds next door.
Citizen is the second project for the formidable chef-restaurateur team of Marc Doiron and Lori Wojcik. Their first is the seven-year-old Elgin Street restaurant called Town. This sibling slipped into a former hair salon space, around the corner from Town on Gilmour Street, with a configuration that allows for the Town kitchen to be lengthened and shared. The room is bright, whitewashed, with design touches that are rustic-refined, quirky and charming. Art matters to this team – Wojcik comes from an art restoration background, and ran a gallery for a dozen years. Music does too. If there weren’t a dozen hungry eyes at the front door looking longingly at my table (no reservations), I could have lingered, ordering this and that, and enjoyed the tunes.
As is the modern way, the menu has a snacky sensibility. If you know the food served at Town, you’ll recognize the same focus on big flavours, eccentric-sounding combinations (that work), and pretty plates. Doiron trained as a pastry chef, and his pleasure in detail, colour and form is clear. But unlike the cuisine at Town – mod-Italian with some liberties – the influences on the menu at Citizen are more global, from southern Spain, Lebanon, Morocco, Korea, Japan and Quebec. Whyever not?
You could start with dates, stuffed with smoked blue cheese, sashed with bacon, brushed with cayenne’d honey, and smothered with almonds, slivered and browned. Though you could also end well with these dates; no matter how much savoury you toss at dates, they remain sweet treats. Or you could start with broccoli. Nothing sweet about them. The kitchen sets the charred spears, showered with manchego cheese, in a shallow pool of Ajo Blanco, the ancient Andalusian soup of almond, bread and garlic, cool and thick, scattered with pickled grapes, and lots of crunchy almonds. Think broccoli’s not your thing? Try this version.
Wedges of smokey eggplant, canoe shaped, bronzed, grill-marked and dredged in punchy spices, are set upon with many things – a couscous salad, soft braised lamb, juicy pops of pomegranate, rings of pickled jalapeno, spoons of cool, tangy yogurt and a big finish of nubbly gremolata, all green and garlicky, puckered up with preserved lemon.
And on it went, dish after dish of pretty pleasures and out-there combinations. Heirloom carrots perfectly roasted, set in a white puddle of goat cheese sauce. Ringing the dish, an Oz-green swirl of slurried pesto, and (here’s where it gets weird) orange mounds of tobiko (Japanese flying fish roe), along with preserved mandarin for some sweet citrus, branches of dill and broken bits of a black sesame brittle.
Two types of squash are herbed, roasted and blanketed with charred radicchio, moistened with a lime crema and crowned with seeds. What else? Falafel with beet hummus and a pickled beet salad, heady of cloves. And scallops crudo, the only dish with a slight flaw. Roasted hazelnuts, a brunoise of green apple, pea shoots and snipped chives draped the scallops, ‘cooked’ in a lime-apple gel and anointed with brown butter. But the butter had hardened to shards. Clearly not the plan. So we let the dish sit, turned our attention to other things, and in time the butter liquefied, and the scallops and their mates were pretty darn splendid.
Who needs teetering towers of Korean fried chicken sandwiches with prosciutto and pickles when there’s so much good in vegetables and fish?
We indulged instead with pudding chomeur set in a maple caramel, with spiced apples and whipped cream.
Citizen might have a thoroughly casual feel, but service has a fine dining sensibility. It knows the food inside out and back to front, has solid wine knowledge (the list is as interesting as the food), is focused on the needs of its tables, and the floor and bar staff seem a happy bunch.
As our server said, when asked why she’d come to Citizen: “Well, when you have the opportunity to work with Marc and Lori… you just do.”
Marc Doiron and Lori Wojcik’s Citizen is open Thursday through Sunday. On Monday evenings, guest chef Mike Frank (late of Bar Robo and the departed Mellos diner) takes over the kitchen.
207 Gilmour St., 613-422-6505
Small plates, $9 to $16
Open from 6 p.m. Thursday to Monday