I won't besmirch Elizabeth Falkner's rep by calling her a celebrity chef, but she does merit being labeled an "icon." And as an icon, she couldn't be a better representative for the San Francisco food scene. From her days at Elka and Rubicon to Citizen Cake and Orson, Falkner has crashed through the spun-sugar ceiling that keeps so many pastry chefs from acquiring a national following.
The Falkner style is a sophisticated whimsy that usually stops short of being cloying or cutesy. Her best desserts are a collage of flavors clipped from dozens of cuisines, with an eye out for the new. (Bonus points: Falkner was one of the first to join in the cupcake rush, and one of the first to escape.) In her cookbook as well as TV appearances, she always comes off as stylish and professional, personable and authentic.
Falkner's first Citizen Cake was a SOMA pastry shop that graduated into a full-scale restaurant. During its decade in Hayes Valley, Citizen Cake launched or propelled the careers of chefs both savory and sweet. In January 2010, she announced that the restaurant was migrating to Fillmore Street, moving into the space Vivande had occupied for decades and escaping the boom-and-bust cycles of the opera-symphony crowd. Although a "quick" renovation took almost 11 months, the delay allowed Falkner to recruit Amy Glaze, a former Le Bernardin sous-chef, to run the kitchen.
Delay aside, all the signs boded well. And then I had a few meals at the new place, each one leaving me bemused and somewhat taken aback. The Falkner brilliance is there, but it's refracted and splotchy. Is the new Citizen Cake a gem that needs polishing or a shoddily cut one? I couldn't quite tell.
While restaurants like Commis make the minimalist look work, Citizen Cake looks like a just-gessoed canvas. Falkner has stripped out all of Vivande's warm rusticity, leaving a shell of gray slate floors, white paint, black counters, and one exposed-brick wall. Instead of building up from that, however, she has put a spray of flowers on the counter and hung up a "Citizen Cake" neon sign.
Perhaps the plainness is meant to look like a gallery for the dessert case, with its tiny, immaculate cakes and cookies; or for the couture the restaurant's straight-backed, $200-haircut clientele is wearing. But to me, the room lacks a sense of place. In contrast, the brand-new Jane next door — a blend of Parisian dandy, burlesque, and Tim Burton's sketchbook — strikes me as the setting I've always wanted for Falkner's cakes.
Citizen Cake III operates simultaneously as a pastry shop, cafe, and full-service restaurant, complete with entrées in the 1990s price range ($16 to $24, not bad) and black-shirted waiters who do a fine job. Glaze's lunch and dinner menus incorporate tweaked classics (canard à l'orange, Chinese chicken salad) and lighter, slightly more cerebral fare (beet-asparagus terrine, beet salad with beef heart).
The menu reads like a good fit with Falkner's style. But too many of the savory dishes taste as flat as their surroundings. For instance, one dinner started with a gorgeous beet and asparagus terrine ($12), transparent slab of peach-colored gelatin (actually agar) studded with bull's-eye chioggia beets and tiny green circles of asparagus. But the gel was unseasoned and unflavored, the flavor of the asparagus imperceptible, and a dab of horseradish cream the only element aimed for the tongue rather than the eyes. I had a similar reaction to hiramasa tataki ($15), translucent slices of seared fish speckled with pomegranate seeds and Asian pear. A jalapeño emulsion circling the plate provided a soft flash of vegetal heat, but there was nothing else, including salt, to shade in the raw fish's wan flavor and counterbalance the fragile sweetness of the fruit. Citizen Cake's meatless entrée, a mound of red quinoa smothered in sautéed greens, butternut squash, and cipollini ($16), was the kind of thing that excited vegetarians in 1973.
Less shaky dishes: A salad of pink-veined chicories ($12) was ornamented with apples, dates, walnuts, and blue cheese — everything, in short, except dressing, which is the one thing salads of bitter greens need most desperately. (We asked the waiter for a cruet of dressing, and soon it tasted as good as it looked.) And the cracker crusts of Citizen Cake's pizzas were nothing like the prevailing Neapolitan-Delfina style, but the toppings on the one I ordered — a good basil pesto, crisp cubes of bacon, bright chèvre, and a shower of tiny arugula leaves ($14) — came off bright and balanced.
I most enjoyed the dishes originating in a gutbomb idea that Glaze then refined, coaxing them back into the realm of the edible. A fried chicken Cobb sandwich ($13) framed crackling-crusted meat in a gush of ripe avocado and another of egg salad, salty flashes of bacon appearing here and there. The high point of dinner was her short rib stroganoff ($20), deconstructed into wide noodles, roasted Thumbelina carrots, and sautéed chanterelles. There was no need for sour cream — the reduced braising liquid clinging to the beef was potent enough to enrobe the entire dish in its richness.
It wasn't until the dessert course that Falkner's vivid talents emerged. It's a little jarring, at the culmination of a $35-per-person lunch or $50-plus dinner, to be told you're supposed to walk up to the dessert case to pick out your dessert. That said, each is small and reasonably priced — $5 for most of the most elaborate ones — and no one can fault you for ordering a cluster.
Miniature versions of Falkner's signature shag cake (passionfruit-mango mousse, rum-soaked cake, dried-coconut coating) are in the case, as well as her mocha-mi-su (chocolate torte dressed up like tiramisu). The bright-pink shell of a "love letter" cake cracks open to reveal tart raspberry mouse, a whiff of rose, and a sparkle of black peppercorn. And every staff person I polled pointed us to the sultry thrill of the chocolate and salted-caramel tart. Once I had recovered, I thanked each of them individually.
Falkner's newest playground are her verrines ($5) — clear plastic glasses filled with mousses, fruit purées, and crunchy, cakey bits. One contains a sparkling tangerine mousse spooned over a vanilla panna cotta, the layers separated with candied pistachios and tangerine rind. Another tautly balances chocolate mousse and chocolate cake with the crisp aroma of cinnamon and smoky chipotle. And her butterscotch-miso mousse, the musk of the fermented-soybean paste tugging the caramel toward the savory, is darkly satisfying.
Here are the questions I'm left with: Is Citizen Cake supposed to be a shop where customers pop in to for a few soigné sweets (which it seems to be set up for), or is it a restaurant whose customers are supposed to return regularly for multicourse meals and linger, visit after visit (which it isn't)? Is the kitchen understaffed, or is the young chef focusing on the individual components of each dish instead of its overall impact? Having seen Citizen Cake evolve over the past dozen years, I have no doubt the new incarnation can evolve into a compelling restaurant. If that's, indeed, what Falkner wants it to be.