Zen for the Citizens?

In which I, for the first time, try my hand at writing a restaurant review. What do you think?

June 25, 2008

Citizen CafeThe April issue of Metropolitan magazine included quite a juicy article about the relationship between dining experiences and graphic design. The author, Steven Heller, argued that the elements that make up a great meal are only isolated statements if not somehow brought together with an evocative visual element. Like a book with an irresistible dust jacket, graphic design allows a restaurant to tell its story by artistically setting the tone for a meal.

This was fresh in my mind when I visited the brand new Citizen Cafe in south Minneapolis last week. The restaurant’s graphic design and branding is so effective I started to form an opinion of the place before I traveled down Hiawatha one weeknight to get there. The logo features a joyful chef wielding a huge knife and fork on top of a bright burst of Soviet-style yellow and red. The restaurant’s motto, “cafe for the people,” promises to unite city and countrymen through a solid array of satisfying home-cooked meals with thoughtful urban flair. All in all, the story Citizen Cafe is telling is “finally, we will eat!”

Despite this chic presentation of proletariat joy, there wasn’t all that much fun, kitschy, or communal about our experience. The setting, a low-slung neighborhood shack, is quiet, with elegant white walls, large windows, and clean lines. When my friend and I stepped in and asked if we could get a table for two, the hostess seemed so caught off guard that I had to remind her that it wasn’t a trick question.

At the table, we relaxed into the quiet hush of a new restaurant and ordered two appetizers. One was pickled vegetables, which tried to be a satisfying counterpoint to the meal I had come to expect. The other was braised beef short ribs. I don’t know much about the vocabulary of meat, but we had to poke around to identify what we should be eating.

The service, while pleasant, was a little lacking. We didn’t have water, bread, or a knife for our appetizer until well after these items should have arrived. And while we appreciated the accompanying butter and homemade beet spread, the two types of bread at the table were absolutely lifeless. In a city where every guy and gal on the payroll can pick up an acceptable loaf of freshly baked bread at Rainbow, why should we settle for less?

For my entree, I was pleased with a unique twist: a Caesar salad with scallops. A bit of a Caesar addict, I tend to rely on its distinctive taste as an indication of a restaurant’s ability to express itself. The scallops spoke to me like a perfectly fluffed bed of pillows. I dove in and enjoyed the soft taste of lemon complemented by the perfectly browned tops, but the rest of the salad didn’t say Caesar to me much at all. My friend also ordered a scallop salad, but with roasted tomatoes, bacon, and homemade creamy dill dressing. We both raved about the scallops and suspected that the restaurant was trying to woo us with their generosity. We each had five or six of the big guys.

What did we think while relaxing by the large windows and enjoying the late-afternoon sun? The food at Citizen Cafe isn’t as hard-working as their logo suggests it will be. After a long day at the office, we workaday girls felt a little toyed with rather than satisfied. However, in a somewhat unstylish neighborhood lacking a lot of contemporary restaurant options, Citizen Cafe will find its appeal. The prices are good, the setting is clean and comfortable, and the upcoming liquor license will make for a happy neighborhood clientele.

Citizen Cafe on Urbanspoon

39 thoughts on “Zen for the Citizens?

  1. Bob

    I have to say that I agree with your review of Citizen Cafe. My wife and I have been there twice and were not impressed. Your last paragraph is a bit insulting to us who live in South Minneapolis. You state, “However, in a mostly unstylish neighborhood lacking restaurant options, Citizen Cafe will find its appeal.” You couldn’t be any more misinformed because within no more than a couple minutes distance, you have The Craftsman, Town Talk Diner, Longfellow Grill, Buster’s on 28th, Ted Cook’s 19th Hole BBQ, and please don’t forget about the home of the Jucy Lucy, Matt’s Bar.

  2. Carrie Post author

    Bob – I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve been to many of those restaurants (and love them), but I think that comment does make sense. Even Dara used it as the main hook in her review for Minnesota Monthly, here: http://tinyurl.com/awdfca.

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