Lose your winter doldrums here
Citizen Public House is a heavenly respite
Hectic days speed past. It snows constantly. Mondays are crummy. You work late and get up early. Your boss is Michael Scott. The “check engine’’ light is on, the dog barfed on the rug, you need milk, your taxes are due.
No no no.
Life should feel like a wonderful party in slow motion, at least some of the time. It should feel like the moment when the flakes start to fall, before shoveling crosses your mind, when the world is muffled and beautiful; like driving through the oven of a summer afternoon with the windows down and the AC blasting; like the crackle of vinyl when you drop the needle, just before the music starts. It should feel like a grown-up game of Twister, entangled with friends, ridiculous and laughing until it hurts. At least some of the time.
So here is what you do. Call 10 or so of your favorite people, set a date, and let Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar know you’re coming in for a pig roast. (This requires 72 hours’ advance notice.) When you’re all seated around a table in the dark room — anticipatory, maybe a little dressed up — and chef Brian Reyelt wheels out the stiff and lacquered beast with a huge grin, everything feels quite right.
Not so much for the pig, perhaps; he is whisked away and reappears carved into pieces, his body stuffed with sausage and his head set upon a plate for everyone to gnaw at. This isn’t about justice. Thank him with a toast and get on with the festivities. After plates of oysters and shrimp cocktail, vats of mashed potatoes and broccoli gratin and Brussels sprouts appear before you to accompany the main course. Your friends from Spain and the Philippines are deep into some existential moment of nostalgia, licking their fingers and exclaiming how much this roast reminds them of childhood and holidays and family and home. Your husband is trying his first pig ear. Everyone is drinking a little too much and yelling down to the other end of the table and pantomiming “I can’t hear you,’’ shaking their heads and laughing. And everyone wears a look of relief and happiness, Mondays and chores and taxes momentarily forgotten.
A night at Citizen Public House always feels at least a little like a party. In part it’s because the place is so small it’s often crowded, sometimes unpleasantly so; make a reservation for six or more or expect a cramped wait for a table. It’s also because co-owner Dave Dubois and his team are adept at creating this kind of atmosphere — they’ve done it before with the Franklin Cafe and Franklin Southie (not to mention the new Tasty Burger across the street from Citizen, whose plump, retro neon font you can see from the window).
This latest venture, opened in October, is a new space that looks like it’s been around for years, pubby, with wood ceilings, a gas fireplace, and brown leather booths and banquettes. Customers pack in around the bar at the center of the room, watching the shuckers shuck and the mustachioed bartenders make drinks. The walls are covered in flocked velvet paper, and glass pendants hang over the bar, shedding just a little less than enough light. In one corner, a cheeky sign with an arrow pointing downward reads “LOO.’’
What amazes is that Citizen Public House manages to hit virtually every current food trend without ever feeling trendy or like it’s trying too hard. It serves punch bowls (the Pimm’s version is very civilized, scented with cucumbers). There are more than 75 kinds of whiskey. The digestif Fernet Branca — a professed love for which is required if you want your official “foodie’’ card — comes on tap. You can drink your spirits over a spherical ice cube shaped before your eyes in a special machine from Japan. With less surface area, it melts slowly into your drink. Plus, you can tell your fortune in it.
The menu centers on pork, shellfish, roasts, and a little more pork. (There’s a reason Citizen’s logo is a pig.) As an oyster bar, it exists for the workaday practitioner, not the fetishist. There are generally three or four varieties on offer, rather than the dozen or so you might find at that other new oyster bar down the road. They come with mignonette, cocktail sauce, and lemons — Citizen isn’t mucking around, just doing it classic-like. Shrimp cocktail and littlenecks round out the raw offerings.
I miss the righteous peel ’n’ eat shrimp from a previous version of the menu, which were coated in Old Bay and served with a puckery green, tomatillo-based cocktail sauce. They’ll be back as a special. In the meantime, a bowl of grilled clams is required ordering, smoky, fragrant, and tender, interspersed with rings of jalapeno and served with jalapeno drawn butter.
On trend again, Citizen offers small plates for snacking — whipped lardo (a.k.a. pork fat) spiked with rosemary; an excellent version of the Italian bread-and-meat balls called canederli; a ploughman’s platter of cheese and charcuterie.
Pig trotters are given the schnitzel treatment, a patty of braised meat and fat encased in a light, fried coating. It’s not health food. In a take on a standard steakhouse salad, Reyelt offers iceberg with a blue cheese crouton, tomato, buttermilk dressing, and bacon that has passed over into candy territory. It spends time in a sweet brine, then gets sprinkled with brown sugar as it roasts.
Main courses bring pork and beans that aren’t like other versions you may have had — a huge cube of pork belly is crisped and served with baby white beans spiked with jalapeno, piquant rather than sweet. It’s a lot of the same flavors and could use more dimension.
For a break from pig, the Citizen carpetbagger has the feeling of a signature dish. Its layers get progressively more decadent from the bottom up: A bed of spinach is topped with a juicy charbroiled steak that’s topped with a big pat of oyster butter that’s topped with a fried oyster. There’s red wine sauce in there, too.
A stew of lamb, barley, and ale is topped with a pouf of potato. It’s a shepherd’s pie that looks like a cupcake, with a pile of buttery haricots verts served alongside. Duck and sausage cassoulet hits the nail on the head. With creamy white beans and bacon, it sums up the smoky, meaty, rich aesthetic that characterizes many of Citizen’s dishes.
Not all of them, however. Vegetarians will be happy with salads, a polenta torte with goat cheese and vegetables, and creamy, thick roasted tomato soup served with a little grilled cheese sandwich. (As offered at Franklin Cafe and Franklin Southie, full vegetarian and gluten-free menus are coming here soon.) There are plenty of fish dishes, including a tuna burger that incorporates Asian flavors such as soy and pickled ginger. And daily chalkboard specials bring variety to the menu.
For dessert, a statuesque creme caramel is simple but rendered perfectly. But the one you don’t want to miss is the toffee bread pudding. This serving of sugary, buttery, sticky richness pleases everyone.
Just like Citizen itself, a party for all.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.