Foam and Circumstance
Perhaps, or probably, unfairly, I think of Citizen Cake as the place where lesbians go to eat. I’m sure there are many other restaurants and eating establishments in the fine city of San Francisco owned, managed, womaned and visited by lesbians, but Elizabeth Falkner, Citizen Cake’s seemingly unavoidable owner, pastry queen and chef-in-residence has managed, in my mind, to usurp any other San Francisco lesbian pastry chef to become the epitome of lesbian restaurateur.
Not that any of that has anything at all to do with the food and experience that this Hayes Valley mainstay has to offer, but it does explain a little bit why I never feel quite comfortable there and why I have a hard time settling in to a meal — whether it’s dinner or a sit down at the bar with a perfect cup of coffee and a lovely little cake — without thinking that I shouldn’t have a penis.
Case in point: shortly after my boyfriend and I had completed our meals (Me: Tagliatelle with trumpet mushrooms and garlic. He: Niman Ranch grilled steak with something called horseradish gellée which was, in a word, horrid) the table next to us was gifted with three different amuse bouche to sample among the two of them. They were two women. We were two men. You do the math.
Another complaint I have against Citizen Cake is that one ostensibly goes there for the desserts. And I can confirm that anything in the glass cases near the entrance they serve as alternatives to the menu are delicious and satisfying, from the simplicity of a perfect chocolate chip cookie to the complete chocoholic decadence of the After Midnight cake. But when the desserts are the star attraction and everything on the night’s dessert menu makes you wonder what the hell they’re trying to do because it all sounds decidely unappetizing, you begin to wonder if they want to feed you or simply impress you with their knowledge of obscure spices done up as hot liquids.
The surroundings are swell, if a bit underwhelming. Citizen Cake is situated on a corner in the trendy Hayes Valley section of the city facing a parking lot on one corner, a parking lot on the other corner and a parking garage on the third corner. Clearly, one does not come to the Cake for the view. It’s favored by the theatre crowd and is often full prior to 8pm curtain time, but thereafter it’s an easy walk-in except on the weekend. The interior is all warm, plain wood and loud, somewhat stiff chairs — loud when they are moved across the bare floor, not their color. If you’re looking for privacy on a first date, look elsewhere. Unless you’re a lesbian, I guess.
Wow, do I sound bitter or what?
The meal, as usual, was “just okay.” It should probably fall into the “not great” column given the price. But I’m going to let them slide a little bit since I never really expect fireworks at Citizen Cake.
The horseradish gellée exemplifies the problems. They’re just trying too hard. They don;t really allow the food to stand on its own, they’re always foisting some wrong-headed combination of flavor and texture together as if a good piece of beef needed a frozen spoonful of creamed horseradish to improve its flavor. It was weird enough that they decided to even create horseradish ice cream, but pairing it with the mdeium rare cut of cow makes the ice cream warm and the steak cold, clearly not the best of both worlds.
And whenever I go, they simply can’t help themselves from applying a flavored foam to something on the menu. One can only assume they got a great deal on a gourmet foam machine because there’s absolutely no need or excuse for this silliness. Flavored foam is like eating someone else’s drool. It’s not pretty, it’snot appetizing, and it’s distracting. Stop it, Elizabeth! Just stop it!
My advice to anyone looking for a pre-theatre meal in the Civic Center or around Hayes Valley is to try any of the other restaurants first. Hayes Valley Grill and its always terrific fish-heavy menu, Absinthe for a reliable duck confit or Coc au Vin, even Indigo right next door often surprises. Unless all you expect from your meal is a good cup of coffee and a day-old hunk of cake fresh from the refrigerated case, take a pass on Citizen Cake.
April 16, 2007