CITIZEN (730 Queen East, at Broadview, 416-465-0100) Complete dinners for $45 per person (lunches/brunches $30), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $20/$12. Open daily noon til 1 am, bar to close. Licensed. Rating: NNN
Forget Cluck, Grunt & Low, that much-hyped and just-opened barbecue joint on Bloor in the Annex. This summer, Toronto's most hotly anticipated resto has to be Rodney Bowers's Citizen.
Like its sister supper club, Rosebud, Citizen is located on one of downtown's dodgier corners and offers an accessibly priced comfort food card that won't break the bank.
Better still, Citizen is open from noon till well after midnight seven days a week.
You might remember the room from its days as Riverside Café, an offbeat bistro that served some of the best mussels in town. Sadly, its kitchen was so spatially challenged, there was no room for a deep-fryer, which meant the house served its highly acclaimed moules sans frites - sort of like dishing up spaghetti and meatballs without the noodles.
The first thing new owners Bowers and partner Dan Ellery did was bring in a local restaurant makeover crew whose name escapes me to give the decidedly shabby space a new look and, more importantly, a bigger kitchen. But while the overhaul is certainly an improvement on gloomy Riverside - white brick walls, dark wooden flooring, art deco light fixtures overhead, shiny black-topped tables flanked by a bottom-friendly banquette - we're not crazy about the cheap-looking rear-lit stained glass panels that dominate the back half of the 40-seat eatery.
But who notices the window-dressing or the over-played Bob Marley CD on the sound system amidst an excited full house? Open only since the last week in June, Citizen is already packing them in.
The service may still be shaky - both glasses of an 05 Salvalai Montepulciano ($8 glass/$38 bottle) arrive at table corked - but chef Klaus Rohrich's nouveau Euro lineup succeeds more often than it fails.
We begin with what the menu describes as "good anchovies with grilled bread ($5)" but would be better labelled "good anchovies from a can plated over chili-charged salsa verde." Since there are six of the salty critters and both members of my dinner posse can't abide the things, I have more than my fill.
Next up, deliciously sweet pork short ribs slow-braised in Dr. Pepper ($12) are so tender, they not only fall from the bone but will also fall into your lap if you're not careful. Sided with a genre-perfect cornbread muffin and a super slaw of wilted cabbage 'n' carrot in grainy mustard mayo, they're almost a meal in themselves.
An appropriately flaky fillet of pan-roasted Pacific halibut ($21) gets plated over a balsamic-dressed salad of diced ripe watermelon and watercress that sounds much better than it tastes. IMHO: too much stalk. Rohrich returns to his Mistura roots with his veal wiener schnitzel ($19), a lightly battered and pounded butter-fried chop that, because of its uneven thickness, is cooked on the edges and virtually raw at the bone.
Along with a sunny-side-up fried egg and a handful of briny capers, it's also garnished, much to the chagrin of my seafood-phobic friend, with anchovy.
Sides are ordered separately, though most mains don't require them.
There's no point in pairing the deliriously delicious house-made gnocchi - one of several pastas listed in a section of the menu called "Chef Boy RoDney" - lashed with succulent braised rabbit ($14) with a side of slightly mashed and minty garden peas, since the pasta already comes liberally tossed with the suckers. No doubt fabulous in February, buttery spaetzle (all sides $6) are just too damned heavy during a July heatwave.
Speaking of which, what's up with the air conditioning. It's almost non-existent beyond a couple of floor vents. And could someone fix the kitchen exhaust that regularly belches a blast of smoke, especially when things are busy?
Lunch a few days later is a far more relaxed affair. In fact, we have Citizen to ourselves. Unfortunately, the panzanella salad ($11), a traditional dish of day-old bread and under-ripe heirlooms doused in a tomato vinaigrette, recalls Wonder Bread soaked in Kraft Zesty Italian. I fare no better with steak tartare ($15), a pleasant enough mound of ground tenderloin, coupled with juniper-onion jam and a toasted baguette, that would make a great hamburger if it came cooked instead of raw.
As for the Caesar salad, Rohrich gets it exactly right - full, uncut leaves of inner romaine plopped with a runny poached egg over crisp crostini, plated with long rashers of double-smoked, freshly shaved parmigiano and a correctly creamy dressing redolent of anchovies ($13). Now, what's so hard about that?
We follow with al dente spaghetti swirled with cheesy basil pesto and garden-fresh green beans ($14) that's so tasty, I try to replicate it back in the NOW Test Kitchen the following day.
A simple crème brûlée ($6) strewn with fresh raspberries completes a near-perfect nosh.