GOURMET - March 2002

It didn't take us long to find the original Citizen Cake, hidden though it was in the outer Mission among the warehouses and auto-body shops. It was the sort of patisserie-café where nobody gave you a funny look if you ordered hot chocolate with housemade marshmallows and nibbled on a great oatmeal cookie while waiting for a tuna salad, pecan, and apple sandwich. It was assumed you'd eat only half of it anyway and wind up with a sumptuously gooey chocolate caramel tart, a "Rosebud Crème Brûlèe," or a slice of one of the boldly architectural cakes constructed by Elizabeth Falkner, California's own Carême. A poster of a mountainous sugar cone, "The Fifth Basic Food Group," made her priorities clear.

I'd like to have been around on opening night after Citizen Cake relocated last spring to Hayes Valley, near the opera house and symphony hall: Hired models were painted in chocolate from the waist up. It was entirely in character with Falkner, a high-wire artist who moves easily between the worlds of food as performance art and confectionery as art. In this luminous corner space, a stylish fusion of steel and acrylic and slate, she now has a pastry chef's restaurant that plays to her strengths. With a "savory chef" (Max La Riviere-Hedrick) to cook lunches, afternoon snacks, and dinners for the concert, theater, and City Hall crowds, Falkner is free to reinvent the sweet course and take it to where it's never been before.

She has already shot off in surprising directions. "I find my own niche and do what no one expects," says the San Francisco Art Institute alumna, who planned to be a filmmaker before she became passionate about sugar work. She began as a complete novice in pastry, working her way up from Masa's and Elka's to Rubicon, where she drew raves from such deliriously witty finales as "A Chocolatework Orange," an asymmetrical meringue cake with chocolate ganache and bitter orange marmalade buttercream, inspired by a Richard Serra sculpture. "At Rubicon, customers kept asking me for special-event cakes because there was no place in the city to find them," she says. She was delighted to oblige, creating everything from a completely edible reproduction of a building (in cross section) for its new owner to a voluptuous vanilla birthday cake for Sharon Stone - a play on dacquoise called "Je Ne Sais Quoise." "There's no limit to what can be done aesthetically and sculpturally with sugar," she says.

The cakes for every citizen are what you notice first as you enter the café. The seductive "After Midnight Chocolate Cake" --a ganache-glazed devil's food and chocolate mousse decorated with her signature chocolate straws, pulled sugar shards, and gold leaf. The "Retro-Tropical Shag," a coconut-carpeted genoise with passion-fruit mousse that you want to curl up on before taking a bite. In February there was "Bleeding Heart," a heart-shaped cake hiding a chocolate ball filled with raspberry puree. Last December, as the country waited for the ballots to counted, her rich chocolate cake dimpled and decorated with peppermint chads won by a landslide. Yet drop in for a morning latte and a sweet bun, and you discover Falkner's down-to-earth side - the scone of your dreams, buttery chocolate or almond croissants, fragrant cinnamon rolls.

And if you think you know all about ice cream, she may surprise you. These are the best ice creams and sorbets in the city, in flavors like rose petal (with a whiff of saffron), delicately floral lemon verbena, and an intense burnt orange that distills the perfume of the skin as well as the fruit inside. Licorice? Melting beside a warm chocolate cake musky with spices, it is fabulous.

It's Falkner's conviction - and who would disagree? - that dessert should never be something you're too full to eat because everything before was too rich and too much. So the savory side of her menu leans to brightness and lightness - unthickened soups, vegetable emulsions for sauces, sensible portions - that lead you naturally into the sweet you've been longing for.

The pretheater menu, in my experience, is a work in progress. The idea of a plate of sweet and savory canapés is intriguing, but sampling one evening's tastes, which include a poached quail's egg on tiny batons of ham, a Champagne sorbet, and a bite of salmon tartare that isn't fresh enough, I'm more puzzled than pleased. Quinault River steelhead on a lemony pea-shoot risotto is lovely, but the slow-braised pork wrapped in chard is chewy.

At lunch, I like the sandwiches on the restaurant's own bread - truffle-scented mushrooms and melted Gruyere on sourdough, roasted pork loin and caramelized onions on Pugliese, and that unbeatable tuna salad sandwich on whole-wheat levain. The individual pizzas are just the right size, and their flavorful toppings - butternut squash puree and pumpkin seeds, for example, or paper-thin potato slices with Fontina, bacon and arugula - are satisfyingly spare. The kitchen has a fresh way with salads, too. Dressing baby spinach with a hazelnut vinaigrette, a parmesan emulsion, and a peppery honey; pairing summer's heirloom tomatoes with cranberry beans and mache; and frying roasted red and yellow beets rolled in fine bread crumbs with Meyer lemon zest and serving them with shaved fennel and goat cheese. And I can always eat cake.