- March 2002
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.