I always like driving down Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. On the east side of the road, the grain elevators tower like cliff faces, making the world feel vertiginous and grand, as if you’re a tiny ant scurrying through a canyon. Sadly, there hasn’t ever been much reason for a restaurant-goer to travel that way: I could count on one hand the number of notable places to eat in the vast, heavily populated world of stucco bungalows and simple ramblers that lie south of Lake Street between I-35 and Hiawatha.
So the mere existence of Citizen Café is reason to celebrate. Neighbors have found lots to like about the vaguely Craftsman-accented restaurant where owner and chef Michael MacKay, formerly of the Sample Room in northeast Minneapolis, has developed a brunch, an all-day lunch, and a dinner menu that’s full of comforts. The same gravlax that won him raves in Nord-east is here, and silky and modest as ever: just a few curls of good, fresh salmon on a small plate. The house-made sausage of the day is always good; perhaps it will be made of chicken and apples, or perhaps it will be a rough-hewn bratwurst. MacKay has debuted something he calls the “Citizen Joe,” a cross between a Sloppy Joe and a pasty, in which ground beef sweetened with tomato sauce makes its home in thin, buttery pastry. The wine and beer lists are exemplars of neighborly affordability.
For this critic, though, it’s hard not to notice that while all the food here comes from a place of ethical, scratch-made slow-cooking, little is thrilling. The half chicken grilled under a brick is okay, though dry and tough at the extremities, and the pork roast needed salt and some sort of acid (gremolata? salsa?) to cut through the fattiness. But MacKay does make a brioche bread pudding for the ages. It’s tender, gee-whiz light, and wears its crème anglaise and caramel sauces nimbly. I may never look at a Hiawatha grain elevator again without wondering what that bread pudding is doing just now.