Citizen Public House in Scottsdale was on Phoenix magazine’s list of the 23 best new restaurants of 2011; this was my seventh so far, although two of the ones I’d visited previously have since closed. This dinner was the best meal I’ve had at any Arizona restaurant other than Pizzeria Bianco, a fine dining-meets-gastropub menu that’s heavy on bacon fat and other comfort-food staples.
We started with the pork belly pastrami ($12), probably their best-known dish, a small portion of melt-in-your-mouth pork belly with an exterior bark served over browned rye spaetzle with a Brussels sprout slaw and a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. The meat is tender, the fat unctuous, and the zing of the mustard helped balance the richness of the meat. It was difficult to get all of the ingredients in one bite, but the hint of sweetness in the spice rub married well with the acidity of the vinaigrette and the faint bitterness of the cabbage. The bacon-fat popcorn ($5) is as you’d imagine – freshly-popped popcorn tossed in bacon fat with crispy pieces of bacon mixed in; there was a lot of fat at the bottom of the bowl but the popcorn itself wasn’t greasy.
The seared sea scallops ($24) over creamy grits were probably a bit past medium-rare but the sear was perfect and brought out the scallops’ inherent sweetness; they’re not my favorite kind of shellfish (that would be crab), but since this is another signature dish I felt compelled to try it, and actually liked the grits – more like the softest polenta imaginable, but made with white corn grits and whole corn rather than yellow cornmeal, creamy but not overly cheesy to the point where they might overshadow the scallops. The dish was topped with more crispy bacon bits, which are always welcome, and there was a superfluous Coca-Cola gastrique around the edges of the plate. My friend got the fair-trade short rib ($28), cut flanken-style, braised and browned (my preferred style) with a dried cherry sauce (barely necessary) and served over mashed parsnips
The chocolate pecan bars were a little sweet for me, with the texture of fudge and a salted caramel sauce on top, but if you like fudgy brownies this would likely be right up your alley, and the chicory ice cream that comes with it does give an earthy component to balance out the sticky-sweet flavor and texture of the bars. The beer selection only includes one local beer on draft (Four Peaks’ hefeweizen, which isn’t even one of their top two brews); the cocktail menu is heavy on old-school ingredients like gin and rye but in more contemporary concotions.
* Scratch Pastries on Indian School supposedly has the best macarons in town, but after one look at them – wide and flat, as if they’d spread badly in the oven – I decided to stick with a sandwich, which was on some of the best bread I’ve had out here. The smoked duck breast sandwich comes with walnuts, mixed greens, and olive oil, which sounded like it might be too simple but instead keeps the duck – smoky and tender but not fatty – at center stage. The sandwich came with a side salad for $8, an absolute steal given the quality of the ingredients, making it all the more horrifying that someone might choose one of the million fast-food options in that area to save a buck or two (if that).
* Echo Coffee is between Old Town and Papago Park (where the A’s minor league complex is, as well as the Phoenix Zoo) and rivals Cartel Coffee Lab for the best drip coffee in town. Echo grinds the beans to order, sitting them in a cone filter and pouring just-boiled water over the top, so it brews as you watch. Yes, it’s a $2 cup of coffee, but this is what real coffee tastes like, full of subtle notes that are lost when the coffee is overroasted (I’m looking at you, Peet’s) or blended to eliminate any kind of character (the very definition of Starbucks’ Pike Place blend). It’s too far from the house for me to go there just for a cup of coffee, but it’s good enough that I would reroute myself to go by there if I was otherwise headed into Phoenix or Scottsdale.