Cafe Reviews

Bernie Kantak's Citizen Public House Is Your New Favorite Restaurant

My plate of pan-seared scallops looked like a photograph in a food magazine.

Chunky, their tops tinged with shades of brown, the scallops sat atop a circle of creamy grits drizzled with a brown, syrupy sauce and surrounding a small nest of greens sprinkled with bits of bacon. I managed a forkful of my plate's bounty and, amid the sounds of clinking glass and conversation, closed my eyes and tasted.

I first felt the tenderness of the scallop and the smooth texture of the grits. Then there was something smaller, more solid. I bit down. The pop of a corn kernel gave way to its sweet flavor, mixing with roasted corn-flavored grits, salty bits of bacon, fresh-cooked greens, a sugary sauce, and the delicate, buttery flavor of a properly prepared scallop.

Upon experiencing the warmth, the comfort, the joy of that dish, I imagined myself snuggled up, recliner-style, next to a roaring fire. Not a bad place to be. And thanks to Citizen Public House, chef Bernie Kantak's new restaurant, it was not to be my last visit.

Kantak, the former chef of Cowboy Ciao who gave that restaurant cred with his flair for enticing dishes with bold, unique flavors, launched Citizen Public House in January, taking standard American favorites and giving them a delicious kick in the ass.

Citizen Public House, the phrase from which the term "pub" is derived, is located in a renovated building in Old Town Scottsdale's Fifth Avenue Shops, previously home to the nightclub Next and Trader Vic's original Scottsdale location. It's a pretentious name in a decidedly pretentious part of town, but the vibe inside CPH is more casual classy than snobby chic. Apart from the leggy Absolut Vodka reps — a questionable and unfortunate allowance, given the restaurant's tasteful ambiance and casually dressed clientele — the Scottsdale "scene" stops at the restaurant's entryway.

Like a page torn out of what could've been Crate & Barrel's Pub Edition catalog, the setting is relaxed, yet clean and stylish, with nary a detail left to chance. Off-white walls, dark mahogany, leather seating, white linen tablecloths, and carefully arranged groupings of vintage photos along the walls embellish a spacious room with a centrally located, steel-topped bar, polished concrete floor, and large wooden rafters supporting a high ceiling. The décor carries over to a small patio with a roll-up door, a semi-private alcove of seating near the back, and a carpeted private dining room upstairs, options to take note of if raising the volume of your indoor voice isn't for you — the noise level in the main room can be intense, amped up more with unnecessary music.

The same classy, no-detail-left-untouched concept of the décor finds its way into Kantak's menu, which enlivens contemporary American pub grub with sparks of the unexpected and pays attention to particulars like snacks, sides, sauces, and ingredients — like its high-quality olive oil, which my server said Kantak is "obsessed with." Its clean, zesty taste, she explained, is a result of olives plucked from the top of the tree. And the soul-soothing bacon, from the experts at Tender Belly, not only can be smelled wafting dreamily through the dining area, it can be deliciously consumed in bar snacks like the heirloom popcorn, sandwiches such as the AZ BLT, and as sprinkled bits of goodness atop the pan-seared scallops.

The careful attention paid to the menu means choosing your starters wisely to save room for a main course or, given the number of delectable options, just saying to hell with it and making a meal of several of them. There's beer-infused fondue made with a dynamic pairing of Gorgonzola and Emmental cheeses, with dippers of mild yet spicy hunter's sausage, pear, and toasted country bread; Dungeness crab cakes, perfectly cooked with the slightest crunch and a sidekick of celery root slaw; and the Original Chopped Salad (so popular it has its own Facebook page) featuring dried corn, couscous, smoked salmon, Asiago cheese, pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, arugula, and currants. Our server was kind enough to let my companions and me gaze upon its rows of beauty before tossing them together with a zingy buttermilk pesto, creating a dish of flavors and textures so addictive that no one wanted to share.

Kantak's command of the unique shines the brightest in his standout starter: luscious pork belly pastrami. Like a deconstructed pastrami sandwich, tender seasoned pork belly plays the part of pastrami, spaetzle the bread, and shredded Brussels sprouts the sauerkraut, combining for a delicious and one-of-a-kind creation you won't find anywhere else in the Valley — a must-order, must-consume-every-last-bite-of dish.

That brings us to the main courses — that is, if you still have room. Selections of grilled chicken breast, halibut, pork loin, short ribs, scallops, and steak can be found on many a menu, but again, Kantak's culinary prowess kicks most of them up a notch or two, with inspired sides, sauces, and ingredients.

My aforementioned pan-seared scallops dish, with wilted snow pea greens, a sweet cola gastrique, bits of bacon, and roasted corn grits that I not only wanted to eat but roll in, edged out — only slightly — the porcini-dusted filet mignon, a luxurious dish of mild, juicy meat touched with a rich demi-glace and black garlic butter with accompanying sides of smashed new potatoes, sautéed greens, and a cascade of white beech mushrooms.

If you like cauliflower, you'll enjoy it even more when it's roasted, swathed in charred tomato vinaigrette, and encircling a piece of delicately sweet Alaskan halibut topped with a pad of bittersweet tarragon butter dripping down its sides. And the sweet, tender pork loin, topped with stone fruit compote alongside a hearty helping of savory Gorgonzola and white corn spoon bread, includes whole pistachios perfect for popping in your mouth between bites or after your plate is clean.

There's also charred short ribs with a coffee rub and dried cherry barbecue sauce, and a grilled chicken breast my server described as "not as interesting as the others."

When it comes to menu requisites like burgers and sandwiches, Kantak doesn't let things slide. Like the rest of the menu, he turns the ordinary into extraordinary, and his accompanying side dishes are equally munch-worthy. The house-made tzatziki, pickled cucumber and onions, and chewy bun of the lamb burger had me swooning, even though I would have preferred a better-seasoned patty.

The caramelized French bread of the BLT lent sweetness to the traditional sandwich, and though I was intrigued by the idea of cherry mostarda inside the grilled cheese (really, more a grilled ham and cheese, given the flavorful Berkshire ham), there was too much of it, its sweet tangy taste taking over an otherwise enjoyable creation. Sides of pickled veggies and fries with a sweet house-made ketchup, tinged with cinnamon, are not to be ignored.

Tracy Dempsey, who used to work with Kantak at Cowboy Ciao, creates the desserts, and her expertise with sweets continues at CPH. "Pig in the Orchard" bread pudding, made with, yes, bacon, Granny Smith apples, and bourbon brown sugar sauce, topped with cinnamon ice cream, was understated and delicious. Dempsey also provides bags of her original bacon-pecan brittle for those who prefer their meat candy to go.

Partner and mixologist Richie Moe (also a Cowboy Ciao alum) devotes as much attention to the libations as Kantak does to the food. His handcrafted sangria is as pretty as it is flavorful, arriving as a glassful of deep red tiers of liquid. On my first sip of the Midwest Manhattan, I tasted a hint of leather, its rich warmth enveloping me like a well-worn jacket.

Like the atmosphere, the servers at Citizen Public House are relaxed and friendly, referring to Kantak as "Chef Bernie" and offering a welcome depth of knowledge about the dishes and their ingredients. The servers read their guests well: On my visits, they guided me to a selection of fabulous dishes, more in the manner of a trusted friend than a restaurant employee.

There's a difference between pretentious and classy, and despite the name and its Scottsdale address, Citizen Public House is the latter. Kantak's new venture is easily moving into heavy rotation on my restaurant playlist. It should on yours, too.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld