There are 127 seats at Citizen Rail, the street-level restaurant that opened this summer in the new Hotel Born at Union Station, but the ones you really want are pulled up to the short end of the chef’s counter, with unimpeded views of the wood-fired grills.
Sit here and get grill envy. Sit here and gloat, knowing that these cushioned stools are better than any seats to Hamilton that you did (or, more likely, didn’t) get. Sit here and thank your lucky stars that you’re enjoying the work of the hands you’re watching (and not doing the work yourself). This show is as mesmerizing as any theatrical production, relentless and intense.
Tongs in one hand, white towels in the other, the cooks in front of you morph into perpetual-motion machines. Tonight on grill one — dedicated to the big proteins for which the restaurant is known — is a young woman with hair pulled back and game face on, brow growing sweatier with each item pulled from the fire. All the star entrees come her way, and there’s no escaping the rat-a-tat of orders. There’s a Flintstones-sized tomahawk with its showy eighteen-inch rib bone to tend, a heap of mussels to nestle in the embers, a New York strip to check with the press of a finger, an action as second nature to this cook as a parent picking her child’s voice from the cacophony of the playground.
But there’s nothing second nature about this job, which throws even the most experienced cooks for a loop; for the newer ones, it is (literally) trial by fire. Executive chef Christian Graves runs a teaching kitchen and moves cooks through every station, including both grills. “This is how chefs learn and operate,” says Graves, who comes from California with a long background in both wood-fired cooking and independent and hotel restaurants. “The textbook doesn’t work.”
Citizen Rail isn’t a steakhouse, but it feels like one, with an atmosphere that’s dark and clubby in a contemporary way, a meat-heavy menu and a list of sauces and sides that cost extra. The steaks that draw you here aren’t the wet, freshly cut ones that you and most cooks are used to. They’re hand-cut by the in-house butcher, then dry-aged from 28 to 80 days, by which point the moisture is sucked out of them; they’re as tender as butter and, the longer they go, as funky as blue cheese. Some cuts on the grill are as thick as coffee mugs, others as thin as a deck of cards. There are racks to raise and lower with the crank of a wheel, temperatures to gauge, coals to check, all with the focus of a surgeon or sharp-shooter, so that the prized and temperamental steaks come out as ordered, and not a shade under- or overdone. Pride — from not getting anything sent back — is a fierce motivator.
With dry-aged beef entrees ranging from $54 to $96, there’s no getting around the sticker shock...unless you’re on an expense account — and these days, who is? Considering that un-aged selections (lamb chops, bison filet and flat iron) are available at about half the price, you can’t help but wonder if the dry-aged beef is really worth it. Our server doesn’t seem to think so, having steered my friend to an un-aged Meyer flat iron over the dry-aged ribeye. While I appreciate the fact that our server isn’t pushing the most expensive item, I found his advice peculiar, and — after tasting both — I can’t help but question every subsequent recommendation. The flat iron is very good, thinly sliced, perfectly cooked, with a ramekin of sunny, tarragon-laced Bearnaise that puts typical bland brunch versions to shame. Still, the steak reminds me of young wine, eager to please and one-dimensional.
My marbled, bone-in, eighteen-ounce dry-aged ribeye, on the other hand, is like a mature Bordeaux, full of nuance and depth. On the younger end — although it had sat in the dry-aging room as holiday gifts were exchanged, auld lang syne was sung, and New Year’s resolutions were made and cast aside — it has a concentrated meatiness, a touch of mushroom and nothing close to the funk of stinky cheese. The ribeye is rich and juicy, not at all dry as the description suggests. It comes with a bourbon-peppercorn sauce but doesn’t need it, and is easily one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten, surpassing ones from big-name local steakhouses and even Peter Luger, the century-old standard-setter in New York. It is the envy of the table.
More comes from the wood-fired grills than steak. A half-head of ruffly escarole gets a hefty dose of smoke, plus handfuls of currants, hazelnuts and a thin row of yellow beets. (Mine also gets a hefty dose of crackly grit from carelessly washed leaves; the server notices, and takes it and a dessert off the bill.) For the most intriguing side, pleasantly bitter chicory is grilled, then finished with capers and a coil of crisp, housemade bacon. Hamachi collars, sans head, are slathered with parsley, cilantro and lime; they’re a good choice for anyone seeking something light. Coal-roasted squash, the lone vegetarian entree, is well-intentioned, with orange, skin-on slices left in the embers until heavily charred. But concentrated squash flavors, while sweet and earthy, can only go so far; every bite needs more of the green goddess dressing smeared underneath. The pale-green sauce, silky from avocado and lively with parsley, runs out far too soon.
More worrisome is a seating policy that smacks of inexperience (at best) or a good-old-boy network (at worst). On one visit, the hostess said the only seats available were the two she offered us, even though scores never filled before we left. On another night, despite the early hour and nearly vacant dining room, we were told the only free seats were in the bar. My friend, who had a hard time hearing over the music, wasn’t amused when more than a dozen quieter tables were still empty two hours later. Still, if you can’t get those show-stopping seats at the short end of the chef’s counter (forgo the long side, where your back is a hair’s width from runners bearing plates, guests crossing to gawk at the dry-aging room, and servers jumping out of the way of both), the bar is usually a good bet. Although it lacks the counter’s contagious energy, it’s become one of my favorite places to wind down the workday, with black shutters letting in just enough of the streetscape so that you see the lights and feel the metropolitan hustle.
The full menu is available in the bar, but since the loud, casual atmosphere doesn’t synch as well with the entrees’ high prices, start instead with cocktails, a shareable platter (charcuterie, Mediterranean veggie or sausage) and burrata with a pull-apart knot of garlicky, deep-fried pizza dough. Then order the mussels; listed as a starter but heaped in such a toppling mound, they easily work as a main. Cooked in glowing mesquite embers until the black shells crack open, they arrive bobbing in a luscious wine-and-tarragon broth you could happily order as a (very rich) soup. After you’ve plucked out the meaty orbs and discarded the shells, you’re left with this broth, which you’ll savor and sop up with every last slice of thick, grilled bread.
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These mussels aren’t just an appetizer to gig into dinner, though; they’re an edible Rorschach test. If you regard them as the first stop in a meal that must crescendo with dry-aged steak, you’ll view this restaurant as a high-priced, celebration-only steakhouse. But the mussels can also be seen as your ticket to Citizen Rail’s mesmerizing show, one affordable enough to return to again and again.
1899 16th Street
Hours: 6:30-10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday to Wednesday; 6:30-10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Friday; 8 a.m.-midnight Saturday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday
Select menu items
Garlic knot and burrata $13
Grilled escarole salad $11
Meyer flat iron $32
Dry-aged ribeye $56
Coal-roasted squash $19
Grilled chicory $9