April 11, 2011
Monday postscript: Enotria & Magpie (and a smoking issue resolved)

Monday postscript: Enotria and Magpie

I am returning from a two-week vacation, so today I will be playing a little bit of catch-up, beginning with a look back at my last two reviews.

Let's start with Enotria, the wine bar and restaurant that just spent over $1 million renovating its building on Del Paso Boulevard. Is that amount of money something a restaurant critic should consider when writing a review? That's a very tough question.

Here's the honest answer: yes and no.

No, it shouldn't count from a pure journalistic perspective. The only thing that really matters to customers is the experience - are they getting a superior experience and does the cost of that experience make sense? A restaurant critic's duty is to put himself in the shoes of the customer, gather information, and make judgments from that perspective. If the amount of the investment was supposed to be factored into this equation, there would be a small sign on every table that stated something to the effect of, "Hey, cut us some slack. We spent big bucks on this place."

That said, I could not help but think about the money when I looked closely at Enotria. This kind of investment is a tremendous boost for that part of town, it's great for the local restaurant industry, it suggests this place is serious about being a great restaurant and it's certainly a sign of confidence during very difficult economic times.

But the money also raises questions? Why hasn't Enotria sprung for an espresso machine? Espresso is on the menu. And why, when I called to make a reservation a week after Valentine's Day, did Enotria's voicemail greeting mention the upcoming Valentine's Day dinner? It doesn't cost anything to be organized and stay on top of things.

I wound up writing a mixed review of Enotria, though some readers found my pronouncements harsh in places. (I often have people mention what they see in the online comments, but I don't read online comments (except for this blog) because I don't find them sincere or, for the most part, constructive. It's pretty much the professional wrestling of intellectual discourse. But I do take calls, voicemails and emails seriously, since most of those folks are willing to put their names behind what they believe).

For a high-end restaurant, Enotria was struggling in a couple of areas. Some of the shortcomings that I noted are opinions and some are simply facts. Either way, when I make such pronouncements, it is my obligation to show my reasoning and to support my argument. For instance, when I noted that several of the entrees we tried were bland, that is an opinion that requires some supporting evidence. It also requires me to draw on a very broad benchmark established by visiting all other restaurants operating in the same category. But when I say the steak was riddled with gristle, that is not something that can be disputed - explained, perhaps, but not disputed.

When I noted that the presentation of the wines should be tweaked, that was something that combined fact with opinion. I was simply reporting the events as they happened when I noted that the wine flights, which come in three separate glasses all at once, are presented in a blur and that it is next to impossible to keep track of which winery produced which wine. If you like your wines paired with confusion and random pronunciations of obscure French or Italian wineries, then you will disagree with my suggestion that Enotria must make this experience more customer friendly by providing, say, a laminated note card with the wines, the order of tasting and a couple of observations by the sommelier. What's more, I would make these cards something customers can take home for future reference, since a big part of wine tasting is to get folks to know and understand new wines with the idea they may want to order them or buy them retail and take them home.

I occasionally watch the TV show "Undercover Boss." In addition to revealing that many CEOs are incredible klutzes, the show often illustrates that a strategy or system the boss thought was a good idea doesn't actually work in the real world. I would encourage all restaurant managers and owners to put themselves in the position of servers, cooks or hosts from time to time and see how things are working or not working. Even more importantly, they should sit in the customer's chair on occasion to see if their ideas make sense and can be executed properly.

Enotria is a fine restaurant and wine bar that should not have difficulty resolving its issues and moving toward the top tier in the Sacramento region. The money spent on the building, coupled with a talented staff capable of delivering an excellent overall experience, suggest to me that Enotria will rise up and thrive soon enough.

Magpie Café

What more can I say about this place? Magpie is running on all cylinders. I love the food and the way the business is run.

If I were to get picky, one question I might have is what happens on the sidewalk patio at Magpie - sometimes diners get wind of the smoke coming from adjacent Shady Lady Saloon.

Is this a problem? Not when you have two businesses of this caliber working side by side. Shady Lady is one the great places in town to enjoy a cocktail and its presence on R Street has been a real boon. So I'm not surprised how it is handling the matter.

I just got off the phone with Jason Boggs, one of the owners at Shady Lady. He told me he admires Magpie's food and realizes smoking can be an issue. He and the managers recently had a meeting to discuss this very issue. They hope to resolve it by making that side of Shady Lady's patio a non-smoking area.

It's a simple fix and a classy move.

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