May 9, 2011
Monday postscript: Maranello, flavor and Ferraris

mclaren_f1_large.jpgThere was so much good food at Maranello Restaurant in Fair Oaks that I didn't have room to address all of it in my review that ran Sunday. The scallops, for instance, were wrapped in sturgeon, and that nutty sweetness I tasted was actually rhubarb chutney. Quite a creative way to do scallops, I thought. I'm told this was the brainchild of the sous chef, Thomas Daily. Watch for that name because I hear he is quite a talent.

Maranello's executive chef, Gabriel Glasier, seems to focus on flavor as much as any chef I have encountered in the Sacramento area. And he's very particular about it. He has all of his cooks tasting repeatedly throughout dinner service and he gives them specific instructions about how to season. What do I mean? Take salt, for instance. In the kitchen, it's mostly coarse kosher salt, because its larger granules allow for more consistency. Glasier insists that the food be salted with the hand held two feet above the food. Why? If you salt too close to the food, Glasier explained, the application is uneven - too much in one area of the meat, not enough in another. At two feet, it spreads evenly. If you try this at home, have a broom at the ready. You'll hit the meat evenly, to be sure. But you'll also hit the floor.

"We are constantly tasting. It has to be a constant pursuit of the chef," Glasier said.

Speaking of tastings, Glasier has all of the wait staff do pre-shift tastings for specials, complete with a rundown of ingredients and cooking techniques. When customers ask, waiters will be able to explain what it tastes like and how it is prepared. For devoted restaurant goers, that can enhance the restaurant experience. The best restaurants do this as standard practice, but many restaurants take shortcuts. When I had one special at Kupros awhile back, the server actually stopped by the table and asked if my special had onions in it - because she didn't like onions. I don't make this stuff up, folks.

Before Glasier went to culinary school, he had his sights set on being a marine biologist. But when a career as a chef came calling, that devotion to the wild sea never went away. Glasier won't serve endangered or threatened fish, even if other restaurants do. Grouper, he says, is a big no-no. And I noticed one dish on the menu, New Zealand reef bass 'saltimbocca,' did not feature the more popular - and more threatened - Chilean sea bass. That reef bass, by the way, has a vegetarian diet had amazing flavor.

"It's our oceans. It's one of the Number 1 food sources and it has to be there for generations to come," he told me.

Another amazing little side dish I had was the roasted tomato topped with whole grain mustard, basil, olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper. It was like eating candy. Roasting the tomato at 550 brings out the sweetness and the tomato even begins to caramelize at the bottom, Glasier said. Of all the things I ate at Maranello, this tomato is among the most memorable, perhaps because its simplicity belies the true joy of food bursting with flavor. That's not something you'll hear often about a tomato in May!

When I mentioned to Glasier that I thought his French fries were good, but not great, he told me he is considering changing oil - to peanut oil - finding a different potato and frying them twice. In other words, this chef isn't defensive. He's always pushing to get better. And that's why his cooking is so good.

Speaking of French fries, I believe I have identified the very best fries in town - and you'll be hearing more about them in my review of the place that makes them, along with several other deftly handled bistro dishes.. That's this coming Sunday.

One more thing: When I wrote that the owners of Maranello, Joe and Gayle Hensler, didn't know much about the restaurant business and hired consultants to help them get going, I neglected to point out that they certainly seem to understand the people business. During my three visits, I often spotted Gayle walking through the dining room and mingling with guests.

But this couple goes above and beyond, too. Joe is a Ferrari buff (thus the name, Maranello, home base of the Ferrari). One night recently, a woman called the restaurant and asked if she could pay someone $100 to take her husband for a ride in a Ferrari before dinner. It was his 81st birthday. The Henslers did better than that. They arranged to have a Ferrari owner who lives near the couple on American River drive pick him up and drive him to the restaurant. His wife would meet him there - in their Honda! Then Joe and another Ferrari owner gave the man separate rides in their cars during and after dinner. All at no charge.

It made me think of the sign outside Mikuni on 16th Street - "Sorry we cannot provide change for the parking meters." Actually, you can provide change. The sign should really say, "Sorry, we don't feel like providing change for the parking meters."

How do I know about this birthday treat? I was sitting at a table near this engaging couple - and I was moved by the great big smile on the man's face. The Henslers seem to have set a new standard. Not sure how anyone is going to top Ferrari rides for octogenarian birthday boys. Maybe there's a restaurateur out there with a McLaren F1.

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