(NOTE: This item has been updated as of 3:15 p.m. to include a brief comment from Anani Lawson sent via text message.)
Anani Lawson, whose vaunted work history includes a total of 10 years as sommelier at two of America's greatest restaurants, arrived in Sacramento amid plenty of fanfare, taking the reins at Enotria and pledging to transform it into a Michelin-starred restaurant.
But his arrival also came with questions about why a man with such a distinguished track record would settle down in a city where, among other things, the vaunted Michelin Guide doesn't even rate restaurants. Now there are even more questions as Lawson's tenure as general manager of Enotria has ended abruptly.
The news about Lawson has already started to gain traction among insiders in the local restaurant scene, though no one is saying exactly what happened.
Lawson did not return a phone message for an interview, but in a brief text message, he stated: "Family emergencies have come up where I couldn't spend that much time in Sacramento on a full-time basis. Enotria is in good hands and will prosper due to the efforts of their entire team."
Executive chef Pajo Bruich, whose work has taken Enotria to new heights since he started there in the fall, initially confirmed the news about Lawson's departure via a text message Friday night. In an interview Saturday morning, Bruich said the personnel change should not be seen as something negative.
Bruich first met Lawson while dining at the French Laundry several years ago when Bruich was an unknown chef with a small catering business. The two kept in touch, became friends and went on to host a series of high-priced private dinners locally and in the Napa Valley. Recruiting Lawson to oversee Enotria was seen as the final piece for Bruich to make good on his dream to present a so-called Michelin-caliber dining experience.
"Anani and I are great friends and hold a tremendous amount of respect for each other," Bruich said. "He has decided to be closer to his daughter and re-evaluate what his desires are currently. I fully support his decision."
We've left messages for Lawson and Enotria owner David Hardie, and we will keep you updated as we learn more information. Lawson was sommelier at two of Thomas Keller's restaurants -- the French Laundry in Yountville, and Per Se in New York. Both have maintained three Michelin stars for several years and are known as two of the best and most expensive restaurants in the U.S.
Just two weeks ago, Lawson was the subject of a lengthy story by The Bee's Chris Macias in which Lawson and Bruich made public their desire to earn the elusive Michelin credential.
Despite Lawson's background, his efforts to upgrade service at Enotria would actually have no bearing on Michelin inspectors - even if they did include Sacramento restaurants in the Bay Area and Wine Country guide book. Michelin stars are awarded solely on the quality of the cooking - service, ambience, price and other factors are not considered.
Lawson's arrival in town was seen to some as the latest sign that Sacramento's culinary reputation was continuing to blossom, though the ebb and flow of restaurant personnel is rarely stable enough to nail down a trend (two of Sacramento's top kitchen talents, Michael Thiemann at Ella and Mike Ward at The Kitchen, have recently been hired away by the Tyler Florence Restaurant Group in the Bay Area).
Bruich said the news about Lawson should not be seen as a setback - for Enotria or the local food community.
"I think the fact that he came to Sacramento is an extremely positive thing. It is has also increased the awareness of Sacramento's culinary scene. I don't look at it as negative at all," Bruich said. "It came down to him having other opportunities and I want to fully support him just as he has always supported me."
For now, Lawson's photo and a written profile remain on the restaurant's website, including this comment from Lawson: "Coming to Sacramento is not only a chance to work with Pajo, but the opportunity to build something new and exciting. It's the right chemistry and I really felt like this was a great fit for me. Enotria is acclaimed here and we'll be working to take it to the next level."
Bruich said he expects to have an announcement soon about Lawson's replacement. He said Tyler Stacey, a talented young sommelier, has already been making an impression at Enotria in the short time he worked under Lawson.
If this is, indeed, an amicable move, it is the latest of many in the last few months at Enotria. The most notable exodus prior to Lawson's was that of Matthew Lewis, the sommelier, who worked alongside Lawson for a short time before turning in his notice. We will have more about Lewis and his plans in a future blog post.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.