Appetizers
July 24, 2013
Where to find fast-selling 'Lost Restaurants of Sacramento'

lostrestaurants.jpg People love lost restaurants - and the book devoted to this nostalgic topic.

Just released by American Palate, "Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and their Recipes" by Sacramento's Maryellen Burns and brother Keith Burns sold out quickly in some stores. The book and its recipes were featured in today's Food & Wine section in The Bee. (Read it at http://bit.ly/18DqIFK .)

"I just dropped off another 40 copies at Time Tested Books," said Maryellen on Wednesday afternoon. "They sold out in 45 minutes this morning."

Time Tested Books - located at 1114 21st St. in midtown Sacramento - had the most copies as of lunchtime today. Other local sources that still had "Lost Restaurants" in stock include Corti Brothers market (5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento), Beers Books (915 S St., Sacramento), J Crawford's Books (5301 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento) and the gift shop at the Crocker Museum.

The Barnes & Noble stores at Arden and Natomas also had a few left, Maryellen said.

Priced at $19.99, the paperback is also available online from Amazon.com.

July 19, 2013
'A Taste of Tuscany' coming to Evan's Kitchen

gnocchi.JPGAward-winning Sacramento chef Evan Elsberry keeps turning out multi-course themed dinners, and diners keep attending. One reason is his expertise in the kitchen. Another selling point: He pairs each dish with a different wine.

"A Taste of Tuscany" is coming to Evan's Kitchen, 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 5. The cost is $75 per person, with reservations at (916) 452-3896. The restaurant is at 855 57th St., Sacramento, in the Antiques Mall; www.chefevan.com.

Now for the menu:

First course: zucchini flowers stuffed with sausage
Served with Enza prosecco

Second course: gnocchi del casentino
Served with: Ruffino pinot grigio

Third course: osso bucco ravioli
Served with Cecchi chianti classico

Fourth course: beef tenderloin roulade
Served with Bolla valpolicella ripasso

Dessert: coffee on a fork and African cookies
Served with Italian moscato

July 5, 2013
This version of linguine with clams takes pasta to the sublime

clams.JPGPasta comes in a delightful array of shapes, sizes and names, from the familiar (rigatoni, lasagna) to the obscure (maltagliati, sorprese lisce).

Linguine means "little tongues" in English, and is a go-to in Genoa and the Liguria region of coastal Italy, food experts tell us. When teamed with clams and white sauce to make "linguine alle vongole," the flat spaghetti-looking pasta becomes sublime.

We found a marvelous version at Piatti Ristorante in Sacramento, where a starter bowl is $13, the entree is $18.

Steaming-hot al dente linguine is covered in a silken, complex sauce and topped with plump, briny clams in the shell. Add some grated cheese. Flavors and textures explode with each forkful, as a touch of heat lingers in the background. How good was it? My lunch pal went with a Margherita pizza, and we ended up dipping the leftover pizza crust into the leftover clam sauce.

We asked executive chef Lance Carlini to disassemble the dish:

The sauce: The fragrant creation is a luscious mix of Parmesan broth, white wine, preserved Meyer lemon, lemon juice, garlic, tomato, herbs, butter and white wine, finished with olive oil-cured Calabrian chile peppers, he explained.

The house-made Parmesan broth is based on the rinds from the 75 pounds of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese the restaurant uses each week. Typically, the rinds are cooked in water with olive oil, caramelized onion, garlic, aromatic herbs and other ingredients.

The clams: "We use littleneck clams because they stand up to the heat a little better than Manila clams, and they're bigger," Carlini said.

The pasta: "It's made in-house. The key is the organic eggs we use, from Vega Farms near Davis. We get them less than 24 hours after they're laid. The yolks are super-orange."

This is one of the better pasta dishes we've found in our excursions. Get it at Piatti in the Pavilions center, just off Fair Oaks Boulevard and just east of Howe Avenue; (916) 649-8885, www.piatti.com.


June 26, 2013
Lotus 8 Chinese restaurant is rolling in Folsom; here's why

lotus8.JPGWe're all looking for the next terrific Chinese restaurant, and it appears to have recently arrived.

The Cantonese-style Lotus 8 held its soft opening on April 18 in the beautifully renovated space that once housed the Chinese restaurants Liu's and then Yummy Kitchen.

My Chinese-American lunch pal suggested a number of authentic, expertly assembled banquet-style dishes that were outstanding.

We loaded our table with Hong Kong-style house special noodles (crispy noodles topped with lean barbecued pork, scallops, calamari and black mushrooms); a disjointed and fried two-pound salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab; and crispy Peking duck (pictured) served two ways - rolled in rice crepes with fresh spring onion and hoisin sauce, and chopped up with cilantro and jicama and made into lettuce wraps.

The restaurant makes the best hot relish we've tasted - nicknamed "fire and lightning" - a mix of dried bean curd and hard-to-source special peppers. The ingredients aren't easy to come by, which is why the relish is served mostly on weekends.

Other good things: the freshest orange chicken we've found, gloriously messy soy sauce-bathed prawns, rarely seen bitter melon, "special" barbecued pork, luscious fish maw with crab meat soup.

"If you don't see anything you want, tell us what you like and we will create a menu for you," offers general manager Michael Chow.

Look for a complete review in an upcoming Friday Ticket section in The Bee.

Lotus 8 is at 199 Blue Ravine Road in Folsom; (916) 351-9278, www.lotus8folsom.com.

June 24, 2013
Big changes (and a grand opening) come to Maranello

maranello.JPGThings are shaking up at Maranello in Fair Oaks, and a grand opening from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday will show them off.

For one thing, the restaurant has a new name - Maranello Bar and Kitchen. For another, it will open a second bar this week, replacing much of the former main dining room. Banquette seating will accommodate diners there, or they can stake out the patio or the Ferrari and Pebble Beach rooms.

The menu has gone gastro-pub, with emphasis on bites, small plates, salads and pizzas (don't miss the ground shortrib burger). Entrees have gone from a couple dozen to seven.

"At the end of the meal, we want people to say, 'Wow, what just happened? That was fun and different,'" said innovative chef Gabriel Glasier.

Also, Sunday breakfast is back ($7 to $15, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) with dishes such as luscious creme brulee french toast (challah bread with raspberry coulis, Chantilly cream and candied pecans; pictured), meaty crab cakes served as a Benedict (with roasted pepper hollandaise), and smoked salmon scramble (caper-dill salsa, lemon zest sour cream). Also tops: cherrywood-smoked bacon and tender biscuits with raspberry and plum jams.

"We're trying to appeal to people who don't want to spend big bucks on entrees on weeknights," said co-owner Joe Hensler (with wife Gayle). "We're going more in the direction of (our customers) sharing food and enjoying a fun bar atmosphere with artisanal cocktails, craft beers and a focus on wine."

Maranello Bar and Kitchen, 8928 Sunset Ave. (off Hazel Avenue), Fair Oaks; (916) 241-9365, www.maranellorestaurant.com.

June 19, 2013
Seafood pairs with wines at Evan's Gone Fishin' dinner

chowder.JPGAward-winning Sacramento chef Evan Elsberry is on a roll with his themed dinners, in which he pairs specific cuisines with appropriate wines.

He'll turn his culinary skills loose on seafood for the "Evan's Gone Fishin'" multi-course meal, 6 to 9 p.m. June 24. The cost is $75 per person, with reservations at (916) 452-3896. Evan's Kitchen is at 855 57th St., Sacramento, in the Antiques Mall; www.chefevan.com.

As for the menu, have a look:

First course: lobster soufflé
Served with 2012 Oyster Bay chardonnay

Second course: saffron seafood chowder
Served with 2012 Lapostolle Casa sauvignon blanc

Third course: scallop-prawn-crab cake with mango-papaya-pineapple relish
Served with 2011 Roscato Rosso Dolce

Fourth course: halibut pomodoro over fresh pasta with tapenade
Served with Seven Daughters pinot noir

Dessert: lemon crumble with vanilla bean-raspberry swirl-coconut ice cream
Served with 2010 Pacific Rim gewürztraminer

June 17, 2013
New chef de cuisine puts in first week at The Kitchen

By Cathie Anderson
canderson@sacbee.com

After a nationwide search, the Selland Group has hired John Griffiths to be its chef de cuisine at The Kitchen.

The Kitchen's former head chef, Noah Zonca, is part of the team developing the new Capital Dime restaurant at 1801 L St. in midtown Sacramento.

Zonca didn't go to culinary school. He learned his trade at The Kitchen, starting out as a dishwasher there. Griffiths, on the other hand, is a graduate of the culinary program at Schoolcraft College outside Detroit. He's been an executive chef for many years now and comes to The Kitchen from a position as campus executive chef at Washington University in St. Louis.

May 13, 2013
Enotria's new GM: Looking to bring stability, maintain excellence

junnyyun.jpegOver the past nine months, Enotria Restaurant and Wine Bar has made a name for itself as a great dining destination, complete with artfully created food, polished service and a vast wine list.

But the restaurant has also seen more than its share of growing pains and personnel changes under the leadership of its dynamic and exacting executive chef, Pajo Bruich, notably the recent hiring - and then hasty departure - of general manager Anani Lawson, whose pedigree included stints as sommelier at two Thomas Keller restaurants, the French Laundry and Per Se.

Earlier this month, Enotria hired a new general manager, Jenny Yun, whose assignment will be to bring the right balance of excellence and casual fun to the dining room while providing a sense of stability and cohesiveness to what may be Sacramento's most exciting restaurant.

May 10, 2013
Enotria lands (another) new GM with Michelin-star credentials

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Watch for our story coming next week in The Bee about the latest hire at highly regarded Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar, general manager Jenny Yun.

Yun is the former assistant restaurant director at the Restaurant at Meadowood, where executive chef Christopher Kostow continues to wow guests. Meadowood is one of two current restaurants in California to earn three Michelin stars.The other is The French Laundry, where Enotria's previous GM, Anani Lawson, worked as a sommelier. Lawson's tenure at Enotria was short-lived and ended abruptly.

Stay tuned for more on Yun, Enotria's executive chef Pajo Bruich and what the restaurant is up to.

Enotria is at 1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

RELATED:

Lawson out as GM at Enotria, raising many questions about short-lived tenure (updated)

Dining review: Enotria has stratospherically upgraded

April 10, 2013
From a reader: Going above and beyond at Seasons 52


My morning started with a pleasant surprise by reading an email from a reader about an experience at Seasons 52. Usually, these kinds of emails are inspired by a major faux pas or outright mistreatment by someone at a restaurant. But this one is different. I asked the emailer, Pamela Peacock, for permission to share her story with readers of Appetizers. Let us know what you think in the comments section (unless, of course, you're going to blame Obama for the steak being overcooked). Happy anniversary, Pamela, to you and "Hubby."

She writes:

Hubby and I enjoyed an exceptional dinner at Seasons52 on April 8, 2013---our 41st wedding anniversary.

We had reservations (and did NOT mention it was our anniversary). As we were being seated Hubby realized there was food/substance on the seat and didn't sit; asked to have it cleaned. Hostess was EXTREMELY apologetic and immediately moved us to another table. We were fine---did not complain to anyone.

Appetizer (flatbread) suggested by server, Bryan was scrumptious. Shortly he introduced us to Tierra who then took over as server. Both she and Bryan were most attentive---explaining everything, told us about Seasons52, the menu. At the same time Tierra was "out of site" appropriately. I ordered the Piedmontese strip steak medium rare, explaining I like it PINK---Tierra agreed with me.

Our Greek and Spinach salads were delish. Entrees arrived. As I cut into my steak, I thought to myself it wasn't QUITE as pink as I prefer, but "fine." Tierra arrived back at our table to check on things. She looked at my steak---then at me and said "hmmm---is that steak too done?" I replied it would be "okay." She offered to return it and order another steak; I refused that offer, saying my steak would be "okay."


March 30, 2013
Lawson out as GM at Enotria, raising many questions about short-lived tenure (updated)

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(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."

Bruich.jpegExecutive 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.

February 27, 2013
America's best 101 retaurants: Agree or disagree?

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Those arbiters of all things food and drink at the Daily Meal have seemingly accomplished the impossible by naming their 101 Best Restaurants In America. That's from a field of 200,000 full-service restaurants, so their opinions could differ from yours. Ya think?

Among the chosen are 20 from California, and among those are a dozen within reasonable driving distance from Sacramento.

Taking the No. 1 spot was Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville, in the Napa Valley. It beat out Nos. 2 through 5, all in New York City. The French Laundry is known for its multi-course, multi-hour meals, and the artistry of its dishes; pictured is snapper with veggies (but no tartar sauce...).

To see the complete list, and get an explanation of how it was devised, go to www.thedailymeal.com/101-best-restaurants-america. Meanwhile:

No. 97: Benu, San Francisco
No. 80: The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena
No. 64: State Bird Provisions, San Francisco
No. 56: Michael Mina, San Francisco
No. 54: Quince, San Francisco
No. 52: Coi, San Francisco
No. 42: La Taqueria, San Francisco
No. 30: Bar Tartine, San Francisco
No. 27: Mission Chinese Food, San Francisco
No. 23: Bouchon Bistro, Yountville
No. 19: Zuni Café, San Francisco
No. 15: Chez Panisse, Berkeley

February 1, 2013
Vanilla Bean Bistro sold to chef, Gonul Blum focuses on Trio

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When Gonul Blum opened her second restaurant months ago, it slowly but surely underscored one basic reality: she couldn't be two places at once.

Blum recently sold Vanilla Bean Bistro to her longtime chef so she could focus on Trio, her new restaurant downtown. Vanilla Bean will become a Turkish bistro, Blum said, owned by Murat Vozkurt, who cooked for her for six years.

Does this news say something about the potential pitfalls of tinkering and changing locations? Perhaps. A couple of years ago, Blum swapped locations on J Street in East Sacramento with Formoli's Bistro, which took over Gonul's J Street Café. Gonul's downsized and became Vanilla Bean. But both places found themselves struggling at times in their new locations.

Meanwhile, Blum found herself stretched too thin.

"When I opened Trio, I wanted to be at Vanilla Bean as much as possible, but I couldn't," she told me. "It was hard to manage both of them because I am it - I don't have anybody else. I am a perfectionist, and if I am not there I am not happy."

Blum says she is happy - and possibly relieved - about the sale. And she will be able to devote all of her time to Trio. I dined there once and found the cooking to be very good. But the restaurant has yet to catch on.

"I am happy, but we are slow," Blum said. "The food is excellent. I give a lot of my love to the food. Once people know about it and try it, they come back."

Trio Restaurant is at 826 J St., downtown.

We'll give you more information on the Turkish bistro when we get it. We're told it could open in the next 10 days.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

January 31, 2013
Biba Caggiano honored by Italian culinary academy

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A group composed of Italian academics and culinary experts recently honored Biba Caggiano of Biba Restaurant for her work as a highly regarded restaurateur, best-selling cookbook author and cooking teacher.

Members of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (Italian Academy of Cuisine) dined at Biba and presented her with a commemorative plate.

According to its website, "The Accademia was instituted to safeguard Italian culinary traditions, but also to study enogastronomyhistory and anthropology. The Accademia's purpose is also to provide information and organize initiatives that will help consumers better understand the Italian culinary values."

"I thought it was very nice," said Caggiano, when I caught up with her by phone. "I looked at all of my people in the kitchen and said, 'This is for you, too, because you do a very good job.'"

In addition to celebrating its 60th anniversary, the group's members were in town to officially launch the Sacramento chapter, which will be headed by Orietta Gianjorio.

I called Gianjorio to get more information about the Accademia. She compared their work to the famed Michelin food inspectors, whose Michelin stars are among the most coveted forms of recognition in the restaurant world.

"We are not a group of chefs. We are a group of food tasters who go to restaurants and rate restaurants," she said. "We are also a cultural group that promotes authentic Italian food. We want to make sure people around the world understand and remember to keep the traditions alive."

January 25, 2013
Looking for romantic restaurants? OpenTable has 100 of 'em

9.jpg Valentine's Day is Feb. 14, and romance is beginning to fill the air. Which segues to this: The diners have finished their meals (and held hands), the votes have been counted and the results are in. Check out OpenTable's "2013 Diners' Choice Award Winners for the Top 100 Most Romantic Restaurants in the United States" at www.opentable.com/romantic.

OpenTable, the free online restaurant reservations site, pored over 5 million reviews of 15,000 restaurants, "submitted (last year) by verified OpenTable diners." Most of the restaurants on the list serve French or Italian cuisines.

Of course, California had the most winners (16), followed by Hawaii and Florida. No Sacramento-area restaurants were included, but there are two in San Francisco - Acquerello and Fleur de Lys (pictured) - as well as Madrona Manor in Healdsburg and Shadowbrook in Capitola.


January 17, 2013
Magpie's chicken for two is one of Sactown's great dishes

chicken.JPGOne of my my food-related resolutions for 2013 is to eat at Magpie more often. So, when I heard the great restaurant on R Street was resurrecting its chicken dinner for two, we got there in a hurry.

This was one of the first dishes Lynn and I ordered at Magpie, back in those early days when it was pretty much an empty, fledgling restaurant and co-owner Janel Inouye was our server. The chicken back then was a revelation, and it seemed to encapsulate the quality and values that would come to define Magpie.

So much has changed since spring of 2009. Magpie is constantly busy and it has become a restaurant loved and admired for its earnest sourcing and honest cooking. It's real food done very, very well, as most of you know by now.

But would the new chicken dish be as good as the one we remembered? Our answer came shortly after the dish arrived at our table. Our expectations were extremely high -- and we were still blown away. And really? Who orders chicken at a top-flight restaurant anyway? But the chicken here was -- and is -- transcendent. The latest chicken for two, at $29, is one of the most impressive and thoroughly enjoyable chicken dishes I've ever had. What's more, I've never tasted spinach done as well as this -- sauteed with great finesse in the drippings of the chicken and deglazed with a cider vinaigrette, the flavors and perfect texture (not too cooked, not chewy or watery) blew me away.


I asked chef and co-owner Ed Roehr for his thoughts on the new dish, which at once rekindles memories of the original while taking it to new heights.

"When we opened, Magpie was essentially a deli counter. We had salads and sandwiches and this chicken dish," he said when we chatted by phone. "We tried different chickens and recipes. For awhile, we went to a poussin (young chicken), which was great. We started to look in different directions for the menu. We looked at what it is we're doing and the reasons we're doing it, and we said, 'Wait a minute! We don't want to leave that behind.'"

The Magpie kitchen, visible to the dinner guests, is a sight to behold. Clearly, they're into what they're doing. It's all about focus and technique back there. They pay attention.

Roehr says this wonderful chicken is actually cooked via two different methods. The main body is roasted, while the quarters are done confit style in duck fat.

"That way, we felt we could keep the integrity of the dish," he explained. "It's a really good way to cook the quarters of a chicken."

The sauce, applied generously over the chicken, is chervil, a bit of ginger and little else.


January 17, 2013
Enotria taps French Laundry and Per Se star as new GM

Enotria Anani Tayikos Lawson.jpg

Pajo Bruich has made no secret of his mission to provide a "Michelin-caliber" experience at Enotria, where he is the new executive chef earning all kinds of accolades. Thing is, the vaunted restaurant guide doesn't assess restaurants in the Sacramento area.

That hasn't stopped Bruich. And those familiar with the national fine dining scene at the highest levels just might be startled to discover that Anani Lawson has been hired as Enotria's new general manager.

Lawson was the sommelier at the French Laundry in Yountville, which many consider the greatest restaurant in the United States. After that, he went on to serve as sommelier at Per Se in New York, which many others consider the greatest restaurant in the country. That's two restaurants, six Michelin stars and one world-class pedigree coming to Del Paso Boulevard.

Says, Bruich: "From Day 1, my goal has been to elevate the cuisine of the restaurant and infuse it with my personality and my vision. I think we've been very successful at doing that. The addition of Anani, with his level of expertise and with him spending so much time working with Thomas Keller, it shows we want to continue to evolve and be the best - not just in the Sacramento market, but the national market."

January 17, 2013
Passmore Ranch hosting entire staff of Michelin 3-star restaurant

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Just after 6 a.m. today, I chatted by phone with Michael Passmore, owner and operator of Passmore Ranch, which raises six species of fish in eco-friendly ponds in Sloughhouse.

He was already in the office, and with good reason. Passmore was tending to last-minute details for some very special guests today - about 50 very special guests.

One of Passmore Ranch's customers is Meadowood, the world-class restaurant in St. Helena that is one of two Michelin three-star restaurants in California (the other is the French Laundry). Executive Chef Christopher Kostow and the entire restaurant staff has embarked on an educational sojourn while the dining room is being remodeled, and one of the learning trips is to Passmore Ranch.

Kostow and company have been doing all kinds of things while the dining room is being renovated (it will reopen Feb. 18), from wine tastings to a trip to the St. Helena Historical Society so the staff can learn more about the area. Follow the restaurant on Twitter to see where the staff goes on its learning excursions.


January 4, 2013
Spoto Wines to star at Firehouse winemaker dinner

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One of the things that distinguishes The Firehouse as an excellent restaurant is its enduring commitment to wine dinners. They're major events in their own right, featuring multi-course prix fixe menus with wine pairings from some of the best producers going. The next such dinner, on Jan. 25, will showcase Spoto Wines, a rarity in the California wine trade. These highly regarded wines are made with grapes from the Oakville appellation at Spoto's tiny winery in a residential neighborhood in Sacramento.

This is where the Firehouse staff really demonstrates its knowledge, hospitality, talent and keen attention to detail. As I noted in my review in April, these special wine dinners also offer executive chef Deneb Williams an opportunity to showcase his impressive repertoire in an expanded and sometimes edgier way than what guests might encounter during a regular dinner or lunch.

"I'm very honored to be featured there," Spoto told me when I asked about the Firehouse event. "When I see the magnitude of the wineries they've had in the past, I've got some big shoes to fill."


January 3, 2013
Update: County Jail will emphasize customer service after all

main_jail.jpgThings are looking up for those who have visited the Sacramento County Jail, as I did recently, only to encounter uniformed deputies who weren't exactly embracing the idea of good manners and cordial service to the public.

When I wrote about that bewildering experience last week - and sought to compare and contrast it with the kind of service we see at restaurants - it didn't sit well with a certain captain of the Sacramento Sheriff's Department. Rick Pattison is the commander of the jail, meaning he's in charge. As luck would have it, Pattison is also a well-traveled and discerning dining enthusiast. Pattison got word of the blog post while traveling and took time to read it while waiting for a flight at the Salt Lake City airport.

aclk.jpgPattison called me when he got back in town and responded in the way any excellent business or institution would. He didn't make excuses. He apologized. And he pledged that things would get better. It was as if he had read the book "Setting The Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business" by the great New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer. In fact, when I listed a couple of books in my post, including "Lessons in Service From Charlie Trotter," Pattison said he immediately thought of the Meyer book.


December 28, 2012
Enotria has a few spots left for New Year's Eve extravaganza

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The talented team that's doing extraordinary things at Enotria Restaurant and Wine Bar is really able to strut its stuff on special occasions. If you're wondering what all the recent fuss has been about -- and you're willing to pay big bucks to find out -- you might want to nab the last few spots for the 12-course $240-per-person New Year's Eve Dinner.

The event is sold out, but we've learned that the restaurant is opening up 10 more seats at the wine bar for last-minute reservations. Enotria is at 1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento. (916) 922-6792.

The team of Chef Pajo Bruich, pastry chef Edward Martinez and sommelier Matthew Lewis has put together a menu with wine pairings based on Bruich's research into how various cultures celebrate the New Year. The chef has given each of the 12 courses a themed title.

December 27, 2012
Red Rabbit offers impressive New Year's Eve dinner

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New Year's Eve is fast approaching, but there's still time to find a place that suits your style when it comes to ringing in 2013. The Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar, a newcomer on the dining and bar scene, is certainly a worthy choice. We've dined there recently and have been very impressed. Good attitude, good ideas, lively setting and the vibe seems to reflect Midtown Sacramento -- smart, urban, unpretentious.

Red Rabbit's entry in the New Year's Eve sweepstakes includes a five-course prix fixe dinner from chef/co-owner John Bays, with wine and cocktail pairings. It costs $69, which is an excellent deal, judging from what I've seen of the menu. The major food courses have options, and the kitchen will do a vegetarian option upon request.

"New Year's Eve is such an anticipated event in Sacramento and people want it to be meaningful, non--‐pretentious and fun," said Matt Nurge, co-owner and barman. "John and I decided to put together a menu of food and drink courses that represent the perfect close of 2012 and hopefully provide lots of inspiration for the new year ahead. I worked closely with my team on the cocktail and wine selections to work with John's courses in a fun and interactive way."

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Here's a look at the menu for Monday night:


First Course • a Mouth Amuser, Then choose One Of Each Course


Second Course • Paired with a Cilantro Cooler Cocktail

Pan Seared Day Boat Scallops
Miso Butter, Lotus Root Chips, Micro Cilantro

Grilled Skewered Jumbo Prawns Lemongrass Butter, Crispy Leeks, Micro Cilantro

Third Course • Paired with Ferrari Carrano Fume Blanc

Roasted Baby Beets
Tri-Color Baby Carrots, French Breakfast Radish, Pearl Onions, Del Rio Arugula, Goat Cheese Vinaigrette

Del Rio Greens
Blood Orange Supremes, Pomegranate, Dried Cranberries, Toasted Pine Nuts, Point Reyes Farmstead Blue Cheese, Champagne Vinaigrette

Fourth Course • Paired with Atteca Old Vines Grenache or Red Tail Ridge Dry Riesling

Roasted Petaluma Duck a l'Orange
Citrus Poultry Jus Lié, Celeriac Purée, Grilled Romanesco, Cashew Butter

Veal Osso Bucco
Gremolata, Creamy Grass Valley White Polenta, Braised Capay Red Swiss Chard

Bone-In Ribeye
Cracked Blackpepper Bourbon demi-glace, German Butterball Potatoes, Baby Carrots, Parsnips, Caramel Jus

New Zealand Bluenose Sea Bass
Grapefruit Buerre Blanc, Acorn Squash and Potato Cake, Riverdog Bloomsdale Spinach

Fifth Course • Paired with a holiday inspired Champagne Cocktail

Blood Orange Crème Caramel
Baked Caramel Custard, Blood Orange Tuile

Dark Chocolate Truffle Tart
Chocolate Tart, Dark Chocolate Truffle Filling, Peanut Butter Brittle

*******************************************************

There are two seatings -- 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. To make reservations, call (916) 706-2275. Red Rabbit is at 2718 J St., Sacramento. While reservations are recommended for any New Year's Eve event, Red Rabbit says it will do its best to accommodate walk-ins.

Be safe out there that night. Take a cab or, if you want to do the Midtown thing, walk or ride your bike to Red Rabbit.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.


December 27, 2012
Lessons in Service from Sacramento County Jail

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Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Sacramento County Jail. I was checking on a friendly acquaintance, a homeless man I know who is accused of a relatively minor offense. It's a clean, well-lit place, at least for visitors.

But what I want to address relates to service. And since I spend so much time visiting restaurants and trying to assess how skillfully they serve their customers, I thought it might be revealing to see what we could learn from how our county employees serve the taxpaying public. Hmm, let me think of a single word to describe it. Dismal? Sort of. Rude? Yes, but incomplete. Pathetic? Perfect. Let's go with that.

How does this relate to restaurants? For one, the uniformed officers assigned to greet and assist members of the public visiting the jail, represent our county. That's us. We pay for all this with our tax dollars. And the performance of these officers is a reflection on the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department and the Sacramento area in general. (I would be remiss if I didn't also note that I have seen numerous examples through the years of peace officers and other public employees treating the public admirably).


December 21, 2012
Maranello to ring in 2013 -- and 3 years in business -- with special New Year's Eve menu

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Maranello, like most other restaurants of its caliber, is busy with hosting holiday-related events. But what makes Maranello a little different is that the casual/fine dining restaurant in Fair Oaks is also celebrating its third anniversary.

That's right - Maranello actually opened on New Year's Eve, an incredible, unpredictable and potentially wacky test for any new business. Maranello pulled through, blossomed slowly but surely in the months after and has settled in as a rising star in the restaurant game, thanks in large part to the excellent cooking and menu design of executive chef Gabriel Glasier. The intensely enterprising and highly skilled Glasier is a chef's chef, and even though he is somewhat hidden away in a corner of the suburbs, his work should be appreciated as playing a leading role on the local/regional culinary scene. Congratulations to owners Joe and Gayle Hensler, along with the entire restaurant staff, on the 3-year milestone. Maranello is at 8928 Sunset Ave., Fair Oaks. (916) 241-9365.

Glasier.jpgIf you want to get in on some of the holiday fun at Maranello, the restaurant is hosting a Christmas Eve dinner from 4:30-8 p.m. (three courses with various options for $34.95). On New Year's Eve, it will present a special dinner and celebration with live music, from 4:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. That event is $65, and if you want to know what you get for that, check out the special menu below. How 'bout the "eggs and pancakes" for a celebratory treat? Or the sourdough-crusted duck confit?

However you decide to ring in the New Year, I hope your 2013 is full of inspiring dining experiences.

Course 1
"Chef's Salad" Crispy poached egg, Serrano ham, smoked turkey rillettes, red endive, white cheddar dressing, tomato gel
or
Dungeness Crab & Avocado Terrine Grilled Louisiana white shrimp, yuzu gelee, saffron aioli, Spanish chorizo vinaigrette, frisee, salsa verde air
or
"Eggs & Pancakes" Sterling caviar, buckwheat blini, crème fraiche, chive $20 supplement
Course 2
Ahi Tuna Raw & Slightly Raw Mango sorbet, unagi, thai basil paint, crispy taro, mizuna.
or
Sourdough Crusted Duck Confit Applewood bacon powder, sunny up quail egg, red eye veal glace, everything bagel cracker, truffle home fries
Course 3
Braised, Roasted, And Grilled Beef 24 hour braised shortrib, roasted N.Y. strip, grilled hanging tender, parsnip puree, hedgehog mushroom, gruyere "creamed spinach"
or
Slow Butter Poached Sturgeon Bartlett pear & chestnut agnolloti, cabbage marmalade, whole grain mustard gastrique, crispy pork belly, sauce perigourdine
Course 4
Earl Grey Chocolate Custard Hazelnut and cornflake crunch, huckleberry fluid gel, cocoa nib nougatine, huckleberry air
or
Meyer Lemon Meringue Cake Coconut cream, salt butter shortbread crumble, ginger pear sorbet

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

December 17, 2012
Piatti Ristorante has a new look, but what do you think?

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The 20-plus-year-old Piatti Ristorante reopened last week after a four-month closure for a complete makeover, I reported in this space last week.

We dropped by one recent weeknight for a looksee. The bar was jammed with well-dressed patrons (many of them regulars), the dining room was about half-full, and the servers rushed from the bar station to their tables, carrying glasses of wine and brightly colored cocktails.

The place definitely has a sleeker, more contemporary look - though we've heard a few veteran customers call it "stark," "cafeteria-like" and reminiscent of a "dimestore lunch counter."

Yes, radical changes have been made, but that's part of the biz.

December 13, 2012
Wayfare Tavern in SF hiring sous chef, reaching out to Sactown

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I just got off the phone with John Gurnee, the chef who wowed more than a few foodies with his skills at Mason's and then, for a short but exciting stint, at Kupros Bistro.

Gurnee is now thriving in San Francisco as executive chef at the always-busy Wayfare Tavern in the Financial District. I checked out some of his photos on Twitter (@John_Gurnee) and his food looks fantastic, especially the dish of stone crabs, sweetbreads and harissa.

Gurnee contacted me because he wanted chefs in Sacramento to know that they're hiring - looking for a sous chef with skills, experience, drive, poise under pressure.

Gurnee is from Sacramento and wanted to spread the word about the opening.

Gurnee.jpg"I know there's a good deal of talent and not a lot of opportunities. There are only so many restaurants in Sacramento. We're a very big restaurant," Gurnee said, noting that Wayfare Tavern does 180 to 230 covers a day and, combined with private events, serves about 500 people daily.

Wayfare Tavern is owned by Tyler Florence, the popular TV chef who has branched out into the wine business.

Gurnee says the sous chef will work 55 to 60 hours a week. Yes, it's hectic and demanding. The pay is $40,000 to $55,000 depending on experience. Benefits include health insurance. Is there room to advance in the Tyler Florence Restaurant Group? Gurnee started as sous chef and now he's executive chef. Tyler Florence's restaurants are thriving.

"Working for certain people or with them in Sacramento, you get pieces of the puzzle. At this restaurant, you kind of see the whole package," Gurnee said. "We're not doing avant garde food or anything, but I've had to learn to facilitate cooking for a large amount of people at a pretty high level. This isn't Meadowood, but having enough product in house and managing a staff of 45 people is a pretty big challenge."

He added: "People are receptive here and Tyler likes to push for the next level, so we're constantly challenging ourselves to do better."

If you have experience managing a kitchen and think this might be for you, contact Gurnee via email at john@wayfaretavern.com.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

December 12, 2012
Critic raves about Enotria's food while ranting about her spouse

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This is the greatest restaurant review ever penned by someone trapped in a boring lesbian relationship. Click here for a look at one critic's take on Enotria while performing a pretty solid takedown of some poor soul named "MK."

Jane Churchon's epic-length review of this stylish fine dining establishment pulls out all the stops. You'll drool. You'll laugh. You'll wince. You may cringe a time or 12.

Forget the lashing Guy Fieri endured for his Times Square monstrosity. MK takes it on the chin, and then some. Yes, this review has it all: discerning thoughts on the incredible food, humor, enmity, awkward references aplenty and more than a few body blows directed at the other half of this very boring relationship. Something tells me it was a little less boring after MK logged on at www.sacpress.com.

December 11, 2012
Blackbird expands hours, opens for lunch

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Downtown lunch options just got a lot more interesting. Blackbird Kitchen + Bar, which opened several months ago and wisely began focusing on its dinner and drinks, is now spreading its wings and serving lunch.

I'm a fan of the restaurant and see it getting even better in the months to come. As I recall, the clam chowder is the best in Sacramento. Seafood is excellent. Lots of other good dishes, and plenty of creativity and precision, too.

Check out the new lunch menu here.

Blackbird is at 1015 9th St., Sacramento. (916) 498-9224. Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 4-11 p.m.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

RELATED:
Dining review: Blackbird usually excellent, sometimes amiss

December 11, 2012
Ask the expert: Was it cool of me to go nuts when OneSpeed ran out of bread?

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Here's a little behind-the-scenes look at customer service at one of the area's better casual restaurants.

I'm going to give away the ending: The customer was not happy. At all. Picture Michael Douglas in "Falling Down" trying to order breakfast. Only without the scary glasses.

It starts innocently enough. Woman is a regular at OneSpeed. Woman takes client there for lunch. Woman orders steak. (Really? A steak for lunch?) Woman is told the restaurant is out of bread. Woman fires off email to yours truly. And yours truly promptly puts down everything he is doing and heads over to Folsom Boulevard demanding some answers, and fast.

OK, no I didn't.

Let's start with the email. Then I'll ask how you would have handled it. I'll leave out the name because, well, the writer might just need to enroll in a 12-step "turn and walk away from the bread" program. The email is actually a copy of an email she fired off to OneSpeed. I'll sign her O. Crusty One.

"Mr. Robertson, FYI, below. I thought this was pretty ridiculous.

"Hello. My husband and I are regular customers at One Speed. Today, I was there with a client. Each of us ordered the flat iron steak. Delicious. Not cheap for a lunch plate. I asked for bread and was told you were out of bread. I asked if we could have some pizza crust. Answer: no, how about some crustini? Trader Joe is right next door and has Truckee Pugliese. Your staff could have gone next door and purchased a few loaves for the lunch crowd. I considered doing it myself, but really, a restaurant, especially a pizza place to be out of bread.

Sincerely,"

December 10, 2012
Piatti Ristorante reopens in Pavilions with a new direction

Piatti Ristorante at the Pavilions center is back in business after a four-month closure for a makeover. What took so long?

"We were going to do a small facelift, but instead we decided to completely expand the scope and redo everything," said Nick Dedier on the phone today. He's the Italian-themed restaurant's director of operations. His resume includes more than five years with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group in Yountville. During that time, he ran Bouchon for a year and Ad Hoc for four years.

Piatti certainly has a brighter, cleaner look.

December 4, 2012
Is turnabout fair play? Restaurateurs rate the restaurant critics


The Daily Meal, the online site that covers all things food and drink (www.thedailymeal.com), is taking much delight over the results of its latest survey, "Top Chefs Rate America's Food Critics."

In fairness, the term "food writers" should have been added to that title, as some of the people on the list do not strictly qualify as restaurant critics, though they do cover the food and dining scenes to varying degrees.

At any rate, the Daily Meal explains: "We have given dozens of chefs and restaurateurs a chance to turn the tables on food critics by asking them to divulge their opinions about the men and women who write reviews for America's top publications. While anonymity was guaranteed to elicit the most truthful responses, every chef and restaurateur is an elite industry figure. Most, in fact, are household names."

November 20, 2012
Ambience Restaurant in Carmichael will close in January

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One of the Sacramento area's best fine dining restaurants is closing. I spoke by phone with Morgan Song, the owner/chef of Ambience Restaurant in Carmichael, who told me business has lagged and he has decided to relocate to Los Altos. He expects to pack up and close for good by the middle or end of January.

This is a significant loss to the local culinary scene, as many food aficionados considered Song to be among the best, most precise and artistic chefs in the area. Almost all of his dishes were so beautifully plated you couldn't be blamed for staring instead of eating.

And yet, Ambience was rarely crowded - and wasn't as crowded as it should have been or deserved to be. Song said much of that had to do with the less-than-prestigious location in Carmichael (he extensively renovated an old Wendy's) and the persistence of the economic downturn.

That may be partly true. The meals at Ambience were prix fixe, meaning there were no options for anything but the $70 for five courses or $95 for seven courses, and the cooking was geared toward nouvelle French cuisine. If you wanted an $18 pasta dish and a glass of wine on your way home from work, you were out of luck. A gourmet burger and a beer at happy hour? Not here. It was all or nothing. In that location and in this economy, that was probably a recipe for failure.

October 26, 2012
Cook meets book in family-style dinner at Mulvaney's B&L


Crab feeds and special restaurant meals are a hugely popular part of our seasonal dining scene. Leave it to innovative chef Patrick Mulvaney and cookbook authors Georgeanne Brennan and Ann Evans to come up with an unusual variation on the theme.

Using the "Davis Farmers Market Cookbook" as his guide, Mulvaney will prepare a multi-course prix-fixe dinner made with locally sourced ingredients, with recipes from the cookbook. Mulvaney and his wife, Bobbin, are well-known for their farm-to-table philosophy, serving what they call "hand-crafted New American cuisine."

After appetizers, the family-style dinner will be served platter by platter in the banquet hall (called Next Door) of Mulvaney's Building & Loan restaurant, 1215 19th St., Sacramento.

Co-authors Brennan and Evans will be there to sign copies of their "Davis Farmers Market Cookbook" (Mirabelle, $24.95, 235 pages) and offer 15 percent off the retail price

The dinner will be 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 12; cost is $45 per person, including tax and tip. For reservations: (916) 441-6022.

For more information: www.davisfarmersmarketcookbook.com and www.mulvaneysbl.com.

As for the menu - a collaboration between cook and book - take a look:

October 22, 2012
Taste Restaurant invited to cook at James Beard House in NY

The highly praised Taste Restaurant in Plymouth recently received some news that floored nearly everyone on the staff: It has been invited to cook a dinner at the James Beard House in New York City.

This is a tremendous honor for the restaurant and it will surely bring more much-deserved attention to the restaurant. It's also great for the Sacramento region's culinary scene to have one of its best restaurants showcasing its food and wine in the Big Apple.

I recently chatted with Tracey Berkner, who co-owns Taste with husband Mark, about how she got the news.

"We got a phone call. A woman identifying herself from the James Beard Foundation said she was looking for Mark. I said, 'I'm his wife. Maybe you can talk to me.' She wanted to make sure I understood what the James Beard House was and, of course, anybody in this industry is familiar with it. She said one of the James Beard Foundation members had dined here frequently and recommended us.

"My heart was going to beat out of my chest. The James Beard Foundation is like the Oscars of the food world. It's one of the most coveted recognitions in this industry."

October 22, 2012
More details about Enotria's exceptional food, wine and staff

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Arctic char with eggplant and green curry broth


Faced with the realities of limited space in the newspaper, I had no choice but to hold back some of the many details about Enotria in my review, which ran Sunday. Owner David Hardie enlisted the help of restaurant consultant Kathi Riley, along with general manager Michael Coyne II and dining room manager Emily Turner have done a remarkable job over the past year in taking Enotria to new heights. In fact, Riley has quickly become something of an under-the-radar restaurant wizard. She was the consultant at Maranello in Fair Oaks, helping bring aboard the Gabriel Glazier, an excellent chef looking to get back into a Sacramento area kitchen after doing some corporate cheffing on the East Coast. Riley also played a key role in the recent hiring of Pajo Bruich to head the kitchen at Enotria. With these two homeruns alone she has become a significant player in the local restaurant scene. And yet, she's not a big self-promoter. She doesn't have a website (though I'm told one is being developed) and you have to know somebody who knows somebody just to get in touch with her. Can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

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A tomato sphere with burrata cheese that turns into a gazpacho

October 17, 2012
Gourmet meals and premium wines at Napa Truffle Festival

FOOD TRUFFLES 11-2.JPGAmong the most precious delicacies in the global marketplace is the truffle. How good are truffles? French novelist Alexandre Dumas famously said, "The truffles themselves have been interrogated and have answered simply: Eat us and praise the lord."

Truffles may not look like much, but for centuries they've been a treasured ingredient in haute cuisine. Master chefs call them "the diamonds of the kitchen," and with good reason: Black truffles retail for about $1,700 a pound; white truffles cost around $4,500 a pound.

A truffle is a type of mushroom that grows underground, usually close to oak and hazelnut trees. Dogs and pigs are commonly used by Italian and French truffle-hunters to help locate truffles in the wild and dig them up.

Now there's a window of opportunity to do some foraging of your own - and eat some truffled treasures - by joining the truffle cognoscenti at the third annual Napa Truffle Festival, known as North America's premier truffle event, Jan. 18-21.

October 16, 2012
Bistro Jeanty speaks French in California Cuisine Central

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We were coming back from visiting Brian Streeter in Napa Valley last week and decided to stop in restaurant-rich Yountville for a bite.

Streeter is the culinary director of Cakebread Cellars, and will present "The Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Cookbook" for the Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento; (916) 452-5881.

In Yountville, the first bit of luck was something unheard of - an actual brief wait in a short line to get inside the legendary Bouchon Bakery for a bagful of the world's best croissants (6528 Washington St.; 707-944-2253, www.bouchonbakery.com).

The second piece of good fortune was the discovery of the charming and relaxed Bistro Jeanty (pictured). Sat at the bar and cruised the chalkboard specials, which included rabbit terrine, fried boneless pig's foot and Mediterranean seabass with ratatouille ($12.50 to $30).

October 11, 2012
Port wines take center stage at Ruth's Chris five-course meal

Fall is in the air, and one good thing that means is the return of muscular red wines to the table.

Appropriately, Taylor Fladgate ports - from tawny to vintage - will take center stage at a five-course dinner hosted by the two Ruth's Chris steakhouses in town.

A different port will be matched with each course. Among the dishes will be port-steeped figs, port-poached pear, butternut squash bisque, filet mignon and "sizzling shellfish," and a dessert of cheese, berries, nuts and port-infused chocolate.

Dinner will be at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at both restaurants. The toll is $125 a person at Ruth's Chris in the Pavilions center, along Fair Oaks Boulevard east of Howe Avenue. Reservations: (916) 286-2702.

The Ruth's Chris in Roseville will host the same dinner at the same time for $115. (Each store in the chain sets its own price.) It's at 1185 Galleria Blvd.; (916) 780-6910.

More information: www.ruthschris.com.

September 20, 2012
With a focus on seafood, is Blackbird ready to shine?

I have been eating quite an array of seafood lately at a several places in and around Sacramento, along with a few out of town joints. Squid, octopus, rock cod, hamachi, arctic char cooked, arctic char raw (topped with potato chips and fish eggs), tilapia on tacos, blackened catfish, whole roasted trout, striped bass, salmon teriyaki, oysters, clams mussels, lobster, crab. The list goes on.

OK, it's been quite the seafood feast in recent weeks. Which leads me to the focal point of this brief post: Blackbird Kitchen + Bar. That's the new downtown restaurant I will be reviewing this Sunday.

As a preview, I thought you might enjoy seeing a few photos from recent visits. Below that, I thought I would include a couple of pics from a recent drop-in at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey. I'll be writing about that place in the weeks (or months) to come.

August 2012 Oscar, etc 352.JPG Arctic char in vichyssoise topped with potato chips and cured roe.


August 2012 Oscar, etc 357.JPG Whole roasted trout with steamed clams and sea beans

September 033.JPG Striped bass

September 19, 2012
Sacramento Regional Restaurant Week to debut Oct. 1

Maybe there's a restaurant (or two or three) you've always wanted to try, but somehow have never gotten around to it. The inaugural Sacramento Regional Restaurant Week, Oct. 1 through 14, could be your window of opportunity.

Hey, wait a minute... Isn't that two weeks, not one?

"Well, that's one more thing that makes it unique," said Daniel Conway, with a laugh. "We'll double down and have twice the fun." Conway is the public-affairs director of the California Restaurant Association. The Sacramento chapter of the CRA organized Restaurant Week.

So, what is it?

September 13, 2012
Ella celebrates 5 years with Happy Hour specials

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Congratulations to the crew at Ella Dining Room & Bar on hitting the five-year milestone -- not just five years in business, which is admirable enough, but five years as one of the city's very best restaurants.

Ella set a standard right out of the gate as an elegant, lively, cosmopolitan restaurant with very good food and polished, big-league service. Since then, the restaurant has had three chefs: David English, who now owns the impressive and popular Press Bistro on Capitol; Kelly McKown, who left to run the kitchen at Goose & Gander in St. Helena; and current head chef Micheal Thiemann, who departed Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco to return home to Sacramento. As most foodies know, Ella is owned and operated by the Selland Family Restaurants, a mini-empire that includes The Kitchen and Selland Market-Cafe (now with a second location in El Dorado Hills, in addition to the East Sac spot).

We happened upon this sign (pictured above) recently while out for a walk with the dogs. Years ago, as many locals know, K Street wasn't exactly the most appealing place for a stroll, run-down and sketchy as it had become. That's changing, and Ella has been a part of that new optimism and energy on K Street, bolstered even more by the arrival of Pizza Rock. Sometime in the next year or two, expect much more, including more housing.

Meanwhile, whether you have yet to try Ella or simply want to enjoy more of that atmosphere, food and service, this is a good time to drop by for Happy Hour or head over to enjoy a full meal. The Happy Hour anniversary specials run throughout September, as does a special $35 prix fixe dinner. To see the prix fixe menu, click here. It sure looks good.

Ella is at 1131 K St., Sacramento. (916) 443-3772.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.


September 7, 2012
Pajo Bruich and Enotria could be a great pairing

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I was excited to learn that Pajo Bruich, the artistic, modernist chef with the ever-growing reputation (but still rather thin resume) had landed a new gig as executive chef at Enotria. That's the restaurant with the stellar wine list that, at least to me, tended to under-achieve in the kitchen.

Is this the final piece of the puzzle for a place that appears to have not only deep pockets but a commitment to raise the bar?

When I encountered Bruich's food over the past year at Lounge ON20, where he teamed with sous chef extraordinaire Mike Ward, I was sometimes blown away by the flavor combinations, the thinking behind the ingredients, the arcane techniques, the artistry of the plating and the unabashed yearning to do something new and innovative. I like people who aren't comfortable fitting in and being ordinary, especially when they have the talent and know-how to back up their peculiarities.

The Lounge gig didn't last. People didn't get it. And the restaurant wasn't really a restaurant -- it was a lounge that happened to have a kitchen. The lounge didn't showcase Bruich and Ward properly, if at all. In fact, the very people who might admire their food - savvy, well-traveled and well-heeled epicureans -- would take one look at the exterior of Lounge ON20, complete with a big, bad bouncer standing guard outside, and rightly conclude, "Not for me."

Lounge hired Bruich to do his thing. Then after a month or two of lagging sales, instead of marketing the food better, it pulled back. Bruich's new marching orders? "You know why we hired you? To be modernist and artistic and edgy? Don't do that."

August 9, 2012
A dress code at a restaurant? Here? Huh?

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I recently dined at a restaurant that does something very unusual - it informs people when they call to make a reservation that they are expected to dress appropriately for dinner - and that does not mean men showing up in shorts and flip-flops.

This led me to wonder: where have all the dress codes gone? Are they a relic of a bygone era? Do we have any standards for evening attire these days? Does it matter?

In Sacramento and throughout much of Northern California, the answer is simple: there are no standards. Sure, the French Laundry (in Yountville) still requires men to wear jackets, but there aren't many places like that left. More often than not, anything goes, including baseball caps in white-tablecloth restaurants.

Men, especially, have been dressing down more and more for dinner. The gender divide may be growing, too. If there is a disparity gender-wise, women tend to dress more appropriately for the occasion. These days, it is very common to see a woman in a stylish dress accompanied by a man in jeans and a T-shirt.

Since I feel like I'm in the minority on this topic, I wanted to consult with an expert. So I called Ryan Douglas Hammonds, the 32-year-old owner of R. Douglas Custom Clothier, which makes and hand-delivers custom suits, blazers, slacks and shirts for men. He recently introduced a line of men's dress shoes. Check out the company's website here. His clothes look great.

August 3, 2012
Restaurants and marketing part III: The Eatery in West Sac

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My look at how restaurants market and promote themselves is turning into an ongoing series. That's because it's a huge part of the business, and because I am fascinated by how busy restaurants stay busy. If you think it's all about the food, you're wrong.

Getting the attention of the consumer - connecting with newcomers, making friends with regulars - is a way to build a restaurant that has staying power.

I'm writing this just after I received a long, sincere email from a reader responding to my recent review of Erawan Thai Restaurant, in which I take the business to task for not doing enough to attract attention, fill the seats and, thus, make dining there a lively, entertaining experience. Every time I visited, the place was a ghost town.

The emailer states, "The owners establish a strong base with the customers that do come in and as a result we become loyal customers. If you are a Buddhist customer with strong spiritual ties, the atmosphere is very pleasing and peaceful."

July 27, 2012
Evan's Kitchen will host 'Taste of Barcelona' wine dinner

Evan Elsberry is a chef who enjoys competing. For instance, his imaginative dishes have won numerous ribbons at the California State Fair over the years. Last year, he was among the top three winners in the Ultimate Clubhouse Sandwich contest at the Scottish Rite Center, and in the second annual Sacramento Tomato Fest at Town & Country Village.

Also, Elsberry is partial to pairing ethnic cuisines with matching wines. So far this year, he has hosted Italian- and French- wine-pairing dinners at his restaurant, Evan's Kitchen. Coming in October will be a Mexican-themed repast.

While we wait for that one, "A Taste of Barcelona" Spanish-themed dinner is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. on Aug. 6. The cost is $75 per person, with reservations at (916) 452-3896. Evan's Kitchen is at 855 57th Street, Sacramento, in the Antiques Mall. Visit at www.chefevan.com.

The menu looks like this:

First course: Tapas of Spanish olives, marinated artichoke, anchovies, chorizo, Spanish cheese and ham, chicken croquettes, and tomato-rubbed bread. Pouring NV Campo Viejo Brut Rose Cava.

Second course: Garlic and spring vegetables soup. Pouring Campo Viejo Reserva 2006.

Third course: Red wine-braised short ribs with wild mushroom ragout. Pouring Marques de Riscal Rioja 2006.

Fourth course: Paella with chicken, shrimp, chorizo, monkfish, mussels, clams, vegetables and herbs over long-grain rice in saffron broth. Pouring Ramon Bilbao Albarino Valinas.

Dessert: Creme caramel flan. Pouring Sandeman Royal Ambrosante Sherry.

July 24, 2012
Looking for scenic dining? OpenTable has 100 choices

San Francisco-based OpenTable knows something about restaurants and the people who eat at them. After all, it specializes in making free online restaurant reservations for diners across the country.

In a yearlong program, the company solicited restaurant reviews from many of its users. The result: critiques of more than 15,000 restaurants in 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Using that data, OpenTable determined its Diners Choice Award-winners for the Top 100 Scenic View Restaurants in the U.S. Though there are winners in 29 states, California swept with 37 awards.

To see the full list of winners, and visit them via links, go to www.opentable.com/scenic. Meanwhile, whet your appetites with this sampling of scenic dining in Northern California:

A Caprice - Tiburon
Fish Hopper - Monterey
Fog Harbor Fish House - San Francisco
Franciscan Crab - San Francisco
Grandviews at the Grand Hyatt - San Francisco
McCormick & Kuleto's - San Francisco
Miramar - Half Moon Bay
Moss Beach Distillery - Moss Beach (near Half Moon Bay)
Pacific's Edge - Monterey
River's End - Jenner
Rocky Point - Carmel
Skates - Berkeley
Spinnaker - Sausalito
Sunnyside - Tahoe City
Sutro's at the Cliff House - San Francisco

July 20, 2012
Which restaurants do the best at marketing and promoting?

Good cooking, great service and a pleasant atmosphere. Those are the key components of a successful restaurant. But there's something even more important than that - getting the word out about these components.

That's right, there are some very empty restaurants out there serving good food. There are also some very crowded restaurants serving OK food. One explanation for that comes down to how these restaurants sell themselves - how they tell their story and explain why customers should give them a try. In this economy, especially, when families are cutting back on eating out, restaurants need to make their case - often, loudly and with creative ideas.

Marketing a restaurant is complicated. The best marketing ideas tell stories about the people who work there, about the food, the purveyors, the thinking behind the food. Like any good story, these are elements that help potential customers connect in some way with the business. Connecting equals likability.

There are other, more basic ways to connect - for instance, talking about quality and price, and what makes this restaurant stand out from all the others. One big mistake I occasionally see: restaurateurs making divisive political comments on Facebook or Twitter. You have the right to do it, sure. But it's incredibly dumb to slam Obama, Bush, Romney or others when it might alienate half your customer base.

Advertising is where chain restaurants beat locally owned restaurants pretty handily, mostly because the chains have the budgets to buy plenty of advertising. It's also because chains usually have a finely honed concept and plenty of fresh ideas about how to sell it.

But there are local places that are really doing well in this crucial part of doing business - and staying relevant. I was reminded of that when I recently received a detailed email from the Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento. The reason? The executive chef, Deneb Williams, was rolling out an impressive new seasonal menu. The email explained what the restaurant was doing, the thinking behind the new menu and, finally, it provided the entire menu, which looks irresistible.

I was reminded in a different way when I drove by Fremont Park in midtown/downtown the other day. There was a lunchtime concert in the park - a wonderful idea by Hot Italian, the pizzeria that faces the park.

July 19, 2012
Can't get foie gras at restaurants? Try 'faux gras' at Morgan's

faux_gras.JPG "Foie gras," which translates to English as "fat liver," has long been regarded as a delicacy among food connoisseurs. To their disappointment, a controversial statewide ban on the sale of the goose liver pate at restaurants went into effect July 1.

Which has led chef Russell Michel to create "a great twist on a negative direction for foodies." Michel oversees the four-star Morgan's restaurant at the Sheraton Grand Hotel.

"Let the fight continue about the ban, but let's do something positive with this situation right now," he e-mailed this morning.

His alternative to foie gras is a creation he calls "faux gras." The recipe includes "naturally harvested duck livers" with cognac and black truffle, that "looks, feels and tastes like foie gras," he said.

The seared faux gras is served on toasted brioche with nectarine-cherry chutney, port wine syrup and sunflower sprouts (pictured). It's $13 on the summer dinner menu.

Chef Michel is also a member of Sacramento Connect, the Bee's blog
and community news network, with his blog "Ask a Chef"
(www.fox40.com/news/cooking).

Morgan's is upstairs at the Sheraton, 1230 J St., Sacramento; (916) 341-4100, www.morgans-restaurant.com.

July 18, 2012
Carpe Vino wine shop-restaurant wins Wine Spectator award

Good things are happening to Gary and Drew Moffat. They're the father-son co-owners of Carpe Vino, the classy wine bar/wine shop/restaurant in Auburn.The store is stocked with about 500 wines, an inventory that's in constant flux.

Recently, the Moffats created a digital list of 250 wines for the restaurant portion of the store. The Wine Spectator took notice of the "breadth and depth" of that list and gave Carpe Vino an Award of Excellence. Given that it's celebrating its 10th anniversary, "This couldn't have come at a better time," said Drew Moffat.

Which ties in nicely with the restaurant's monthly prix-fixe dinners. The next one - "Everything Corn" - will be at 5 p.m. July 24-28. The four-course meal (with options) is $49 a person, plus tax and tip.

Hmmm. We could start with creamed corn fritters with smoked pork belly, move to white sea bass with corn emulsion, and then ...

Reservations: (530) 823-0320, www.carpevinoauburn.com, www.opentable.com.

June 22, 2012
Follow-up: Landlord not to blame in closure of Scott's Seafood

Following up on a post here a few days ago about the closure of Scott's Seafood at Loehmann's Plaza, it seems as if many readers may have gotten the wrong idea about the negotiations of the lease terms. Scott's co-owner Alan Irvine tells me the landlord has been receiving angry emails since the news came out. (Scott's two other Sacramento area restaurants remain open and are doing well).

Irvine explained that since the recession hit in 2008, the Scott's at Loehmann's Plaza had been especially hard hit, thanks to an aging demographic in the area and increased competition nearby.

"I stopped taking a salary two or three years ago. We shared our information with the landlord and they initially helped us through one year and we repaid that," he said. "It didn't get any better and we basically paid what we could after that. They were very reasonable with us, but there came a point where we realized we just couldn't continue."

June 21, 2012
Thoughts of a restaurateur: Are you really ready to run a business?

I get lots of emails, but there's one each month I always make sure I read -- the newsletter from Cafe Luna's co-owner David Van Buskirk. It's smart, funny, poignant and always entertaining. The restaurant is in Placerville and is always a good bet for creative and delicious food, good wine and an enjoyable dining experience.

Van Buskirk's latest missive covers all kinds of terrain, but I wanted to excerpt one area because it touches on unrealistic expectations of starting a business. It certainly applies to some who go into the restaurant business and think it will be sort of glamorous and fun.

Here's what Van Buskirk wrote:

June 18, 2012
Scott's Seafood closes Loehmann's Plaza location, citing economy

Scott's Seafood Grill & Bar at Loehmann's Plaza, a stalwart in the community since it opened in 1991, announced suddenly Monday that it was closing the restaurant.

SCOTTS.jpegThe persistent recession, competition from newer downtown restaurants and an aging neighborhood demographic that was eating out less frequently all played a role in the restaurant's downturn, according to Alan Irvine, co-owner of the three Sacramento area Scott's Seafood restaurants. The Scott's at Le Rivage Hotel along the Sacramento River and the Scott's in Folsom continue to do well and will remain open, Irvine said.

The company posted a notice on its website Monday, stating in part:

"It is with great regret that we announce the closure of Scott's Seafood Grill and Bar in Loehmann's Plaza. Alan Irvine, John Cook and their families opened this restaurant over 20 years ago, on October 31, 1991. It quickly became the most popular seafood restaurant in Sacramento, winning awards year after year in the Sacramento Bee, News and Review, KCRA's A List and Sacramento Magazine.
"The owners, management and staff have all been working very hard to keep this beautiful restaurant viable but the local economy's lack of recovery and our failure to strike new lease terms with the landlord has made it impossible to continue."
June 17, 2012
Apologizing for an error that caused sorrow for many

I made an unfortunate error in today's restaurant review of Silva's Sheldon Inn. I failed to connect with the restaurant's owners prior to publication. Had I, I would have learned that Don Brown, the longtime executive chef at Biba who later became sous chef at Silva's Sheldon Inn, died in 2010. Mr. Brown was mentioned briefly in the review. I have already heard from many of Mr. Brown's friends and loved ones, and I want to apologize for the jolt of pain and anguish my error caused.

Those who knew Don Brown have told me, as one email stated this morning, that he was "a great father, wonderful chef, super person." Other emails have made similar characterizations.

This error has already been addressed in the online version of the review and will be corrected in the newspaper. I feel terrible about the mistake and will redouble my efforts to make sure errors big or small do not find their way into my work.


June 15, 2012
Question for readers: What obligation do parents have when their kids misbehave at a restaurant?


In midtown and downtown, we rarely encounter gaggles of misbehaving children in restaurants. But my GF and I sure did the other night at a casual but high-quality restaurant.

The noise was incredible. There was yelling, screaming, running, grabbing. And it made me realize: isn't it really about misbehaving adults? The kids were bored. They probably couldn't care less about the artisan techniques or the local, sustainable, organic produce.

Yes, the adults in this case - two couples in their 30s - did almost nothing to discipline their six young kids or get them to pipe down. They were oblivious. To us, it seemed as if they were letting the kids run roughshod around the restaurant, disrupting the rest of us, so they could engage in adult conversation. We were essentially the child care service while they were having some adult time.


June 14, 2012
Piatti Ristorante to close in August for a two-month renovation

In May, Piatti Ristorante & Bar marked its 20th year of serving a loyal clientele at the upscale Pavilions center. Now it's preparing for a new look.

"We'll be doing a major renovation, tentatively starting in the second week of August, and will be closed for approximately eight weeks," said general manager Kelly Brean on the phone today. "We're not excited about being closed for that much time, but everybody's excited about the project."

The makeover will double the Italian-themed restaurant's banquet space, adding 750 square feet by expanding into a vacant storefront next door.

"We'll replace the flooring, the ceiling and the lighting, the bar top and the furniture," Brean said. "The present atrium area will be opened up for easier service, and the booths near the bar will go away and become high-top dining, making that (space) more a part of the bar area. The courtyard will be done as well, with lounge-type furniture and fire pits."

As for the restaurant staff, "Some folks (will be) helping out at banquets at other restaurants, others are looking forward to long sabbaticals. At this point, everyone says they're coming back," Brean said. "I will be here working with the construction crew, but I'm planning a vacation, too."

Will there be a 20th anniversary/grand reopening celebration?
"We haven't put all that together yet, but there will be some type of celebration when we reopen," he said.

Piatti in Pavilions is one of eight restaurants in the California-based group, and the only one in the Sacramento area. Pavilions is on Fair Oaks Avenue, near Howe Avenue, in Sacramento.

For more information: (916) 649-8885, www.piatti.com.

June 8, 2012
Guest post: the case in favor of the ban on foie gras

Note: After an earlier posting today on three special events devoted to foie gras, I received a call from Jennifer Fearing, California Senior State Director for the Humane Society of the United States. I invited her to state the case in support of the ban on foie gras, which begins July 1. What follows is what she wrote:

The notion of foodies gorging on fatty liver from force-fed ducks and geese is more than a little ironic.

Foie gras, French for "fatty liver," is the diseased and enlarged liver of a duck or goose, produced through force-feeding. Multiple times each day for several weeks, a pipe is shoved down the birds' throats to force-feed them. The birds' livers, diseased with hepatic lipidosis, grow up to ten times their normal size, and are then sold as foie gras. Evidence suggests ducks and geese experience fear, acute and chronic stress, and pain. Mortality rates for force-feed ducks are 10-20 times higher than those for non-force fed ducks. Many animal welfare experts condemn the practice and no existing animal welfare program certifies a producer who force feeds their animals.

May 18, 2012
Upcoming wine dinners at Vanilla Bean, Hawks in Granite Bay

Here are two promising wine dinners on the horizon, each with distinctly different price points: one at Vanilla Bean Bistro in East Sacramento, the other at Hawks in Granite Bay.

Here is the line up at Vanilla Bean, 3260-B J St., Sacramento. Call the restaurant for reservations, (916) 457-1155. It's a five-course dinner for $49.50:

Wed., May 23, 2012 at 6:30 PM
A Taste of Portugal
Featuring the Wines of the Fenestra Winery of Livermore
Presented by the wine maker, Brent Amos

Frango Na Pucara
Chicken Sautéed with peppers, tomatoes, onion, garlic and wine
2010 Verdelho, Silvaspoons Vineyards, Lodi

Portuguese Paella
Rice with a variety of shell fish, chicken and vegetables
2009 Graciano, Markus Bokisch Vineyard, Lodi

Boneless Short Rib
With polenta and a red wine & dark chocolate sauce
2009 Tempranillo, Silavaspoons Vineyards, Lodi

Pork Tenderloin
With bacon wrapped dates and an apple and pomegranate sauce
2009 Malbec, Silvaspoons Vineyards, Lodi

Chocolate Bread Pudding
2004 Port, Silvaspoons Vineyard, Lodi
Silver Medal 2009 Riverside Competition
Silver Medal 2009 El Dorado County Wine Competition.

May 16, 2012
Recommended: Evan's Kitchen wine dinner June 11

(This post has been revised from the original):

Evan Elsberry, the chef and owner of Evan's Kitchen in East Sacramento, does a particularly good job with wine dinners. He takes his role as chef seriously for these events. With the wine dinners I have attended, the chef always started the menu-creation process by tasting and re-tasting the wines he planned to serve (often from a single winery), then zeroed in on dishes that would work particularly well with each wine.

I assumed he was doing that in this case, but as one sharp-eyed reader of the original version of this post pointed out in an email to me, he appears to be doing the opposite this time. I had assumed the wines had been selected and just weren't listed yet. So I called Elsberry and, of course, he's taking the opposite approach (thus, I have revised this blog post to reflect that). The chef tells me that because the wines this time are not all from the same winery, he created the menu (due to popular demand, his customers want to know well in advance what he's cooking), then he will go through a rather meticulous process of selecting Italian wines for each course. Elsberry says the dishes, however, could be tweaked or even changed if they don't work well with his selections. In other words, a chef's work is never over.

I have attended several of these wine dinners and all have been a great success. If interested in trying the next one, a five-course affair for $75 dubbed "When in Rome," here is information I just received (tip: these dinners tend to fill up):

May 4, 2012
Bistro La Petite France opens for lunch; dinner coming Saturday.

What's good for Folsom is a loss for Granite Bay.

Bistro La Petite France, which gained such a loyal and enthusiastic following through the years for its French cuisine and charming personal service, has reopened in Historic Folsom after the restaurant was unable to come to terms with the lease in Granite Bay. The restaurant is at 718 Sutter St. For more information, (916) 608-2148.

This looks like a great fit for both sides. Historic Folsom, with its old village vibe, adds to its inventory of nice dining spots and cool places to grab a beer. The bistro will be able to take advantage of the additional foot traffic in the area and its concept seems like a great fit for the area.

April 26, 2012
Act fast and land a seat at the Firehouse's latest wine dinner

Act fast and you might just be able to squeeze into a reservation at The Firehouse Restaurant's latest wine dinner, a seven-course extravaganza featuring wine pairings from Kobalt Winery. The event is May 4 at 7 p.m.

Wine dinners are often a chance for the best chefs to showcase new and often more challenging dishes. Here's a look at the menu from executive chef Deneb Williams and and newly hired pastry chef Nichol Santisteven:

April 26, 2012
Good food, good cause at Thir13en this Saturday

If you're looking for a very nice food and wine experience while contributing to a worthy cause this weekend, here's a notice we just received from Restaurant Thir13en at the corner of H and 13th streets downtown. I recently reviewed Thir13en and found plenty to like about the food, the people and the ambience.

Here'e the press release we received:

Restaurant Thir13en cordially invites you to join us for an outstanding nonprofit event as we host the John Kerr Foundation's 5th Annual Food & Wine Tasting on Saturday, April 28 from 5:30-9:30 p.m. This year's event will be held in our beautiful Hotel Ballroom located at 1300 H St. in downtown Sacramento. Come out and enjoy unlimited tastings from some of Sacramento's finest dining establishments and some delicious beer and wines from throughout the Northern California region, and all for a great cause!

April 20, 2012
Can two restaurant stars fix what ails La Provence?

La Provence, the Roseville restaurant I reviewed rather unfavorably a few months back, has made a couple of significant changes in recent weeks - including the hiring of a restaurant superstar to oversee service and the temporary (or not-so-temporary) installment of a highly regarded local chef to showcase a prix fixe menu with wine pairings on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Ruben Szlachciuk, a veteran waiter best known for his 14 years at Biba, has been hired as service manager; Vincent Paul Alexander, who made his reputation at Alexander's Meritage in Folsom, Slocum House in Fair Oaks and the Firehouse in Old Sacramento before moving on to the recently closed Horseshoe Bar Grill in Loomis, has for the past month been wowing guests at La Provence with his fine French cooking (he trained under the great Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco). Alexander's special menu, set apart from the restaurant's regular menu, is three courses with wine pairings for $49, including an intermezzo.

I caught up with both men Friday. Szlachciuk, who was known for his charm and consummate professionalism at Biba, is likely to have an immediate impact on the service at La Provence.

April 13, 2012
Is it unhealthy to be a foodie?



foie gras.JPGBy now, we've all seen the reports -- and the various interpretations of the reports -- about red meat. While the Harvard study's data indicated that consumption of red meat was linked to an increased risk of mortality, others have said, "Not so fast." I'm in the skeptical camp, always wary of how statistics can be used and misused.

Men's Health, for instance, wisely notes that the massive Harvard study control group lacked controls and that eating red meat often goes hand in hand with other habits that may hasten mortality -- smoking, drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching "Hardcore Pawn" and "Storage Wars" until you pass out, just you, your booze and your cat, staring at you from the DVR box.

Then came news of "pink slime" in hamburger meat. That's simply disgusting and scary. If you want to avoid such nonsense, go to a butcher you trust -- Corti Brothers, Taylor's Market, Roseville Meat Co. come to mind. Pay a little more, buy a little less and worry not about pink slime. I'm also a fan of the ground beef at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. It's from Prather Ranch, a farm I have visited and have seen their responsible practices firsthand.

But now comes a more personal report, from former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who revealed on his blog he has been diagnosed with gout. It's a kind of inflammation around joints -- most commonly the big toe, for some reason -- and the pain can be unreasonably harsh. A flare up can prevent you from walking. In Bruni's case, it was so painful he couldn't even put on a sock.

April 4, 2012
Alaskan blue king crabs meet their match in Monterey

"My brother Sam and I went out fishing in Alaska with Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand," restaurateur Dominic Mercurio was saying on the phone earlier today. "Those guys are nuts! Waves were breaking over their (113-foot crabbing boat) Time Bandit. During the trip I taught them how to make pizza - I barbecued it."

Mercurio is the owner of Cafe Fina and Domenico's restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey. The Hillstrand brothers are among the stars of the reality-TV show "Deadliest Catch" on the Discovery Channel. It documents the fishermen who go out in 60-foot seas to harvest Alaskan king crabs in the Bering Sea.

The three are planning an over-the-top "Deadliest Catch" king crab feast at Cafe Fina later this month (details coming soon).

Meanwhile, Mercurio bought the last of the season's Alaskan blue king crab from the Hillstrands and is serving it at both restaurants. "It's very hard to get the real Alaskan blue," he said. "Don't be fooled by the Russian (product) - it sits in brine too long and gets salty and stringy."

Crab dinners are $49 with trimmin's, cooked in the shell four waysl: steamed with drawn butter; broiled with garlic butter; sauteed in olive oil scampi-style, with garlic and white wine, served over angel hair pasta; and served warm on a salad of butter lettuce, radicchio and pancetta, with lemon vinaigrette.

Cafe Fina: (831) 372-5200, www.cafefina.com.

April 3, 2012
Blackbird update: a sneak peek (and free grub) for Facebook fans



I just heard from Carina Lamkin, the chef at Blackbird Kitchen & Bar, the hotly anticipated restaurant on 9th near J. Here's your tip: if you "like" the restaurant on Facebook, you don't have to wait until Wednesday for the opening. Insiders will be there tonight (Tuesday).

Here's what Lampkin wrote:

We are throwing a grand opening party (Tuesday). I bought 1200 oysters to give away to all of our FB fans. Track 7, Ruhstaller, and Two Rivers will be here pouring beer. We are asking for a $10-20 donation at the door which will be donated to the MET school to help them build-out their future music studio. We will also have DJ's spinning music all night long-

We won't be announcing it on FB until 12PM tomorrow- trying to be sneaky but feel free to put it the paper if you want to.

Since the restaurant remains a bit of a mystery, I asked Lampkin if she could furnish us with a menu. Stay tuned.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.


April 2, 2012
Blackbird Kitchen & Bar to open Wednesday



Here's some exciting news for the downtown restaurant scene: it keeps getting better. Now, there is a new entry coming into the mix, a promising place called Blackbird Kitchen & Bar.

For months, foodies have been keeping their eye on this nicely transformed building with the blackbird mural on 9th near J (right across from Temple Coffee), but restaurants almost never open on time (check out the coming in Feb. 2012 banner in the window of the still-working-on-it Firestone Public House at 16th and L). Check out Blackbird on Facebook.

I called Blackbird on Monday and got a recording, which stated the restaurant will be officially open Wednesday from 4-10 p.m., dinners only to start. The menu will be limited at first. I'm told Blackbird had a family-and-friends soft opening over the weekend to work out the kinks.

These folks look serious about being a significant player in the casual/fine dining category. We'll be stopping in soon for a look. Expect to see Blackbird in an upcoming "First Impressions" piece in The Bee.

I wish them well.

April 2, 2012
One woman's large (and growing) collection of chef photos


Ella.jpg

How many Sacramento chefs can you identify? Well, there's an impressive collection of photos on Facebook that will help put a face with the name -- and, perhaps, their food. Check them out here

Since I don't want to spoil it, here's a hint on the photo above: it's the new executive chef at one of the city's most elegant restaurants..

The photos are the work of Debbie Cunningham, a state employee who has become increasingly passionate about photography and manages to squeeze in assignments during her off hours.. She has routinely photographed special food-related events and has been invited to shoot candid behind-the-scenes action in some of the city's top kitchens.

March 30, 2012
Insight discusses the city's culinary reputation



Bruich.jpgInsight on Capital Public Radio recently took a look at the the Sacramento restaurant scene, interviewing Pajo Bruich, executive chef at Lounge ON20, and a member of a new group that aims to get Sacramento a higher profile on the statewide and national culinary scene. It's called Sactown Dining Collective.

Conducting the interview, in dulcet tones, I might add, is Rick Kushman, a lover of food and wine, and a former colleague we miss at The Bee.

Listen to the interview here. Bruich makes several excellent points and raises the ongoing questions many of us are asking: What's it going to take to enhance the city's reputation for restaurants. Do we have to do more? Or say more?

For more on the Sactown Dining Collective, go to the group's Facebook page.
If you want to read more about Bruich and company at Lounge ON20, check out what I said after their Valentine's dinner extravaganza by clicking here.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

March 30, 2012
Magpie Cafe celebrates three (great) years


Magpie Café, which has quickly established itself as one of the city's consistently great dining experiences, will celebrate three years in business this weekend.

Anyone familiar with the restaurant world knows that getting that far means overcoming all kinds of hurdles - several of which can doom a restaurant sooner than later. We're talking about concept, staffing, the physical space, the lease, the menu, the food costs, and all the intangibles that happen behind the scenes.

Then, if you're good, you start to build a clientele. Magpie has gone way beyond that. It is now one of those foundational restaurants in Sacramento. It has helped redefine the city's restaurant landscape, has taught its legions of fans about clean, honest flavors and excellent technique, and it continues to showcase great food morning, noon and night.

168600_456796902613_634097613_5074122_8005185_n.jpgOne sign of a great restaurant is how impactful its food is. I can sincerely remember nearly everything I have eaten at Magpie during my dozens of visits - precisely where I was seated the first time I smelled the gnocchi with duck, how I felt when I tasted the rib eye steak with pan sauce, the iconic chicken for two, the risotto with duck egg, the breakfast sandwich, the simple salad with chicken and beautiful watermelon radishes, the trout sandwich, the pork five ways (pictured), the carrot cake cookie, the seared ahi with runner bean ragout, the crab Louie, all the soups. On and on. This is just off the top of my head.

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March 22, 2012
Play it safe or push forward? The menu discussion continues



Glasier.jpgMany folks tied to the Sacramento food scene have maintained a long-running, often appropriate and sometimes misguided discussion about the quality of the area's restaurants. Often, the discussion focuses on the lack of inspired, inventive and edgy meals (the definition of edgy is subjective and elastic, ranging from keeping the bones in the chicken breast all the way to, say, serving all those "gross" parts of animals, as well as vegetables you've never seen before).

The discussion and debate revolve around wooing customers without turning others off, food costs, and all kinds of other factors...like staying in business during a dreadful and persistent recession. In these times, is it best to play it safe or fire up the edgy ideas and invite people to be more adventurous eaters?

When I saw the rather stunning menu for an upcoming wine dinner at Maranello in Fair Oaks, I had hope. It would certainly be considered a highly adventurous - and possibly high-risk -- meal in Sacramento. We're talking veal carpaccio and lamb belly wrapped in lamb sweetbreads. Now that's edgy. It made me think of the kind of thing Mark Liberman is doing at AQ in San Francisco.

So I gave executive chef Gabriel Glasier a call and asked him to walk me through the menu, complete with his thoughts.

March 21, 2012
Meadowood's new $500 chef's table menu -- discuss


Kostow.jpgAs noted in this space several weeks ago, Meadowood in St. Helena is a world-class restaurant that didn't stop trying to be great when it was awarded three Michelin stars. The restaurant closed this winter for several weeks to dramatically retool the kitchen, tweak the décor in the dining room and rethink its purpose moving forward.

Part of that thinking is off to a rocky start, inviting such labels as "elitist," "self-important" and "ostentatious." I'm referring to the $500 per person tasting menu that runs to 20 courses, includes exclusive seating at the "chef's counter" in the kitchen, and if you want wine pairings, it will set you back another $350 or so. Even if you're one of those heartless 1-percenters and you stiff the waiter, you're still looking at around $1,000 for a meal that, from the looks of it, will either thrill you or overwhelm your taste buds. An on-call priest to give last rites is an additional $350, not including tip (OK, I made that up). Locally, by comparison, I believe the priciest meal is the $125 prix fixe at The Kitchen Restaurant, followed by Ambience..


March 21, 2012
Bouchon Bakery back in business, Addendum re-opens Thursday

With visions of brioche and buttery croissants, the line snaked down Washington St. in Yountville on a recent morning. The message was clear: Bouchon Bakery (6528 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-2253), the heart of Thomas Keller's baking operations, had finally re-opened. Bouchon Bakery creates the baked goods for the French Laundry, Ad Hoc and Bouchon Bistro, along with running its retail shop that doubles as a popular foodie destination. Bouchon Bakery's retail space had been closed a month for remodeling. The bakery itself also required an overhaul following a September fire which reportedly started above the bread oven.

The remodeled bakery features a new, two-door entrance and added cash register that ideally allows for a smoother flow of traffic. The bakery itself, which goes through some 1,200 pounds of dough a day, has also increased its cooking capacity. Its new steam tube deck oven is capable of baking 120 baguettes at a time, which are sent to Keller's restaurant operations and other eateries around Yountville.

"As business increased, we'd outgrown the space," said Matt McDonald, Bouchon Bakery's head baker. "This space was built out to do more volume. It's a non-stop, 24/7 operation."

March 19, 2012
Great brunch -- tell us your favorite spots


omelet.JPG
So many good spots for brunch, so little time. For the next few weeks, I will be searching high and low as we prepare a list of the best brunch restaurants in the Sacramento area.

If you have a favorite, please let us know. Shoot me an email or make a comment below. It can be a fancy special-occasion spot or a little hole-in-the-wall. Doesn't matter. We just want good food and a great brunch experience.

If you want an example of a place that knows how to make brunch, check out the photo above of the smoked salmon omelet with fire-roasted red pepper sauce I had recently at Maranello in Fair Oak. It was a thing of beauty -- cooked perfectly, without even a hint of browning -- and the flavors were intense and satisfying. Kudos to executive chef Gabriel Glasier and his kitchen staff. This kind of cooking demonstrates good technique and great attention to detail.

And I'm on the lookout for more great food like this.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

March 16, 2012
New lease, new locale: Bistro La Petite France moves to Folsom

EK LA PETITE FRANCE6818.jpgMany fans of the cooking and warm, friendly environment at Bistro La Petite France in Granite Bay have been upset to learn that their beloved restaurant has closed, albeit not for good.

But because of a issues regarding the lease, the husband-and-wife team of Christophe and Claudine Erhart were compelled to close the bistro and find a new location. By the first week in April or thereabouts - after plenty of heavy lifting, scrubbing and painting - the couple expect to reopen in Historic Old Folsom.

Explains Christophe: "We had been trying to renogiate the lease with our landlord. It just wasn't going anywhere. In order to continue to do what we wanted to do, it was just too difficult. Claudine and I are really hurt. We loved that place. This created a whole brouhaha in Granite Bay. Granite Bay is not happy about us leaving. We had people with tears in their eyes when we told them.

"We're turning away 12-15 reservations a day because people don't know we're closed."

March 14, 2012
Burger scandals in East Sac, and how they can be resolved

20111102_AOC_Junos_320w.jpgTwo of the best gourmet hamburgers on planet earth can both be found on J Street within a couple of blocks of one another in East Sacramento.

But life at the top isn't all it's cracked up to be. In fact, there's burger-centric controversy simmering at both restaurants - Juno's Kitchen and Delicatessen and Formoli's Bistro.

This isn't about a rivalry. Each "controversy" stands on its own, the only connection being the excellence of the burgers and the sometimes negative reaction from customers.

Let me explain, beginning with Juno's.

March 8, 2012
What happened to the best dish of the year?

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When I reviewed Lounge ON20 several months ago, I named its charcuterie plate as the best dish I had encountered in the past year. So, what happened since then? I stopped in at Lounge ON20 recently with that question in mind, wondering what the kitchen was doing with its already stellar charcuterie plate. The answer: to remain the best, you have to keep pushing forward.

That's what chef de cuisine Mike Ward is doing. We were already elated by his earlier charcuterie offerings, and this new one is superb, too. Take a look at the artistry and execution. As for flavors, there was so much going on here, such a lively and dynamic offering of tastes, colors, textures, surprises.

See if you can identify some of the following on the plate (click on the photo to make it larger):

  • Duck prosciutto sprinkled with Jurassic salt
  • Fermented black garlic puree
  • Pickled red beet puree
  • Pickled quail eggs
  • Yellow romesco puree
  • Cornichons
  • Pickled ground cherries
  • Virginia ham jowls
  • Two kinds of mustard: minced chile mustard and traditional whole grain mustard
  • Pickled shimeji mushrooms
  • Burnt caramel gastrique
  • Corned beef tongue with , next to dots of burnt eggplant (really sweet and caramel)
  • Chorizo pate with Fresno chile gel
  • Pickled cherries

Congratulations to Ward, executive chef Pajo Bruich and the rest of the hard-working crew at Lounge ON20. This kind of attitude is what helps inspire and challenge other chefs, resulting in more enterprising work and elevating our overall dining scene in the Sacramento region.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

March 6, 2012
Hawks' foie gras dinner? Too late, it's booked solid

420735_10150579176391752_58410521751_9268589_645743792_n.jpgSeveral of our best restaurants are doing special foie gras dinners as the deadline for foie gras prohibition draws closer.

This March 29 dinner at Hawks, at $120 per person, looks amazing. This is not the time to address the issue of foie gras. We'll do that another time. What's noteworthy is the creative approaches the kitchen is taking for getting foie gras into every course, including dessert.

I tried to get a reservation, but it's all booked up. I guess I need better connections! Nevertheless, congratulations to Hawks on the sold-out dinner and the overall excellence of the dining experience here.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

March 6, 2012
A great chef and his not-so-great appliances

I am looking at a photograph published in the Wall Street Journal showing one of the greatest chef's of our generation. Grant Achatz's restaurant in Chicago, Alinea, was awarded three Michelin stars and it has been listed by some as the best restaurant in the United States, and by others as one of the best restaurants in the world (how anyone can know these things without actually visiting all of the contenders within days of one another is a topic for another time).

Achatz is slim. His shirt is untucked. But my eyes looking over his shoulder. Yikes! He has a microwave! And it's white! And it's over his range! It's one of those gawd-awful microwaves that doubles as an exhaust hood - the kind that we used to have, the one that couldn't exhaust anything to save its life. The range and oven are also white. I rubbed my eyes. Refocused. Still white.

For the past decade or so, whether it was on one HGTV show after another or in magazines dealing with style and design like "Dwell," we have been led to believe that anything but stainless steel appliances are the kitchen equivalent of a fashion faux pas. We were supposed to make our kitchens look more commercial, more rugged. Watch HGTV. "Househunters," for instance. The first thing folks say when they walk through and encounter white or black appliances is, "Oh, we'll have to upgrade those." There is a slight and recent trend to offer other appliance options, like hiding them behind cabinetry.

February 27, 2012
Lounge ON20 chef gets invitation to big-time Napa Valley event

The accolades and opportunities continue to pile up for Pajo Bruich, the talented executive chef at Lounge ON20 in midtown.

Hot off a Valentine's dinner that won raves, Bruich has been recruited to show off his modernist cuisine at a special event in Napa Valley this spring.

Bruich is slated to be a featured guest chef at one of the private estate dinners for this year's Napa Valley Wine Auction. It's a who's who of the food and wine folks in the Napa Valley, and it is quite an honor for Bruich to be invited, especially when you scan your eyes down the list of other chefs involved: Thomas Keller, Christopher Kostow, Cindy Pawlcyn and Gary Danko, among others.

February 15, 2012
Looking back at Valentine's Day dining

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In the restaurant business, Valentine's Day is known as "amateur night." It's the night when a lot of folks new to fine dining go out looking for a little romance, some good food and a pleasant experience. Sure, they might fumble the ball on occasion, like ordering a Diet Coke with sweetbreads, tipping $3 on a $100 ticket because that's all the cash they had left, or leaving behind their doggie bag like half of restaurant diners always seem to do.

But Valentine's is also a valuable night for restaurants. Not only is it an immediate way to take in revenue, it's a big chance to win new and perhaps longtime customers. Those rubes drinking ice water with their meal? They may one day grow up to be true epicures and wine lovers.

Along those lines, I wondered which restaurant really got this. Many restaurants embrace Valentine's Day, but I haven't seen one do it any better than Lounge ON20.

Lounge charcuterie.jpg

Executive chef Pajo Bruich's concept and execution we're brilliant. He came up with a menu that had wit and charm, as well as creative cooking with his now-signature modernist style.

The 6-course prix fixe menu concept was a tour de force. The amuse bouche, for instance, was given the title "Blind date;" the soup was called "Spooning;" the charcuterie was titled "It's complicated;" followed by "the Break-up": hamachi tartare for her and lamb tartare for him; followed by "the Make-up," beautiful grass-fed rib eye; the dessert was a dark chocolate cremeux with peanut butter ice cream dubbed "the perfect match."

Just look at some of the photos here (credit: Donahue Photography), including the dazzling charcuterie plate (above) created by chef de cuisine Mike Ward, the steak at the top, and the dessert below.

Lounge dessert.jpg


Valentine's Day may be amateur night at some restaurants, but it was nothing but smart and professional at Lounge ON20. It look like a tremendous culinary achievement and, more than likely, a way to win plenty of loyal customers well into the future. Below is a shot of the actual menu.

Lounge menu.jpg

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

January 23, 2012
Good idea at The Porch: Detailed notes on sourcing

In recent years, it has become commonplace to include every farm and farmer on restaurant menus. This was initially greeted as a good idea -- it taught us to appreciate where our food was coming from and, in doing so, it brought new attention to farmers who were doing things the right way.

At some point, avid restaurant-goers began to see it as overkill. They were reading about farms and farmers and small towns in far-off lands they had never heard of, and they didn't know what to make of all the names. Some restaurants began dialing it back, mentioning the source only when it really seemed to matter.

The Porch, the new restaurant that opened on K Street in midtown recently (in the building occupied for years by Celestin's) has an excellent way of showcasing its ingredients without shoehorning them onto the menu. A link on the restaurant's website called "Providers" goes into great detail about the origins of the food. For those into this kind of thing, it's quite informative.

The sandwich bread, for instance, is as local as you can imagine -- they get it at Old Soul Bakery, which is a block or two away. The cornmeal comes from Grass Valley Grains, "a small one man farming operation on a fifth generation farm in Wheatland."

The Porch is one of the few restaurants around serving grits. The website tells us: "Our grits are from Ridgecut Gristmill in Chico and from War Eagle Mill in Rogers, Ark. Due to the demand of white hominy corn (used for masa), we can't always get our grits from Chico."

Check out the link and learn a little about The Porch and its products. It's good reading. Further, it shows that this new restaurant, still finding its footing, is already conscientious about sourcing and meticulous about dealing with responsible and ethical farms.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @Blarob.

January 14, 2012
Update on The Eatery: Newbold lives to tell the tale

I finally got hold of Timothy Newbold -- and no, it wasn't at the ICU.

Newbold, as you may recall, is the guy who wolfed down the double burger with bacon and cheese, along with the amazing "disco fries Ryan" at The Eatery. Just a fun little challenge for this West Sac restaurant.

Newbold not only rose to the challenge, he did it to make his brother proud and get the family name on the wall. The feat for all comers will now be known as the "Newbold Challenge."

Turns out, Newbold, 34, is a super nice guy, a stay-at-home dad who worked as an insurance broker for 10 years. He and his wife have four daughters.

He did the feat as sort of a last hurrah before going on a diet -- he wants to lose 140 pounds. Let's wish him well.

Tim was nice enough to answer a few questions I emailed him, but before we get to that, let me quickly address the topic of "gluttony," since I have been getting emails and voicemails about eating and overeating. This little challenge is just for fun. No one is putting a gun to anyone's head. Not only is the food of the highest quality, it is also priced reasonably. No one at The Eatery thinks a double burger and disco fries should be a part of anyone's daily diet.

Here's what Tim emailed me:

1. I took the challenge in response to the urging of my brother. He is amused by things bearing our names. Newbold is not a very common last name so its kind of novel I guess.

2. Honestly I have never done a challenge like this one and I was full after the burger was gone and I still had not touched the salad or Disco Fries Ryan. I just pushed forward. Seriously could have fed a small family with that much food.

3. I didn't eat for 30 hours after "the Challenge" I was not comfortable for the first few hours and by 10pm my blood sugar was 309...never that high before that I know of.

4. The food was awesome! I am kind of a burger junky, but only good burgers. This one destroys the field. I would say top three of those that I have tried, maybe number one (I will let you know next time when I have a chance to savor). Salad was made to order and SUPER fresh. What can I say about the fries...legendary.

5. As for the name thing...Awesome! That's why I did it. I really don't eat like that I have NEVER eaten that much food in my life. It was super fun. Thanks and Kudos to Jess and all of the staff at the Eatery!

January 13, 2012
What's it take to land a job at one of the city's top kitchens?

magpie.jpgMagpie Café puts out some of the best food in the city, night after night. If you go there, you can see the kitchen in action.

I recently heard Magpie was hiring. No, you won't be starting at the top if you land one of the jobs. Magpie is looking for cooks, not chefs.

Since the restaurant has been so well regarded for its quality food, I called co-owner and chef Ed Roehr to find out what kind of people he was hiring.

A couple of weeks earlier, I had read a piece about Rene Redzepi, the celebrated chef at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant regarded by many as the greatest in the world. Redzepi was responding to a question about how an aspiring chef could be lucky enough to snag a non-paying job at Noma when he said: "We receive a truly humbling number of job applications [...] We don't necessarily look for the most impressive resume as, most of time, it's better to have someone who has cooked three-four years at a more modest restaurant rather than a chef who has hopped from one great kitchen to the other, only spending a year or less in each."

Not to compare Magpie to Noma, but I am interested in how quality places seek out and hire quality people. At the end of the day, it's the people who make or break a restaurant. Magpie put an ad on Craigslist looking for two or three line cooks.

January 6, 2012
Plenty of ideas when you're ready to hit the town

Kudos to Sacramento Magazine and Mari Tzikas for the cover story in the current issue, "15 Great Nights Out."

Lots of good ideas and they show just how much there is to do in our thriving city. The piece even mentions a new place, The Eatery, in West Sacramento. Just so happens, my review of The Eatery is coming this Sunday in The Bee.

Read Tzikas' entire piece here.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @Blarob.

December 23, 2011
3 Michelin stars, now what? Re-examine, reflect, reboot

kostow.jpgI didn't think much of it when I got the email from Meadowood, a restaurant in St. Helena that last year earned three Michelin stars. The notice said the restaurant would be closed for about 10 weeks beginning in January "to undergo an exciting renovation." Sure, it's a nice dining room but a little bit low-key, and it could use a splash of fresh color. Then I saw there will also be an extensive reworking of the kitchen to "allow for more space, better control of temperature, superior equipment and overall flow for service. The new kitchen will also include a Chef's Counter, which will seat up to 5 guests."

That's when I realized what I already suspected: Executive chef Christopher Kostow, though honored and humbled by all the recent praise of his food, wasn't satisfied with the greatness he has already achieved. If you've ever eaten at Meadowood, you can see the passion and inventiveness in Kostow's cooking. When I reviewed Meadowood more than a year ago, it was a Michelin 2-star restaurant, but it was pretty clear it was heading way, way up. I spoke extensively over the phone with Kostow, going over his thoughts on several dishes I had from the chef's tasting menu. I took note of Kostow's competitive fire, along with his humility. Months later, he was featured in "Art Culinaire," where he talked about creating dishes you won't find at any other restaurant. The very greatest dining experiences are like that. When we ate at Corton in New York City (in October), the chef's tasting menu contained course after course of food so unusual and edgy and complex that I took note of all the dishes I had neither seen nor tasted at any other restaurant. Chef Paul Liebrandt's mindset and ambition are similar to Kostow's. (Try to watch the documentary about Liebrandt if they re-run it on HBO; it's called "A Matter of Taste: Serving up Paul Liebrandt" and they follow his highs and lows for 10 years).

The recent Meadowood email directed me to click on a link to read Kostow's personal explanation for the temporary closure. It's an extraordinary example of what it takes to achieve excellence. Turns out, the temporary shutdown isn't solely about aesthetics in the dining room and functionality in the kitchen. It's about getting to the next level, even if there are no more Michelin stars to recognize that kind of achievement.

The chef says:

"The team and I continue to be humbled by the accolades and attention paid to The Restaurant since its inception.

The reality, however, is that we did not feel that we were as good as we could be. To get to the next level (and the all the next levels to come) we felt compelled to reexamine, reflect and reboot.

We will be closing briefly in the New Year for improvements to our kitchen and dining room. We look forward to reopening on March 12th with an even stronger dedication to creating for our guests a personal, honest and singular dining experience.

I look forward to welcoming you back to The Restaurant.

The Restaurant at Meadowood will reopen March 12. It will be exciting -- and perhaps inspiring -- to see what the rethinking and retooling will bring us in the days that follow.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @Blarob.

December 19, 2011
Is the rancor after the Waterboy review the right dialogue?

I am a big fan of controversy. It's important, stimulating and essential. Controversy is often how we figure out who we are and where we stand. It's how we change our minds or reaffirm what we believe, whether we're talking about the Middle East, the presidential election or a plate of pasta. Reflection is a good thing, too. But there's a difference between controversy of the stimulating kind and controversy that takes an unfortunate turn - leading to insults, needlessly stirring up anger and, worst of all, missing the mark.

I am referring to Rick Mahan's reaction to my largely positive review of his restaurant, The Waterboy. I was quite surprised to hear about it. I thought I had been very generous in my praise, and my criticisms were largely quibbles. But based on the tone and the language of his reply on Facebook, I was left wondering: Did I write a restaurant review or call a foot fault on Serena Williams?

December 12, 2011
You say carnaroli, I say cannaroni

I wanted to clarify and correct a clumsy slip in Sunday's review, out of respect for Rick Mahan and the crew at The Waterboy, as well as our many eagle-eyed readers. In a short section about the dessert served at a special Thursday prix fixe dinner, I referred to carnaroli as a pasta rather than a rice. I apologize for getting it backwards.

To casual, non-foodie readers who happened to land here for something to read, that last paragraph must have sounded overly serious. Hey, I apologize for that, too!

As a writer, my obligations are many - to opine, to entertain, to inform --- but the most important fundamental is to be clear. Sometimes, the more you try - the more you stir and hone and fuss and fumble - the worse it gets. Throw in the whir and flurry of deadlines, one writer's effort to trim a line or two to fit the space and you end up calling rice pasta. I think.

It seems I have heard from every person who has ever made risotto, letting me know -- and gleefully chiding me -- that carnaroli is a rice. Thank you. I have that very rice in my pantry, purchased at Corti Brothers (if you're looking for it), and over the years I have made risotto that has ranged from dreadful to delicious.

Here's what I thought actually went down at The Waterboy that very pleasant Thursday evening. Toward the end of the meal, we chatted about dessert with our server, who informed us that they were using a plump Italian rice used for risotto. Every other course on the menu that night had a pasta component. During the give-and-take, our impression was that this rice was selected because it gave a pasta-like quality to the dessert. There was plenty of chatter, and it's possible we misunderstood our server's point, which may have been simply that the rice is Italian in origin. My minor - and it turns out clumsily realized quibble - was that the rice was just too firm for rice pudding (while our lasagna didn't seem firm enough). This was a small point and, in hindsight, wasn't really worth getting into.

For all those who felt CIA-superior for knowing your rice, you can thank me for the ego boost, especially on a chilly Monday morning. And for those who didn't notice and skimmed right over the error, let me reflect the spirit of my email in-box today: HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY BE SO DUMB?

December 12, 2011
Ella's chef heading back to wine country for new role

McCown.jpgKelly McCown, the chef who took the already popular Ella Dining Room & Bar to new heights, is leaving the elegant K Street restaurant for a new opportunity in wine country.

Outspoken and passionate about his craft, McCown was also known as something of a provocateur in the local restaurant game during the 2 ½ years he was in town. Online or in person, the chef tried to urge fellow chefs to think bigger and aim higher in order to elevate the city's dining scene beyond the "safe and secure cuisine" label that is sometimes all too fitting.

McCown, 44, will return to the site of the once-acclaimed (it earned a Michelin star) and now-shuttered Martini House in St. Helena. It was there, beginning in 2002 as chef de cuisine under executive chef and partner Todd Humphries, that McCown continued to expand his impressive repertoire. The new restaurant in that location has a working name of Goose & Gander, and the style of food is believed to be along the lines of a "gastro-pub," a term McCown doesn't necessarily like. He will be a partner in the new restaurant.

November 25, 2011
Thanksgiving with all the trimmings -- and none of the fuss

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Last week, I wrote a story about the ongoing trend of eating out for dinner on Thanksgiving, how more and more restaurants are getting booked up for a holiday meal that was once a rock-solid, home-cooked tradition. Now, more than ever, folks are leaving the cooking and the serving to the pros.

We wanted to test this trend for ourselves -- and it went off without a hitch. We ate at the Pilothouse Restaurant on board the historic Delta King riverboat in Old Sacramento. It was a buffet-style dinner with a nice selection food and good cooking. What's more, the restaurant staff was excellent -- very friendly, attentive, and professional. I certainly appreciated that they were working on the holiday. I hope the many other patrons did, too -- and tipped accordingly.

We chose the Delta King because we were looking for something more intimate than the large hotel buffets we have experienced during previous Thanksgivings. Those hotels -- the Sheraton Grand and the Hyatt Regency downtown -- both have very good buffets. But they have become so popular that, even with reservations, there was plenty of waiting around before we actually got to our table. Last year, the Sheraton actually asked for our credit card before we were even shown to our table. There's something about paying and then standing around in a lobby for 35 minutes that rubbed us the wrong way.

November 21, 2011
Going out for Thanksgiving is getting booked up

Last Sunday, I wrote a little story about a holiday trend: more and more folks are going out to eat on Turkey Day. In that story, we provided a sampling of places serving Thanksgiving dinner, and I heard from plenty of restaurants the next day saying that they, too, will be open. The most noteworthy email was from an employee at Sam's Hof Brau who retired in 2009 after 40 years. So here's your reminder: Go to Sam's for good, honest food that won't break the bank.

I also heard from Evan's Kitchen in East Sac. They're already booked up, and people are practically pleading for a meal this Thursday. Here's what Laurette Elsberry writes about Evan's:

"Somehow, with all the bad things going on everywhere, people seem to be more upbeat this year about this special day. We have all time slots full, with a cancellation waiting list. One group of 4 was so disappointed that they couldn't get in that Evan is having them come in one half hour earlier than we planned to open so they could take a table that was not reserved until 3 - so they are coming in at 1:30."

I'm headed out for Thanksgiving, too. We booked our reservation about 10 days ago. Wish I could tell you where!

November 14, 2011
How strict should we be regarding local sourcing?

Some readers expressed concern about product sourcing in my "First Impressions" piece on Juno's Kitchen & Delicatessen. Specifically, in this farm-to-table, local-first restaurant town, they were not thrilled that chef Mark Helms uses beef from New Zealand. I may have raved about his burger, but some wondered why he didn't get his beef from around here.

It's an excellent question - and a tough one.

160px-New_Zealand_Cities.pngBefore I address it, let's begin with a digression. Way back in 2004, The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op went through a red meat controversy (the Co-op wanted to carry red meat, while opponents didn't want anything more, animal-wise, than seafood and chicken in the store). After much debate, the very ethical store opted to carry organic beef from Prather Ranch in Klamath Falls, Ore. It seems so long ago, because well-sourced beef is such a big-seller at the Co-op now - and so mainstream. Back then, I went to Prather Ranch to check out what it was all about and learn why it met the Co-op's very stringent guidelines. I note that it was a five-hour drive, one-way, which meant I passed a lot of other beef ranches large and small just getting there.

November 11, 2011
Behind-the-scenes look at hiring the new chef at Grange

imgres.jpgNow that Oliver Ridgeway has taken charge of the kitchen at the Citizen Hotel's Grange Restaurant downtown, I was curious about the so-called "national search" to fill the executive chef position after Michael Tuohy's departure.

Turns out, the Joie de Vivre Hotels, which owns the Citizen, spent plenty of time and money to find the right chef for the job. I had a lengthy chat recently with Morgan Plant, vice president of food and beverage for JdV, to get some of the details.

After Tuohy announced several months ago that he was leaving to pursue other opportunities (he landed, somewhat surprisingly, at Dean & Deluca in St. Helena, where I spotted him working behind the counter last weekend), Joie de Vivre decided to place detailed and extensive Craigslist ads in every major city in the country. They also used the website Hcareers.com, which specializes in the hospitality industry, as well as Starchef.com (Tuohy was once named a StarChef "rising star").

"We did a fair amount of incentivizing people we knew in the industry," Plant said. I think that means they asked around.

What do executive chefs make? That, of course, depends on the restaurant.

November 4, 2011
Daniel Pont's new restaurant to open Tuesday in Folsom

imgres.jpgHere's the latest on Daniel Pont and Chez Daniel, his new restaurant in Folsom. If you missed my story a couple of days ago (it ran in the business section), the 72-year-old French chef is getting back in the professional kitchen, many months after selling his famed downtown lunch spot, La Bonne Soupe.

Pont called me at home (at 10:30 p.m.) Thursday and I could hear the excitement in his voice. After three months of work, including a month's worth of frustration with getting his fire alarm to pass muster with the Folsom Fire Department, the chef is ready and eager. I didn't mind the late hour. I was actually sipping a very nice glass of Cotes du Rhone, and I figured 10:30 to a Frenchman is like 7:30 to an American.

He said expects to be open Tuesday. But the man who became famous for his lunches will be open only for dinner, at least to start. Dinner will be served from 5-9 p.m.Tuesday to Saturday. The menu will feature food that is much more involved and sophisticated than the soups and sandwiches that won him such a devoted following downtown.

October 28, 2011
Two dynamic young chefs joining forces in Natomas

Pork Belly Grub Shack.jpgThe phrase "exciting restaurant news" and "Natomas" don't often appear in the same place, and that's too bad. No, the land of franchise eateries has had little to cheer about in the way of dynamic, locally owned food choices.

But that just might be changing, thanks to a new venture that pairs two of this region's most creative and ambitious chefs - Aimel Formoli (Formoli's Bistro) and Billy Ngo (Kru, and the recently closed Red Lotus) - to bring a new food experience to Natomas. I admire the work of both chefs, so I'm anticipating big things -- and ready to fire up Google Earth to chart out a decent bike route from downtown so we can visit soon!

I chatted with Formoli last night about plans for Pork Belly Grub Shack, which is expected to open in about a week. It will be at 4261 Truxel Rd., Suite A.

Formoli tells me the new venture will be casual and affordable, but that doesn't mean they will be cutting corners with ingredients or skimping on creativity. The food will have a farm-to-table approach that emphasizes sustainable, quality products and the menu "will have a little bit of everything."

Formoli and Ngo have developed quite the culinary partnership in recent times, joining forces to host periodic beer-centric dinners that have won raves from those lucky enough to attend. While their main gigs won't be neglected, Formoli and Ngo plan to rotate in and out of the Grub Shack, which also will have a dedicated head cook of its own to hold down the fort.

The menu has yet to be revealed, but I understand it will feature fresh takes on burgers, sandwiches, tacos and more - featuring pork belly and several other meats. A banh mi sandwich? That too.

"We don't want to be pigeonholed," said Formoli, whose wife, Suzanne Ricci, is also involved in the project. She is well known to regulars at Formoli's Bistro.

We'll have more on Pork Belly Grub Shack after it opens. Until then, keep up with them by searching for them on Facebook and Twitter.

October 25, 2011
Zagat's new national guidebook includes several local options

Zagat, the restaurant guidebook publisher known for its use-generated content, released its annual book on the best restaurants in the U.S., including several from the Sacramento area.

Among those scoring exceptionally high ratings for food - 29 out of 30 - are Ambience in Carmichael, Taste in Plymouth, and Mulvaney's and The Kitchen in Sacramento. Then there's the shocker, Sunflower Drive-in in Fair Oaks, a vegetarian restaurant that is apparently destined for the kind of cult status once reserved for La Bonne Soupe, whose popular owner, Daniel Pont, sold the small, beloved downtown cafe earlier this year. Under new ownership, La Bonne Soupe has struggled to find its footing and, once at the top of Zagat's list in the food category, is no longer included in the national guidebook.

That 29 rating, by the way, is the same as the French Laundry in Yountville and one point higher than Meadowwood in St. Helena, both of which have been awarded three Michelin stars and are considered world-class dining destinations.

Sunflower didn't do nearly as well in the "décor" category, scoring just nine out of 30. That's because it is a walk-up eatery in which you order at the window, often accompanied by one or more of the famous feral chickens that roam through the Fair Oaks village. Ella, by comparison, scored 27 for décor.

The book, 'Zagat: America's Top Restaurants," is 348 pages and costs $15.95.

October 7, 2011
TrailFest promises to be a big-time gourmet event

PosterFinal3.pngHere's another food-related event for Saturday that features a great cause, great food and the makings of a spirited, high-caliber chefs challenge.

The event, organized by Betsy Hite of Elegant and Easy Gourmet Catering, is Saturday (Oct. 8) from 5-10 p.m. at Project R.I.D.E headquarters, 8840 Souuthside Ave., Elk Grove. Tickets for the unlimited tasting are $35 per person, with several other group ticket options available. For more information, visit the website here.

The chefs challenge includes quite a culinary line-up: Bret Bohlmann of Boulevard Bistro, David Hill of The Chef's Table, Ian MacBride of Lucca, Billy Ngo of Kru, Adam Pechal of Tuli and Thir13en, and Alwin Santiago of Clark's Corner. I have eaten at and enjoyed the food at every one of these restaurants, so I can only imagine the entries these talented chefs will put forth Saturday night.

October 7, 2011
Grange hires new executive chef

After executive chef Michael Tuohy left Grange in May, there was plenty of speculation about what would become of the Citizen Hotel's highly regarded downtown restaurant. After less than three years in town, the personable Tuohy had developed a reputation as a force in the farm-to-table movement, showcasing the area's bounty on his menus and leading groups of foodies on frequent tours of the nearby farmers market. At the end of May, Tuohy moved on, perhaps surprisingly, to Dean & DeLuca in the Napa Valley.

Oliver Ridegway.jpgGrange didn't rush the quest to land a replacement. After a national search and more than 100 applications from throughout the United States and internationally, Grange has hired Oliver Ridgeway, a British citizen. Classically trained in French cooking, Ridgeway's experience includes a stint as sous chef at The Carlyle, the renowned New York Hotel, and most recently, and as executive chef at at the Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe. His professional resume extends to restaurants in the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom. He began working in the kitchen as a young boy in Horsham, England, where his father owned a restaurant.

"Chef Ridgeway is known for his passion for seasonal cuisine and a fresh modern approach to ingredients. Grange's dedication to the local farm-to-table platform remains unwavering, and Chef Ridgeway will shepherd Grange in a way that stays true to its original concept and vision while bringing a fresh energy to the restaurant," according to Lori Lincoln, director of public relations for Joie de Vivre Hotels, the Citizen's parent company.

September 29, 2011
Delicious distraction II: Lounge ON20's cheese and charcuterie plate

Loungeplate.jpg

It was startling -- but in a good way -- when the newly re-imagined restaurant at Lounge ON20 was cited by Gayot as one of the Top-10 restaurants in the U.S. featuring molecular gastronomy cooking techniques. Startling because the hot new restaurant's kitchen, headed by executive chef Pajo Bruich, is in some pretty amazing company. Alinea and WD-50 are ranked on another list -- S. Pellegrino's -- as two of the best 50 restaurants in the world. I ate at WD-50 (in New York City) last September, and the meal was a tour de force of creative cooking, including a deconstructed eggs Benedict I'll remember for years to come.

What's all the fuss about locally? Just check out the cheese and charcuterie plate at Lounge ON20 (pictured above). It's a thing of beauty, complete with plenty of avant garde and classical technique. I contacted Bruich after running across this photo (again, it was Facebook that got me!).

I contacted Bruich and asked him to tell me what we're looking at. He says the plate is available by special request for $20 and includes the following: pate de campagne cooked sous vide, guanciale lasso, lard, andouille sausage, porchetta stackers, winchester super aged Gouda, house made ricotta, fiscalini aged cheddar, crater lake blue cheese, chevre-fig cheesecake and a whole lot of house made extras! Everything done in house, all of it, the bread, jams sauces.... served with fleur de sel crackers by (pastry chef) Elaine (Baker)

Congratulations to the Lounge ON20 crew, including chef de cuisine Mike Ward, for the fine work on this plate and for the national recognition.

September 29, 2011
Delicious distraction: The halibut at Magpie

Magpie halibut.jpg

Note to self: I really shouldn't check out Magpie Cafe's Facebook page while I'm trying to work. My eyes locked onto the photo above and now I can't concentrate. I had a different version of Magpie's halibut several months ago and can highly recommend it. Maybe I'll have to rearrange my dinner plans for tonight so I can have some closure with this photo!

September 26, 2011
Chef Mark Helms to open new venture in East Sac

Mark Helms, the highly regarded chef who made Ravenous Café a destination for discriminating food lovers in the Pocket area, sold the restaurant a couple of months ago. But he wasn't sitting still or staying out of the kitchen.

What's Helms up to? We're about to find out as early as next Wednesday, when Helms promises to have his new enterprise up and running - in East Sacramento, just three blocks from his home. I spoke with Helms this morning and he told me he is putting the final touches on Juno's Kitchen & Delicatessen at 36th and J. The space is small and seating will be limited, so Helms says he will focus on takeout meals. If his track record is any indication, this won't be a run-of-the-mill deli.

Just as he did at Ravenous, Helms will combine top-notch ingredients with creative approaches to the cooking and presentation, with an overall emphasis on the kind of farm-to-table cuisine that showcases what's local, sustainable, and humane.

August 19, 2011
Behind the scenes: Tasting sausage before it's on the market

JP (14).JPGJohn Paul Khoury, the corporate chef for Preferred Meats, stopped by the house today to cook up some sausages and give me a chance to sample three products the company hopes to make available soon.

Known to chefs at some of the area's finer restaurants, Preferred is a boutique company that supplies top-shelf meat with an emphasis on sustainable agriculture. I have done several tastings with JP, most focusing on steak or pork, and find these sessions to be helpful. I try to keep up with the latest and best products out there, and I find that comparing different meat from various sources helps me appreciate the often subtle differences..

Now, Preferred is making its own sausage, with a proprietary blend of Berkshire and Duroc pork in a thin lamb casing. JP cooked up three kinds of sausage in my trusty cast iron pan: a breakfast sausage and two kinds of Italian -- mild and hot. In addition to this tasting, JP was making the rounds Friday to several restaurants.The sausage is not yet being sold, so he was simply looking for feedback from chefs. This is part of the business the public often doesn't get to see. Good chefs are constantly on the lookout for products new and great. The taste has to be there, and the price has to make sense. Then there's the all-important logistical component: can you get it to us whenever we need it? If the answer is no or maybe, a chef may pass on it.

After he does enough sausage tastings with chefs, taking notes along the way, JP may tweak the recipes slightly to arrive at a finished product that enough chefs will want to put on their menus.

The next stop for JP on Friday was to see Chef Pajo Bruich at Lounge ON20. I called Pajo later and asked for his impressions.

He said: "I appreciate what JP is doing getting input from myself and other chefs around town and it's nice to think we will have a hand in the finished product
I thought the sausage was very well made. From my perspective it seemed to be 100 percent about the quality of the meat they are putting into the sausage. The meat was fantastic."

Pajo and I agreed that, if anything, the overall flavor profile was straightforward and perhaps one-dimensional. But when you are using high-quality meat, the chef pointed out, you don't want it to be overshadowed by a plethora of seasonings.


sausage (13).JPGI thought the quality of the sausage was very good, and especially I enjoyed the spicy heat of the breakfast sausage, which was seasoned with sage, garlic and chili flake. JP said some of the feedback from chefs was that there might be too much heat for a breakfast sausage. I could go either way on that, but I grew up putting Tobasco on my eggs, so I enjoy the heat.

In a matter of weeks, these sausages -- tweaked recipes or not, high heat or a version toned down a tad -- will likely land on several menus in the area,

The next tasting on JP's schedule Friday was with Chef Pajo Bruich at Lounge ON20. I called Pajo later to get his impressions.

"I appreciate what JP is doing getting input from myself and other chefs around town and it's great to think we will have a hand in the finished product.
I thought the sausage was very well made. From my perspective it seemed to be 100 percent about the quality of the meat they are putting into the sausage. The meat was fantastic."

AA_loungeontwenty005.standalone.prod_affiliate.4.jpgHe said:Pajo and I differed a little on the seasonings -- he thought the Italian sausage needed more coriander and fennel, while I could have been happier with a bit less. But we agreed that, if anything, the overall flavor profile was straightforward, even one-dimensional. But when you are using high quality meat, the chef noted, you don't want it to be overshadowed by a plethora of seasonings.

August 19, 2011
Hot tip: Sampino's begins Friday family-style dinners tonight


If you're a fan of Sampino's Towne Foods, as I am, here's something new you might want to jump on. The Italian deli and eatery best known for its great sandwiches at lunch, is about to start a series of weekly family-style dinners. From the looks of things, it's a six-course affair for $25, which is quite a bargain. The meal sounds quite ambitious, especially the two kinds of risotto. The first dinner is tonight (Friday).

Last I checked, there were still some openings. Sampino's, which is in a small shopping center at 16th and F streets, is taking names from its email list to fill slots of the dinner, but if you want to get a last-minute spot for tonight, give them a call ASAP: 916-441-2372. And if you want to know about future dinners, ask to be included on their email list. Sampino's is at 1607 F St. Unfortunately, Sampino's did not include the time of the dinner. (We will update once we find out.)

Here's a rundown of the menu I received via email:


Fresh Baked Bread
Foccacia, Italian Loaf, Fennel Balsamic Vinaigrette

Antipasti
Assorted Olives, Giardinara, Pepperoncini

Zuppa
Tomato Mozzarella Cream Bisque
Primi
Timbale
Puff Pastry, Penne Pasta, Meatballs, Hardboiled Quail Eggs, Salami, Mushroom,
Marinara, Parmesan Granna Padano

Risotti
Sicilian Fennel Sausage w/Porcini & Salmon Mousse, Clam & Shrimp.

Secondi
Chicken Cacciatore
Braised Chicken Thigh w/ House Cacciatore Sauce
with/Tapenade Rubbed Artichokes, Creole Sauce
or
Wild Salmon Roulade
Spinach, Sundried Tomatoes, Pesto, & Asiago Cheese
with/Tapenade Rubbed Artichokes, Creole Sauce

Insalta
Mixed Green Salad
Diced Tomato, Parmesan Reggiano, Organic Farm Fresh Tomatoes
Italian Herb Vinaigrette

Dolce
Lemon Sorbeto w/Strawberry Mint Tartar

August 8, 2011
Bad behavior in restaurants: Here's a Zagat take

blowupdoll[1].pngThese vignettes from Zagat about bad people behaving badly at restaurants were amusing -- and recognizable, though I have not encountered a blow-up doll.

Blair's last three posts:

A Matter of Price: Is the Lounge ON20 menu revision cause for concern?

From the test kitchen: Biba's Bologna-style ragu

Dine and dash: Our governor's french fry problem

August 8, 2011
A Matter of Price: Is the Lounge ON20 menu revision cause for concern?

Lounge.bmpLately, this blog's subtitle could be: "Bad News about Food and Wine." Yes, we've hit a rough patch with restaurant closings, but there are still plenty of restaurants doing well. As restaurant critic for The Bee, I tend to look in restaurant windows when I pass by - not because I enjoy seeing people talk with their mouths full but because I like to know how the restaurants are doing. I can't sift through the books, but I can look at the seats.

But somewhere between the closures and the thriving restaurants like Magpie, Mulvaney's, Waterboy, Ella, Formoli's, Lucca, New Canton, OneSpeed and others, is the restaurant that is compelled to change its menu and cut its prices in an effort to fill more seats and sell more food. In this case, I'm referring to Chris Macias' report last week about the new version of Lounge ON20, the one serving up creative, modernist, and high-end food the likes of which we don't get to see here often enough. This is actually the new-new version, as Lounge ON20 went through a major revamping a few months back by showcasing cooking that touched on the avant garde.

August 5, 2011
From the test kitchen: Biba's Bologna-style ragu

sauce3.JPGBiba Caggiano has a nice new book, "Spaghetti Sauces," 129 pages of spaghetti sauce recipes of all kinds, from basic butter sauces ready in 10 minutes to seafood sauces and and meat sauces like the one I have simmering right now -- simmering for 2-plus hours.

The latter recipe is for Bologna-style ragu. Bologna is the city in Northern Italy where Caggiano was born and raised. She then moved to the U.S. and eventually opened one of Sacramento's most respected restaurants. Click on the pictures to make them bigger; apologies, but there is no aroma feature with this software.

This sauce builds flavor slowly, beginning with melting butter and then cooking minced carrots, celery and onion.

sauce2.JPGThen you add ground beef, pork and veal, along with small cubes of pancetta. This cooks at high heat for about 10 minutes.

Next, I poured in a cup of red wine and cooked that down until most of the wine had evaporated. More flavor (and the kitchen smells great).

Then comes time for the classic ingredient -- a 28-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes. The book says to puree them in a blender. But I went with doing it by hand the way they do in Italy -- squeezing the tomatoes until they were pretty much liquefied. Then the tomatoes are added to the pot and simmered -- and simmered -- for two-and-a-half hours.

sauce1.JPGIt thickens and the flavor deepens over that time. I will be writing a short story on the book, along with a few recipes in the upcoming Food and Wine section on Wednesday

August 5, 2011
Scott Fenner: A chef in the making, not making enough to get by

180465_182274191809945_100000820977891_356173_1051708_n.jpgWhen you dream of becoming a chef and change your life to chase down that dream, it's supposed to go something like this:

You kiss your lousy job and your miserable boss goodbye, you immerse yourself in culinary school, and you show all your instructors that you have a knack for cooking that just might revolutionize the restaurant world. You do an internship at a top-flight restaurant, where the staff compares your palate to Mozart's ear. You graduate, and you sift through all the offers, settling for the one that brings in the most money at a joint with the most Michelin stars. The TV gig, the three-book deal and the Lamborghini are just around the corner.

The reality, of course, is something else, and Scott Fenner -- talented and determined as he is -- recently got a heaping dose when he gave notice at Ella Dining Room & Bar. He went back to his former world of working construction.

It wasn't because he couldn't cook.

He just couldn't make ends meet.



August 1, 2011
Monday postscript: Making it personal at Palermo Ristorante

photo (11).JPGEvery once in awhile, I go into a restaurant or store and am so impressed by something - the food, the service, the selection of groceries or some intangible - that I will find myself thinking: I wish a place like this could be located within walking distance of where I live.

It has happened with Café Luna in Placerville, with Taste Restaurant in Plymouth and Ambience in Carmichael. I wish Corti Brothers were across the street, so I could scuttle over there for a bottle of wine and some pasta. I wish Taylor's Market was around the corner. I can ride my bike to both, but walking is a stretch. We were in Newcastle riding our bikes this Saturday and we dropped by Newcastle Produce. I wish there were a Newcastle Produce II somewhere downtown. Great little store.

July 18, 2011
Closed for 8 days, Biba has reopened with a new look

restaurant2.jpgWhen I reviewed the much-admired Italian restaurant Biba several weeks back, I withheld a rating for the "ambience" category. Biba Caggiano had told me prior to publication that she planned to close the restaurant for a week and remodel.

The restaurant has closed, reopened and the remodel is complete - there is new art on the walls and those walls have been given new life. In the bar area, which is what customers encounter when they walk in the front door, paneling has been added and the paint gives the room a darker overall clubby feel. Beforehand, the bar had lots of mirrors and brass fixtures that suggested you were entering a themed restaurant called "Ode to the '80s."

July 15, 2011
A foodie's dream trip: Ride with and learn from a great chef

rickmahan200x200.jpgDue to the timing of my vacation, I'm late telling you about a pretty cool event this weekend that combines a few of my favorite things: riding bikes, the American River bike trail and, of course, cooking great food.

It's too late to sign up for this event, unfortunately, but it's worth knowing about it. Don Bybee of Transpocycle and John Boyer of Edible Pedal have put together a bike ride and overnight camping adventure that highlights what a great area we live in for bikes. It's a 22-mile ride on Saturday from midtown up to the camp site at Negro Bar State Park along Lake Natoma, with a return ride on Sunday.

July 15, 2011
Food tours can be good for businesses and neighborhoods

The Sacramento food and dining scene has been credited with bringing new energy to Sacramento's urban core. Just think of all the restaurants that did not exist a decade ago and just recall how easy it was to find a parking spot in midtown or downtown back then.

Now comes the ripple effect, and it, too, is bringing positive energy to neighborhoods - and there's plenty of potential and opportunity ahead. One of the best examples of this is a new business called Local Roots Food Tours operated by Lisa Armstrong, a former private chef who moved to the area from Indiana 12 years ago. The tours are not only drawing great crowds, they're a positive force in the downtown neighborhoods of Alkali Flats and Mansion Flats.

June 27, 2011
Monday postscript: Taqueria Jalisco

Just a couple of things to add to my review of Taqueria Jalisco, which ran Sunday. First of all, Kudos to the 8,000 or so eagle-eyed readers who pointed out that, yes, it's usually spelled "tostada," not "tostado," as I wrote it (twice!). I think I looked at that word 20 times while I was writing the review and simply looked right over the ending. Any way you spell it, the tostadas are quite good at Taqueria Jalisco.

June 6, 2011
Fresh from Cliche Ranch: Are "farm to table" and "locavore" over-hyped?

mark1.jpgThanks to a link on Facebook, I recently read a short essay by local chef Mark Liberman about the "farm to table" movement, along with the "even worse newly anointed locavore movement."

Huh?

Yes, the backlash is at hand, thanks to people who seem a little too happy with themselves for buying locally grown food and looking down their noses at those who dare to eat something imported.

(If you have an opinion about the politics and/or glorification of eating locally, please give your two cents in the comments section).

June 3, 2011
Amazing dessert: the ice cream sandwich at Ginger Elizabeth

069.JPGGinger Elizabeth Chocolates has earned a national reputation for its handcrafted, luxurious chocolates and small desserts such as the gianduja cake and the café cremeaux.

Once you visit the small shop on L Street, it's easy to understand why. Quality. Consistency. Premium ingredients. Time-tested technique.

So, when I finally got around to trying the ice cream sandwiches, available seasonally from May through October, I had great expectations. I bought all three flavors ($5.50 each), took them home and planned how I would taste them - one per day, each neatly sliced in half, and then savored as slowly as possible. The lemon, then the pistachio and, finally, the salted caramel.

May 23, 2011
Monday postscript: Biba, the restaurant, the woman, the books

As I write this, I have at my side a copy of "Italy al Dente," by Biba Caggiano, an excellent cookbook published in 1998. As I look back at yesterday's review and the visits to Biba the restaurant in the weeks prior, I am reminded of Caggiano's passion for Italy, Italian food and, as much as anything, good, old-fashioned hospitality.

May 10, 2011
250 job openings at new restaurant called Yard House

That's a shame that Odonata Beer Co. had to shut down, as Chris Macias just reported. Perhaps that piece of bad news for a local beer label can be tempered by some good news: as in, 250 jobs up for grabs.

That's right, when's the last time you saw a story about 250 jobs? But that's how many people Yard House, the Southern California restaurant chain with 30 locations and 4,450 employees nationwide, is planning on hiring at its newest site opening soon at The Fountains, that upscale shopping center across from the Galleria in Roseville.

May 10, 2011
Vegetarians and meat-eaters unite! At an impressive meatless wine dinner

I know I have lots of vegetarian readers. I hear from them all the time. A long time ago, several asked that I include a notation in the ratings boxes indicating whether a restaurant is vegetarian friendly. I was happy to do so. Well, here's vegetarian friendly for you -- an entire wine dinner at Evan's Kitchen in East Sacramento, featuring the work the talented Evan Elsberry.

If you want meatless dishes to be taken seriously in this town, you have to support the places that are taking them seriously already. This dinner looks impressive, and costs $67.50, including wine pairings. For what it's worth, I recommend taking a cab or arranging a ride to any wine dinner. If you drink the wine that's served, you will likely be over the legal limit by night's end. If you get a DUI, your life will be ruined for years (I have friends who have told me as much). And worrying about that will take the fun out of a wine dinner.

This dinner is called "Where's the Beef? You Won't Believe it's Vegetarian Wine Dinner."

I support folks who take risks. So I'm including the menu below:

Monday, May 16, 6 to 9pm
First Course:
Stuffed Sweet Onion with Potato Gratin
Served with 2009 River Ranch Chardonnay

Second Course:
Celery Root and Apple Salad with Almonds and Apple Butter
Served with 2009 Tamás Estates Pinot Grigio

Third Course:
Grilled Eggplant, Stuffed Baby Peppers and Tandori Tomato Sauce
Served with Murietta's Well - The Spur

Fourth Course:
Charbroiled Portabella Steak with Smokey Pearl Onion Ragout
Served with 2008 Wente Vineyards Sandstone Merlot

Dessert
Red Apple Cobbler
Served with 2008 Riverbank Riesling

$67.50 per person. Reservations Required. Call 916-452-3896.
Evan's Kitchen is located at 855 57th Street, Sacramento, CA. 95819
Suite C, In the 57th Street Antique Row

May 10, 2011
A story about extra effort at a restaurant -- do you have one?

Thumbnail image for IMG_0721.JPGSince the James Beard Awards were announced last night, I thought I would share a story about the winner for "Outstanding Restaurant," Eleven Madison Park in New York City. It doesn't have anything to do with world-class talent, an extra-sophisticated dining community or huge operating budget. This story is about extra effort. And from what I have seen, the very best restaurants seem to try the hardest.

(Before I go on, we want to ask readers to tell us, in the comments box below, about their experiences with a restaurant that shows extra effort. Let us know what happened, and where.)

The food, of course, was outstanding during our visit in September. The design of the menu was compelling (you select a single ingredient for each course and you have no idea how it will be prepared) and the finished product on the plate was a work of art. That's not surprising for a world-class restaurant with a chef the caliber of Daniel Humm (who used to work in San Francisco).

But the story I am going to tell you has almost nothing to do with cooking. It's about doing the little things that connect with customers and have an impact that resonates.

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.

May 9, 2011
Chef Michael Tuohy leaving Grange to pursue new challenge

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Tuohy.jpgMichael Tuohy, executive chef at Grange, the widely respected restaurant at the Citizen Hotel downtown, is leaving the position to pursue new opportunities.

Tuohy, 49, has been a significant influence on the local food scene, both for his thoughtful approach to cooking and for the public outreach he performed in various ways, including leading tours of the farmers market to buy produce he would later prepare and serve at the restaurant for tour participants.

Tuohy enjoyed an excellent reputation for his cooking at Grange, but some diners, myself included, were occasionally frustrated that the service did not live up to the professionalism of the kitchen.

May 2, 2011
Monday postscript: Pocket Bistro, couples running restaurants

What's it like to live together, raise kids together and, when you go off to work, there you are: together again?

In recent weeks, I have reviewed a spate of restaurants run by husbands and wives or some kind of domestic partnership equivalent. Magpie. Bistro La Petite France, Café Marika, Chando's Tacos. I can think of plenty more, including superb ones such as Taste in Plymouth and Boulevard Bistro in Elk Grove. I've also heard of more than a few restaurant divorces (including at least a few where they get divorced but continue working at the same eatery).

April 29, 2011
La Bonne Soupe's last day; an ailing chef sells his bistro

The humble Frenchman at the top of Sacramento's food scene spent the day Friday slicing sandwiches and placing them on plates and ladling soup into bowls, then moving in his unhurried way to the cash register to make change for his customers - one after another, and for one final time.

"Today was a very sad day. My tears were very close to my eyes," said Daniel Pont, the owner and chef, not long after locking the front door.


April 29, 2011
La Bonne Soupe: Final day for a local legend

I just got off the phone with chef and owner Daniel Pont, who confirmed that this is his final day. Yes, La Bonne Soupe is closing its doors.

The restaurant usually closes at 2:30, but there were still 10 people in line. The chef and I will chat after he locks up shortly. Check back for details.

For those not in the know, this small, one-man operation has become a legend in recent years, known for great soups and sandwiches, and notoriously long lines. Monsieur Pont is a beloved figure and a true gentleman. For many, the closing of this place will be devastating news. What's more, the other top soup place in town, Fog Mountain Cafe, just closed its doors a few weeks ago.

April 26, 2011
Restaurants and rudeness: The customer isn't always right

It wasn't that long ago. We were leaving Peet's Coffee on Fair Oaks Boulevard and, as we walked out, we held the door for a petite woman with short blond, spiky hair and a fake tan - and she proceeded to walk through without saying a word or touching the door. She's something special. Of course she is.

In that one moment, she had the chance to take the door, even symbolically, say something nice and make us feel good about this little exchange of kindnesses. Yet, we regretted holding the door and, later, talked about - fantasized about - letting the door go and making her spill her coffee all over her extra-tight gym attire. If I were the least bit spiritual, I might look inside and tell myself it is the simple act that matters, and that I cannot control what other people do. I'm glad I'm not that well adjusted.

There is something about that obliviousness at the door, seemingly so small, that really rubs people the wrong way, myself included. In honor of that loathsome, self-involved woman, I've compiled a short, non-scientific list of other rude behavior I see at restaurants (in no particular order):

April 25, 2011
Monday postscript: the personal touch of a little bistro

My review of Bistro La Petite France focused on the food and the warm hospitality of the husband-and-wife owners, Christophe and Claudine Ehrhart. If you're wondering what it means to have a locally-owned business with a personal touch, this would be a good place to visit and take notes. The formula is very simple, but somehow it remains elusive at too many other restaurants.

During our visits, Christophe never failed to greet us or say farewell, and Claudine was always there to chat with customers.

April 18, 2011
Should I warn restaurants before publishing my reviews?

One of the things you realize when you've been in journalism long enough is that a lot of smart people read the newspaper. Another thing you realize: an awful lot of other people don't really understand how journalism works.

I say this because of a well-meaning email I received recently from a reader. She was concerned that some of my more pointed critiques might hurt a restaurant's bottom line.

She writes (to protect the innocent and not so innocent, I will delete the names of the restaurants):

April 18, 2011
Monday postscript: Monkey Cat and a canine dining companion

I had a new dining partner helping out with Sunday's review - Abbey, one of our dogs. When Monkey Cat noted on its website that it was "dog friendly," the journalist in me thought I needed to check it out and find the right companion for the job. Though Oscar, our big Rhodesian ridgeback-mix, is the pack leader, we left him behind because, well, having an alpha dog that close to plates of food is not always the best idea. When he gets really food-focused, Oscar starts to howl.

Being dog friendly is something that is important to a surprising number of folks who go out to eat, myself included. Years before I became The Bee's restaurant critic, I would look for places that allowed pets access on the patio. That eventually led me to Carmel, where dogs are treated like royalty and are allowed to roam off-leash on the spectacular public beach. There are several restaurants in Carmel that are dog friendly, but Monkey Cat is right up there with them.

Beyond canine companions, let's revisit one recurring issue with the food. In recent weeks, I have referred several times to dishes that were timid or bland or that seemed to play it too safe when it comes to flavors. That doesn't mean I only appreciate food that is big and bold, the culinary equivalent of a neon red and white striped shirt. I'm not suggesting that more is necessarily better. Food won't improve by simply dumping more herbs and spices into the pot. My concern is that sometimes kitchens seem to be preparing food and sending it out to the dining room without tasting it. The best dishes I encounter are well balanced, but they also have flavors that pop. There is a clarity of purpose that shines through in terms of flavors.

Though I enjoyed several dishes at Monkey Cat, the ones that were less intriguing made me wonder if the person cooking them actually tasted the recipe that day to see if it was hitting the mark.

This coming Sunday, I will be reviewing a restaurant that reminded me of this issue once again - because the flavors had great clarity and heft.

April 15, 2011
Fog Mountain and its excellent soups are no longer

Harnish.JPGFog Mountain Café, which opened three years ago on the corner of 10th and I streets downtown, has closed its doors for good.

The news is a blow to its many fans, myself included, who considered owner/chef Eric Harnish's soups to be the best in the city. Grilled asparagus with applewood smoked bacon. French onion soup. Mushroom with fresh thyme and shaved asiago. Split pea. He even nailed Muligatawny years ago when I requested it.

Harnish was an artist and improviser in the kitchen. He had over 100 soup recipes in his head and never wrote any of them down. He tried new things and wasn't afraid to fail.

April 14, 2011
Lunch with Curtis Popp at La Bonne Soupe

La Bonne Soupe.JPGI recently had the pleasure of joining Curtis Popp for lunch at La Bonne Soupe, the near-legendary soup and sandwich spot on 8th Street.

April 12, 2011
Why I sometimes pull the plug on writing a review

photo (8).JPGOver the years, I have found that journalism - and my career as a writer - is full of ups and downs. You get on a roll, bang out a few good stories in a row, then you look around, run into a few obstacles and false starts and, suddenly, you're stumped. Yes, it's a dry spell.

During my years as a features writer, specializing in profiles, there were times when I thought I would never come up with another compelling person to write about.

I am in one of those dry spells at the moment, though readers of the newspaper might not have any inkling. That's because I have visited several restaurants in recent weeks, tried the food, looked at what they're all about, judged the quality of the overall experience and then, unfortunately, pulled the plug.

The tally includes two Indian restaurants that don't give any indication they want to stay in business or are concerned about the fundamentals of good service and decent cooking; a Mexican restaurant that is like every cookie-cutter Mexican restaurant on earth and pretty much bored me from the moment the stale tortilla chips and watery salsa were plunked down on our table; and a marginally upscale restaurant specializing in American cuisine where the host led us to our table, put down the menus and walked away without saying a word. It would have been helpful if she had at least uttered something along the lines of, "Watch out, the food here is really boring, your server will act flustered even though the place is nearly empty, and, it will soon become apparent that we don't really know what we're doing." Oh, this "host" did acknowledge us when we left - with a smile and a "good night" -- but that's probably because she was standing next to the owner at the time. I'll leave it to readers to try and figure out who I'm talking about.

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.

April 7, 2011
Loomis chef honoring Slocum House gift certificates

A former Slocum House chef has stepped forward to honor gift certificates to the now shuttered Fair Oaks restaurant.

Chef Vincent Paul Alexander, of Alexander's Horseshoe Bar Grill in Loomis, told The Bee that he'll trade any Slocum House gift certificate for a promotional one to his restaurant. The offer likely will come as good news to disgruntled diners. Dozens of readers have been calling The Bee since news of Slocum House's closure broke last week, wondering how to redeem or get a refund on gift certificates.

"When a place like that goes out of business there are a lot of people left holding gift certificates," he said.

The gesture is "a nod to the customers of Slocum House and their impact on my career," Alexander wrote in an e-mail.

Alexander started his career at Slocum House in 1990 and was there for seven years before leaving to open Alexander's Meritage in Folsom.

March 30, 2011
Venerable Fair Oaks restaurant Slocum House shuttered

OB SLOCUM 1.JPGBy Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

Slocum House, one of the most lauded fine dining restaurants in the Sacramento region, is closed.

The restaurant served its last meal Sunday, financial consultant Jack Kandola confirmed today. Kandola and business partner Joe Wittren bought Slocum House in 2009, but Kandola sold his share of the business to Wittren last year.

Kandola said the restaurant lost its lease at the hilltop location in quaint Fair Oaks village.

"For the last couple of years, business has been going down because of the down economy," Kandola said.

Kandola said they had asked the landlord to extend their lease, but he refused. The landlord indicated another business may move in, but Kandola did not know who the possible tenants may be or whether that statement was true.

There are no plans to reopen Slocum House elsewhere in the region.

"It was a landmark restaurant, so we hate to see it go down," Kandola said. "Hopefully someone else will have better success (at the California Avenue location)."

Slocum House had consistently been one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the region. Bee dining critic Blair Anthony Robertson gave the dining room four stars in an October 2009 review. Click here to see a video interview with former Slocum House executive chef Gabriel Glasier by Bee photographer Jose Luis Villegas.

The restaurant also was rated best date night restaurant by Bee readers later that month.

What are your memories of Slocum House? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*Bee researcher Sheila Kern contributed to this report

March 22, 2011
Monday postscript: Cafe Americain, seafood and the Watch List


Seafood watch.bmpOne of the great things about getting feedback from readers via email is that it reminds me that many of them are passionate about food and demanding about the issues related to food.

But how much politics do you want with your restaurant reviews? That is a question I think about often, and I have yet to come up with the right formula to please everyone.

Yes, I try to weigh in on the local/sustainable trend from time to time. I tend to emphasize the importance of where the food comes from and what happens on the way from the farm to your plate.

March 19, 2011
Patrick Mulvaney and Soil Born Farms director to speak Sunday

PatrickMulvaney.jpgIf you're into the local food and dining scene, you won't want to miss the latest installment of the excellent ongoing series called Sacramento Living Library. Chef and restaurateur Patrick Mulvaney and Shawn Harrison, executive director of Soil Born Farms, will talk about local agriculture, local restaurants and various issues tied to farm-to-table dining.

The free event is this Sunday (March 20) at 7 p.m. Time Tested Books is at 1114 21st Street, between K and L streets in midtown Sacramento.

Though farm-to-table cooking has become more and more common in the city's restaurants, Mulvaney is perhaps its most visible practitioner, if not its most devoted. His eponymous restaurant on 19th Street is well known for sourcing local ingredients and celebrating the area's farmers.

Soil Born Farms is a remarkable and enlightened undertaking that not only grows food, it has an educational mission for youths and adults that provides classes, workshops, tours and job training. The farm also targets under-served areas in the community with alternative food distribution and food donation programs.

The Living Library series, curated by Time Tested Books' owner Peter Keat and hosted by Tim Foster of Midtown Monthly, has been a big success. The talks are casual, wide-ranging and thought-provoking, all in the cozy setting of a well-stocked shop of used and rare books. Recent food-themed talks have featured chocolatier Ginger Elizabeth Hahn and grocer/wine expert Darrell Corti (interviewed by Elaine Corn).

Though the talk will begin at 7 p.m., this event will likely fill up quickly. For the talk in February, featuring Fred and Victoria Dalkey, we arrived 15 minutes early to find standing room only at the very back of the bookstore. The talks generally last an hour.

And if you're looking for a very good restaurant nearby before or after the event, you won't go wrong with Bombay Bar & Grill (1315 21st St.).

March 15, 2011
Luck o' the Irish: Biba has a St. Patrick's Day pasta on the menu

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Restaurant Critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

FL BIBA CLOSE.JPGWhat is Biba doing getting in on the St. Patrick's Day fun? For the second year running, the beloved Italian restaurant on Capitol Avenue in midtown is offering a special a la carte menu item for lunch and dinner to accommodate her many customers of Irish descent.

That would include Biba Caggiano's two sons-in-law.

The same restaurant that serves prosciutto di parma with caramelized pears, gnocchi del giorno and, yes, the famous lasagne verdi alla Bolognese, will be cooking up a special St. Patrick's Day stuffed pastal. As someone who is half Irish but feels like he should have been born in Northern Italy, I endorse this tradition wholeheartedly.

This hybrid, hyphenated and wholly unusual dish consists of spinach ravioli stuffed with corned beef, braised cabbage, carrots and potatoes, and finished with a sauce made of butter, braised cabbage and pancetta. No word on the green beer.

The dinner is $17.50 and lunch is $16.50.

Speaking of Biba, when I checked the restaurant website, I noticed an array of cooking classes taught by Biba herself. Each class costs 125 and is limited to 15 students. Classes cover such areas as fresh pasta, gnocchi and risotto. Clearly, they are very popular - they're all sold out through June 18.

March 14, 2011
Eat at OneSpeed on the 24th and support a worthy cause

OneSpeed, the always busy (and for good reason) restaurant and pizzeria in East Sacramento will hold a fundraiser Thursday, March 24 for the NorCal Aids Cycle, a charity bike ride that benefits local HIV/AIDS providers.

Owned by cyclist and cycling enthusiast Rick Mahan, OneSpeed (4818 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento) will donate a portion of its sales that day to this worthy charity. Chef Mahan is also the owner of Waterboy, one of the city's premier fine dining restaurants.

The Norcal AIDS Cycle is a four-day, 330 mile ride. It began as the brainchild of a group of cyclists that included Maggy Krell, a state prosecutor living in Sacramento. I wrote a story about Maggy and the ride back in 2007.

The original idea was to take the large and famous AIDS charity ride that travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles over seven days, shrink it down to four days, do one very large loop through the Central Valley, Wine Country and the Sierra foothills and, best of all, give the m