Sac Town, our California Gold Country capital… known for its politics, surrounded by the boundless produce of inland California which us city dwellers richly benefit from. It’s a town I stop to dine in on the way to or from Tahoe but have only stayed the weekend in a couple times, despite its close proximity to San Francisco. Here’s my slideshow article on Sacramento highlights for PureWow.
A recent revisit meant I trekked to at least eight spots a day, combing the city’s restaurants, bars, coffee houses and more. It’s nice to see the town embracing its agricultural surroundings in farm-to-table restaurants mapping out nearby farms (as at Hock Farm) or showcasing seasonal wealth on your plate (at Grange). Read more about the drink scene here.
Getting the worst out of the way, there was an appalling four spots in one weekend (far more than I experience in frequent trips around the world or at home) where service was lackluster to downright bad. In fact, for those I bothered to give a second chance to (something I typically cannot do, particularly when visiting eight places in a day), service only improved when meeting with a manager. A warm welcome, if not knowledgeable, engaged service, should be standard in raved-about places.
Compared to what we’re surrounded by in San Francisco, Sac might not (at first glance) seem to be making waves. But it’s a town that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Though you might see trends (gourmet donuts & hipster, third wave coffee, etc.) that have long been established in other cities, Sac seems to be finding that sweet spot of embracing the bounty surrounding it and expressing it straightforwardly, or in the case of restaurants like Enotria, elevating it. Food and drink aficionados can find plenty to satiate here, graced with a California heartland freshness.
Enotria may be the biggest surprise in Sacramento. Fine dining wonders await in a casual, open air patio strung with white lights or inside a minimalist dining room (the larger, event-sized dining room and the bar feel just a bit sterile).
Executive Chef Pajo Bruich wows with dishes you’d expect to find at a Michelin-starred restaurant, more exciting than the menu belies ($75 for 5 courses, $105 for 7, add wine pairing for $75). After the meal is through, you’ll still be dreaming about house breads (brought out intermittently through the meal): pain au lait (milk bread), pretzel bread, bacon challah, all accompanied by Straus cow (with a bit of goat) house butter subtly tinged with maple syrup, dotted with volcanic sea salt.
Dishes are also available a la carte ($12-37), where you might experience a playful twist on a classic like Niman Ranch beef tartare enlivened by horseradish dippin’ dots (icy pearls) and mustard, or chicken liver that has been cooked then pureed in a thermomix, converted to foam via an ISI soda siphon, then frozen via liquid nitrogen. Soft, cool liver remains, delicate over pistachio sponge cake, punctuated with compressed pluots and celery dippin’ dots (as you can see, dippin’ dot-like pearls are big here).
Expect mind-blowing on occasion. It happened with thinly shaved cow tongue (you haven’t had tongue like this) brined 48 hours, then given the sous vide treatment 24 hours, accented by banana, coconut, sesame oil powder, pearls of Fresno chili, pickled peanuts and serranos over crushed black puffed rice.
Other notable dishes included potato-less gnocchi (made with flour), savory with hen of the woods maitake mushrooms and black truffles, paired with a 2009 Don Michele Moganazzi, Etna Rosso, Sicilian wine which unfolds with salty earthiness. There’s a fabulous interpretation of scrapple paired with Duchesse de Bourgogne Belgian red ale. Their version of the Pennsylvania Dutch classic loaf of pork scraps and flour is made of pork skin, shoulder and trotters pureed into a loaf with cornmeal over brioche, given sweet contrast from plum mostarda.
A palate cleanser of cucumber serrano sorbet over crème fraiche custard was more exciting than the two desserts I tried, including a corn panna cotta log, due to a proliferation of white chocolate (and therefore sugar rush) in the visually striking desserts. The refreshing, green sorbet was so much more than a palate cleanser, vividly tart with lime confit, tropical with coconut puree, herbaceous with mint vermicelli noodles, reminiscent of noodles in Middle Eastern/South Asian dessert faloodeh/falooda.
Wine pairings by Tyler Stacy are impeccable, and cocktails ($12) by Russell Eastman surprise, employing savory elements. Electric Relaxation mixes tequila blanco, Lillet Blanc, mezcal (for a hint of smokiness), lemon and thyme with a vibrant blueberry-white pepper shrub, resulting in a lively drink, alive with flavor. A Salvador Dali of gin, Campari, lemon, lemongrass and sesame, is blessedly heavy on the sesame, almost textural with it, though I didn’t really get any lemongrass.
Though the restaurant has been open over 15 years, Chef Bruich has been there just under a year and brought an entirely new direction to the menu from what it was before. He’s one to watch, bringing a delicious inventiveness not always reached in many cities, much less a smaller one.
If the dishes sound fussy or too molecular, they’re not. In fact, the restaurant veers away from revealing just how gourmet it is with straightforward menu descriptions and comfortable service – which makes it all the more a pleasure for those paying attention. In many restaurants, experimental, artful dishes don’t always equal deliciousness. More than once during my meal did visual beauty translate into edible wow factor. For quality of unusual dishes alone, this is one not to miss.
In retro-chic Citizen Hotel, Grange is one of the best restaurants in town, walking a fine line of upscale/inventive and relaxed/fun. Executive Chef Olive Ridgeway fills local candy stripe figs with burrata cheese covered in roasted pistachios, or dries tomatoes to raisin-like effect (deeming them tomazins), served alongside fresh Watanabe heirloom tomatoes ($13) over watermelon squares layered with feta puree, cucumber and kalamata salt.
Savory suckling pig ($27) feels oh-so-California with hominy, lime, corn, avocado, Napa cabbage and radishes in a spicy pork broth. House charcuterie ($15/25 platters) is a highlight, with the likes of coppa encrusted in cacao or orange coriander pork.
On my visit, I was lucky a rare cut of akaushi (the red breed of Wagyu beef) was in. Smoked on almond wood, accompanied by Oregon chanterelles and beef fat potatoes over horseradish, the tender, medium-rare meat with perfect outer char was a revelation. It was ideally paired with acidic, subtly smoky dark fruit of a 2008 Jeff Runquist Tannat. Cocktails from Bar Manager Ryan Seng are likewise a highlight (see my Sacramento drink article).
Hipster Germanic fare it is, but what sets LowBrau apart from other such artisan sausage and craft beer joints around the country is damn good sausages on pretzel buns, killer sauces (they perfect curry ketchup), and alongside the beers, the addition of elegant cocktails, and an impressive collection of rare herbal liqueurs (Schwartzhog, Killepitsch, Rossbacher) and eaux de vie (Schladerer Himbeer Liqueur, Schonauer Apfel, Freihof Marile Apricot brandy) from Austria, Switzerland, Germany.
There are cocktails ($9) and beer cocktails ($7) – like Zimmerman Plan, giving smoky Del Maguey Vida Mezcal a kick of refreshing lime, orange juice, cilantro simple syrup, jalapeno and a fizzy splash of Hefewiezen. There’s also rare beers from Copenhagen or hot US craft beers such as Prairie Ales.
A beef-pork hot link ($6.50) is flavorful with cayenne and garlic, there’s wild Boar-sherry-wine-sage sausage ($7.25), Polish, bockwurst, bratwurst, frankfurter, smoked chicken and vegan sausages on sweet or pretzel rolls with two toppings of choice, including sauerkraut, caramelized onions, sweet peppers or bier cheese sauce. I’ve had better duck fat fries ($3.50) over the years (these are just a bit bland) but dipping sauces are addictive, whether pimento aioli or creamy garlic chive.
Though suffering from disinterested service behind the sushi bar and the typical excess of sauces I often find at sushi joints outside of major cities known for sushi (which would make many a Japanese sushi master cringe), there’s creative vision inflecting the menu at Kru.
Try to tune out the smooth jazz soundtrack as you savor late summer goodness in an heirloom tomato salad with chunks of bright albacore tuna sashimi ($14). It’s heavy in miso mustard vinaigrette but the tomatoes and fish are ultra-fresh, accented by touches of chili oil powder and pink Himalayan sea salt.
It’s a pleasure to see thinly shaved beef tongue ($10) on the menu… until a thick pool of wasabi mustard aioli overwhelms delicate cuts of tongue, grazed with sea salt ponzu foam.
Sashimi tapas ($23) change each day and some are (again) too heavily sauced, but the dish is visually colorful and at times hits a fine unison of taste between sauce, roe, fish and fresh herbs. You might be served walu, tempura shrimp, albacore tuna, BBQed albacore or kanpachi on the platter, in varied preparations, which shine best raw or as tempura.
HOCK FARM CRAFT & PROVISIONS
New Hock Farm Craft & Provisions, serves farm-fresh food sourced from nearby farms – far from a unique concept (think ubiquitous gourmet deviled eggs, fried green tomato BLTs, etc.), but it’s well-executed and comforting, the menu featuring a map highlighting the wealth of nearby produce and animal sources.
What most impressed in this spacious, welcoming restaurant was Bar Manager/Managing Partner Brad Peters’ cocktails. Delightful “bubbled and bottled” cocktails ($9) are straightforward, like a house cream soda effervescent with Papa’s Pilar rum.
Chocolate, Sandwiches, Spirits
From the exterior, Corti Brothers looks like a grocery left over from a forgotten era in a nondescript area of Sacramento. Besides boasting an old school deli (take a number and expect a bit of wait) churning out hearty sandwiches (like sweet Italian sausage and peppers in the Da Vinci), Corti surprises with solid beer and wine sections and an unexpectedly dense spirits selection – one of the best in the state after greats like Cask in San Francisco or Hi-Time in So Cal. While this is a grocery store and not a liquor store, there’s an impressive array of small batch spirits, amari from Italy, Eastern European liqueurs and other rarities one would not ever expect to find in a place like this.
I’ve long enjoyed Ginger Elizabeth‘s chocolate bars purchased at San Francisco shops like The Candy Store. A Sacramento staple, these celebrated chocolates (bars, truffles, lovely drinking chocolate) are a draw at her shop but she sells an equal amount of macarons – I particularly love spiced maple blueberry filled with blueberry jam. I didn’t get to try GE’s ice cream but it’s available by the scoop, in creative sundaes, or in ice cream sandwiches.
With European training and heavy use of classic Valrhona chocolate from the Rhone Valley, France, it’s good news that Ginger Elizabeth is about to expand into a larger space this October where she will offer classes, tastings and more events to engage the public in all things chocolate.
THE CITIZEN HOTEL
Downtown boutique gem, The Citizen Hotel, honors its 1800’s building with historic decor, while keeping a playful politico-meets-Old World elegance vibe. Velvet red and blue couches and books line the lobby, rooms are tasteful in blacks, creams, greys and reds accented by framed political cartoons, while the hotel houses one of Sac’s best restaurants and bars, Grange.