You arrive early, and there's already an edge to the place as you pull up to a blocky building on a once-grand boulevard that's in the process of trying to claw its way back to prominence.
Though it's just eight minutes north of downtown, the Supper Club seems hidden, practically a secret. In that respect, the location is perfect.
How is it you've never been before? The menu is among the most ambitious you will find anywhere, at once an adventure and an education for serious food sleuths.
Four different cuts of goat on one plate, goose "prosciutto" wrapped around dates stuffed with blue cheese, meatloaf made of prime rib, mushrooms masquerading as smoky bacon, French onion soup that requires eight hours of simmering. It's practically an onslaught of premium ingredients, kitchen techniques and ideals.
Next to The Kitchen Restaurant, the Supper Club is also among the most expensive spots in town $85 for a set six-course dinner, $120 if you choose the meticulous wine pairings. Though the chef will happily accommodate vegetarians, fussy eaters would not survive the exotic menu.
For the first 30 minutes before the 7 p.m. dinner, the wine is free and the appetizers (including the aforementioned dates, along with potato skins and plump Thai spiced prawns with a coconut dipping sauce) are delicious.
As you sip and chat and taste, you have time to take in the place, to prepare yourself for what's to come. The room is attractively appointed, a big square with high ceilings and soft lighting. There's a bar up front and a garage-style sliding door that opens the bar to the patio.
At 7 p.m., chef Matt Woolston takes the floor, offers a matter-of-fact rundown of the menu and discusses his wine pairings. Once the executive chef at David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods, Woolston is well- regarded for both his cooking and his wine knowledge. His selections are also available for retail sale at the restaurant.
When designing his menus, which change monthly, he says he actually starts with the wines he likes, then chooses food to match.
By the time you arrive, you likely already know the menu well. You don't sign up for an evening at the Supper Club without doing plenty of reconnaissance. And you don't plan on spending three-plus hours at dinner and $200 or more per couple unless you are intent on having not just a meal but an inspiring food experience.
The Supper Club is the place you visit because you love food, because you are intrigued by the science and art of it and, more than likely, because you love to cook. You go, too, because you want to support a chef who stays largely in the shadows of the local culinary community but is aiming to do some things few others in these parts dare try.
That's what you signed up for.
But does the Supper Club actually deliver? Does the wow factor from what's printed on the sheet of paper translate to what you get on the plate? Oh, how we wish it did.
While Woolston is clearly talented, forward-thinking and ambitious, and the results from the kitchen were very good, the experience was diminished somewhat by something just as important as the ingredients and technique timing.
The evening lasted more than three hours, and the gaps between courses were simply too long. It was nearly 40 minutes, for example, from the time we got our excellent salad (with foie gras, poached lobster, arugula and blood orange confit) until the French onion soup arrived.
In radio, that would be called dead air. At a restaurant, too much time after the very good food has been eaten can take us out of the dream state the Supper Club seeks to create.
Yes, there was plenty of time for conversation too much time. We don't want to twiddle our thumbs when we're dreaming.
Further, there is another noticeable disconnect, another very large gap, between the sophistication of the food and the relative lack of sophistication of the service.
Several times, I asked our server a question about the food, only to be told each and every time, in fact that she did not know.
That smoky, fried taste with the delicious potato skins was actually "portabella bacon" mushrooms that had been cured in-house like bacon. That is just very cool. But at this level of dining, it is a big letdown when servers do not know every ingredient that comes out of the kitchen.
Don't take my word for it. All the top servers I interviewed for my recent year-end story on service said the same thing. It's a point of pride, and it brings an extra dimension to the dining experience. In top restaurants, chefs routinely huddle with servers and go over the menu, getting them to taste new items and explaining what's in them and how they were prepared.
That said, those are the only strikes against the Supper Club. Both are significant. The Kitchen Restaurant's dinners take about three hours, too. But there, it's entertainment an open kitchen, a running monologue, flying flames, lots of sizzle. The time actually flies. You really don't want to leave.
At Ambience Restaurant, with the other fabulous prix fixe menu in town, the food is so exquisite, the timing so precise and the knowledge of the staff so thorough that marveling at the food as it arrives at your table and listening to the server explain in detail what you are seeing amounts to a show in itself. At $45, the dinner is relatively underpriced.
The Supper Club doesn't have an open kitchen and the chef isn't flamboyant, so Option B seems more doable. For now, the servers simply put the food on the table, one course after another, without explanation.
When I asked which of the four parts of the goat was the shoulder on a dish I really enjoyed, the server didn't know. That's startling because I had a pretty good idea from one glance. When I asked if the sauce accompanying the delicious meatloaf was butternut squash, she said it was, even though it was actually smoked tomato broth. (I later realized it says so on the menu.)
In the end, this is the chef's responsibility. The servers are an extension of the kitchen. The best servers I have encountered talk like they spent a year at the Culinary Institute of America and keep a copy of "Larousse Gastronomique" on their nightstand for casual reading. The best chefs insist that their servers really know their stuff.
If these details are addressed, Woolston's wonderful menus and very good cooking could shine without distraction. With an upgrade in timing and service, the Supper Club would be one of the very best restaurants around.
1616 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: Open Friday and Saturday only, 6:30 p.m. for appetizers, 7 p.m. for dinner
Reservations: Required (one seating per night)
Full bar: Wine and beer
Vegetarian-friendly: Special requests accommodated
Overall: 3 stars (good)
This is a case where a rating system gets thrown out of whack. The menu and the cooking are very good, but the overall experience is slowed by timing issues and service concerns. If those are remedied, four stars are within reach.
Food: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
Chef Matt Woolston offers an ambitious, often daring menu that changes monthly. While the food may not be as refined as the very best we have tried, it's pretty close. Timing issues are also part of cooking. When I see guests go outside for a smoking break in the middle of dinner, I know something is off.
Service: 2 stars (fair)
Friendly service though it is, knowledge of food is sorely lacking. For high-end dining like this, it's a glaring shortcoming.
Ambience: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
The feel at night is like a secret hideaway a large, warehouse-style space that is attractively appointed.
Value: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
A couple will likely spend $250 to $300 for dinner. The ingredients are high quality, as is the cooking. Second helpings are also offered. But a price comparison of comparable menus in the area brings this rating down a tad. It was also a surprise that a 20 percent tip was included in the final bill, even for small parties. That's practically unheard of locally.
Noteworthy: For the true Supper Club experience, you'll want to have the six wine pairings, which the chef selects himself. But you'll want a designated driver. They are heavy pours.