We went, as we always do, because we hoped to find all that's good about a place that features a somewhat novel cuisine. In this case, they call it soul food fusion.
When you use the term "soul food," a responsibility comes with it a responsibility not only to diners who rely on descriptors to pair with expectations, but to millions of people and hundreds of years of history, dating to the dismal days of American slavery.
For 200 years or more, slaves were the true proponents of fusion cooking, combining the food of West Africa with the paltry offerings available to them in a new homeland that had been forced upon them. Their plight demanded ingenuity. They turned seemingly inedible, unwanted animal parts ham hocks, chicken gizzards, pig intestines, to name a few into meals so delicious and inexpensive that they have endured the stain of slavery, of segregation. Here we are today with soul food still going strong in a country with an African American president.
But I digress. Let's be blunt. At Table 260 Downtown, there was no soul and, it turns out, hardly any food. The only fusion we encountered was the melding of lethargy and apathy and a pinch of ennui.
Instead, all we can report is that Table 260 Downtown is a restaurant in a free fall, with practically no apparent effort to be a viable business, let alone a proud practitioner of soul food.
The food was so bad in places that if it had been served at the nearby county jail, crusading attorney Stewart Katz might have had a reasonable case for something like "wanton disregard."
Sad to say, the only thing worthwhile you will find in what follows is a primer on how not to run a restaurant.
When we arrived, there was no one there to say hello. It was a Thursday night, which, as nearly everyone under 92 knows, is a big night for going out in Sacramento. Yet the restaurant was practically empty. Apparently, we were the only ones who didn't know how bad it was.
When someone finally ambled over and led us to our table, I opened the plastic-laminate menu, only to find a large chunk of fried crust plastered on the page. (I'm going to say it was the catfish, though I declined to taste it.)
We asked to see a wine list and got the reply, "We don't have a wine list," followed by an awkward silence. OK. When we asked how we might pick a wine, we got, "What are you looking for?" Honestly, we were starting to look for an exit plenty of very good restaurants are within a few blocks, including Grange, about 30 seconds up J Street; and Ella, a block or two away on K Street.
The appetizers arrived, and they seemed decent at first nibble: four smoky ribs ($9.95) covered in sauce nearly enough sauce to disguise the fact that the meat seemed several days past fresh. I like aged meat. I don't care for old meat.
It took an inordinate amount of time for our server to return to take the rest of our order. Then it was back to the filthy menus, which have a helpful icon indicating the chef's specialties. One icon was next to the porterhouse steak ($24.95), 20 ounces of thick, spicy beef topped with mushrooms, or so the menu says. Sounded great. But when we ordered that, our server returned and gave us the bad news they were out of the porterhouse. Shocker.
Then our server pretty much spilled the beans on the entire operation. Not only were they out of that one cut of steak, but the latest food delivery had not come in, and they were out of a bunch of stuff. Oh, and the chef had already gone home for the day. Yikes. Did you really just tell me that?
One hungry friend ordered what promised to be a showcase of soulful Southern cooking the "back porch seafood fry." It was to be a platter of crisp crab cakes, catfish, shrimp and soft-shell crab. Kind of soulful, except we learned they were out of crab cakes and soft-shell crab.
When we were offered substitutions, they were out of the red snapper we wanted. So we went with tilapia. Later, they made no effort to adjust the $27.95 cost of the dish, though half the items were not included. Halfway through dinner, I just knew someone was going to point to that mirror in the distance and say, "There, look, ha ha, it's a hidden camera and this has all been a big joke." I guess that was wishful thinking. Table 260 wasn't a joke. It was just pathetic. But the worst was yet to come.
Our entrees arrived. Now, I have eaten a lot of good food, but every so often, I eat substandard food. I hardly ever eat terrible food. This was terrible.
The seafood disaster was even worse than we thought. Clearly, the fish was not fresh and had not been fried any time recently. How do I know? There was no sizzle. It was not hot. The crust was soggy and barely warm. At the very least, microwave it longer, though that's not very soulful. The white rice was a fusion of old and cold. It clumped together like that 2-day-old stuff from the Chinese restaurant I ate for leftovers when I was in college. Absolutely awful. Nearly as bad as the mashed potatoes that came with the rib eye ($18.95) we got instead of the porterhouse.
The mashed potatoes were cold, too. How can you have cold potatoes? I know, you make them long ago and then try to reheat them and fool your customers because you think they're stupid.
The steak was not at all fresh. The abundance of seasoning salt didn't cover up this crime.
The jambalaya ($15.95) was actually OK, with a smooth flavor to the tomato sauce and a nice collection of shrimp and chicken. It was sort of Cajun if the chef's name were Chef Boyardee, but it wasn't soul food.
I couldn't decide between two fettucine dishes, one with blackened chicken ($15.95) and the other with garlic shrimp ($17.95), so I asked our server if he could help me choose. I don't blame him for going through the motions. I assume that directive came from the top. His reply? "That depends whether you want chicken or shrimp." I had not thought of that. Very helpful.
I went with the chicken, which was also obliterated with seasoning salt and was not blackened. The fettuccine sauce was as bland as it was inedible. Imagine curdled milk, then heat it slightly. Voilà! Soul food fusion in a pasta dish.
Our waiter asked if we wanted dessert but didn't show us any dessert menus. That would have required effort. He tried to recite them by memory, rolling his eyes and looking toward the ceiling. He spit out one, then went and got the menus and plunked them down in a stack on the table. I was afraid to touch them again.
By then, we were hip to this version of soul food fusion and got out of there faster than you could say "embarrassing and inept." There was no one at the door to say goodbye.
TABLE 260 DOWNTOWN
826 J St., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Overall: 1 star (terrible)
Combine no effort and bad food, and I guess you can call it anything you want. They call it "soul food fusion." They get the one star because they have lights and running water.
Food: 1 star (terrible)
We didn't get to try everything on the menu because they were out of a lot of things, including several chef's specialties. But what they had was either fair, terrible or seemingly on the verge of spoiled.
Service: 2 stars (fair)
One of our servers made an effort, and all the servers seem to be friendly. But there's only so much you can do on a sinking ship.
Ambience: 2 stars (fair)
The mood? Funeral-ish. The décor was OK. Old food stuck to a menu is a turnoff for your more refined clientele.
Value: 1 star (terrible)
Usually the food is free at funerals.
Noteworthy: People in California seem to have a misguided notion of what soul food is. You can't just throw food in a deep fryer, put catfish and grits on the menu and call it soul food. You have to have collard greens cooked in fat back. You have to have black-eyed peas and chitlins, and maybe pigs' feet or ham hocks.