Dining review: House Kitchen & Bar sees a future on Capitol Mall

Published: Sunday, May. 9, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 7I
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 13, 2012 - 9:15 pm

Let's see. Open a restaurant in a part of downtown that's pretty much empty after 5 p.m. Have floor-to-ceiling windows so everyone can look out at how dead it is. Create a menu that is decidedly lowbrow, largely unadventurous and moderately affordable. Feature a dish that involves impaling a chicken carcass with a can of beer.

Sit back and watch the money roll in.

If I were a banker and someone came to me with a business plan like that, my reply would be short and to the point: Next!

Maybe Chris Nestor, owner of the new and attractively appointed House Kitchen & Bar on the woefully under-realized Capitol Mall, sees something I'm missing. His banker surely does.

To be sure, Nestor is working all the angles – the tweets, the Facebook page, the live music, a happy hour that keeps going and going, something or other for Second Saturday. But is there enough there there?

If he wants to have a lunch spot, he's going to make it and then some, because there's a captive audience, with commercial real estate company CB Richard Ellis sharing the building. And the sandwiches are pretty darn good.

But if House is going to draw a crowd for dinner once the business folks have cleared out, there has to be more to offer than a stiff drink and mere comfort food.

Funny thing about people. They like to be around other people. On Capitol Mall? In an hour of dining at House in the early evening, I spotted one squirrel scouring for nuts and two tourists taking pictures of a handshake sculpture.

Nestor has already played an influential role in the local restaurant scene, practically creating late-night dining when he opened Ink Eats & Drinks in midtown seven years ago. Incredibly, Nestor stayed open till 4 a.m. on weekends.

Ink had/has an artsy edginess, with tattoo-inspired designs on the walls and ceiling. That seems so long ago, when tattoos were one dolphin on the shoulder blade or bit of barbed wire on the biceps away from being a cliché.

His next try in 2004-05, a place called Icon, didn't take off. Back then, Nestor publicly proclaimed his desire to someday own 15 restaurants. Not a mere 12 restaurants or a ridiculous 19 restaurants, but 15.

I like this guy, though I fear we don't have much in common. He calls himself a meat and potatoes guy. I feel bloated just hearing those words.

He chooses to give customers what they want, going so far as to include a menu suggestion feature on House's website. I prefer to put the power in the chef's hands, letting him or her show customers something they didn't know they wanted.

Though he is a classically trained chef, Nestor is a proponent of comfort food, which is what I eat while nursing a hangover or visiting Grandma.

I'm apparently in the minority. Recent issues of Bon Appétit and Saveur, two leading cooking magazines, have major articles on comfort food. Even the New Yorker had an article on poutine, the indescribably horrible yet delicious concoction (French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy) common in French-speaking Canada.

And the new Cafeteria 15L, reinvented after the recent closing of Mason's in the same room, is four times as crowded now as when it was actually serving good food.

Nestor's second-second restaurant, House, does not bode well for getting 13 more in this lifetime, partly because it doesn't have the built-in crowd that midtown spots enjoy.

House opened in January. The name has a certain irony – no one lives anywhere close to House. To draw folks to a dead zone, you need to have a menu that makes it worth the trip, or, as they are attempting on war-torn K Street, do something involving mermaids.

House has 12 sandwiches on the menu, and admittedly, the place is rockin' at lunch, if you can call what real estate people do at noon rockin'. Lunch works because the sandwiches are fresh, large and reasonably priced at about $10.

The Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich was a pretty fair lunch offering, with tender meat and tangy slaw, even if there is no such thing as Carolina style. Anyone from North Carolina will tell you there are, in fact, two very divisive barbecue/pork camps. One likes the sauce-based pork of western Carolina; the other prefers the vinegar-based pork of the eastern part of the state.

(There's even a third style, if you count what they cook in South Carolina.)

House's version was neither saucy nor vinegary, but it was still appetizing. I just don't know anyone who would order that for dinner.

The vibe is much different than Ink, which has more of a midtown/artsy/No on 8/ yes on Keith Olbermann/ legalize-pot-so-we-don't-have-to-get-a-fake-prescription clientele. At House, the edgiest guy in the room was the husky real estate dude with a soul patch, a plaid shirt and a Bluetooth who chewed with his mouth open.

The fries that come with the sandwiches are billed as "endless fries," meaning customers can keep eating fries until closing time. When I asked our server if there were any cool stories about the endless fries, she gave me that blank stare I recognized from Tiger Woods' public apology.

So do you really know anyone over the age of 11 who thinks pigging out on French fries is a good idea? And anyway, these fries are limp and rather bland. They'd be better if you covered them with cheese curds and gravy and gave them a French name.

Good fries are actually fried twice, according to a pretty fair short-order cook named Thomas Keller, in his book "Bouchon."

These days, the litmus test for comfort food is mac and cheese. Most of us raised by mothers not named Julia Child or Martha Stewart always thought it came from a box and that cheese was a magical, chemically enhanced substance you poured out of an envelope.

The House version was very good, with real cheese, thick and stretchy like a good pizza, and topped with enough breadcrumbs to give it some crunch. We added bacon ($8.75) to keep our cholesterol at or near the danger level. It was worth it.

I'm going to tell you about the best item on the menu, but first let me go over the worst items, which, sadly, will take a minute.

The steak ($14.75), which we ordered rare and was served sliced, was too tough and too chewy, partly because of all the silverskin that had not been removed. The glazed chicken stir-fry, a special of the day, was bland and pale and pretty much a waste of electricity. But the potato-crusted fish and chips were the low point. Instead of being crisp and light, the "crust" was oil-laden and limp, probably because the oil was not hot enough in the deep fryer. The result was a soggy, tasteless dish that never should have been allowed to leave the kitchen.

Then we come to the beer can chicken ($14.50) and all the unsightly, undignified things that have to happen for it to get cooked. It's an eye-catching name, to be sure. It is also called beer-butt chicken, because, well, that's where you stick the can. During the cooking process, the beer builds moisture and flavor in the meat.

This was an excellent dish, easily the best meal on the premises and a nice example of comfort food done right.

For dessert, we worked our way through several cheesecakes and liked the carrot cake version best – lots of fresh flavors, a nice balance of spices and great texture.

The wine and beer offerings are small but somewhat interesting, with a focus on area wineries like Berryessa Gap, whose Malbec ($32) was a balanced, drinkable red, though it paired poorly with a Mongolian beef dish that was far spicier than we anticipated.

I don't know what the answer is for bringing life to dinner at House, but I hope Nestor finds it. If he's going to open 13 more restaurants, I'd suggest he first think about a menu and a concept here that is more captivating than what we're getting now.

HOUSE KITCHEN & BAR

555 Capitol Ave., Sacramento

(916) 498-9924

www.houseoncapitol.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Full bar? Yes

Vegetarian-friendly? No

Takeout? Yes

Overall: 2 stars (fair)

This new venture is working hard to please, with a nice happy hour and an already bustling lunch business. For now, there may not be enough on the menu to lure folks to this downtown dead zone in the evening.

Food: 2 stars (fair)

Plenty of sandwich options and a handful of main dishes for dinner, but you'd better be like the owner and crave meat and potatoes. Several of the sandwiches are quite good, the mac and cheese is very good, and the beer can chicken is excellent. Unfortunately, there are enough missteps elsewhere to keep this rating from being higher.

Service: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

Friendly servers doing their best to make it work. Ours even knew all five cheeses on the mac and cheese. Gouda for him.

Ambience: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

It's a lovely room with big windows, but the unfortunate focal point is a giant kitchen gadget crammed too close to the ceiling. Part of ambience is the energy in the room, and more of that is needed in the evenings.

Value: 2 stars (fair)

The sandwiches may seem on the high side of reasonable, with most of them in the $10 range. But that includes "endless fries." All the dishes on this comfort-food menu are under $17.

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Read more articles by Blair Anthony Robertson



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