When you open a new restaurant, being lucky is sometimes just as important as being smart.
Hiring a consultant because you don't know the restaurant business? That alone should qualify you for Mensa.
Placing an ad for a chef on Craigslist, sifting through the half-wits with more tattoos than talent and landing a bona fide culinary wizard who just happened to be looking for a new gig? Priceless.
That luck that Maranello Restaurant found is lucky for anyone who wants to experience the joy of great cooking.
That's what we have encountered at Maranello in Fair Oaks, where Gabriel Glasier is making his kitchen the star of the show just over four months after opening.
Restaurant death notices are populated with folks who think they can take their success from one industry, combine it with their love of eating and, bada-boom, make a serious go of it, only to discover it's about as easy as reading "Finnegans Wake" with a head cold.
This is the oft-repeated scenario that explains the following statistic: One restaurant out of four closes or changes ownership in the first year. After three years? It's up to three out of five.
What's so different about this new, quasi- Italian place in a Fair Oaks strip mall also populated by a real estate office and a chiropractor? How has Maranello managed to elbow its way to the upper echelon of dining establishments?
The owners, Joe and Gayle Hensler, were smart enough to realize they didn't know enough. They hired a consultant to map out the X's and O's. They sought out wine guru Donal Smith, formerly of Corti Brothers, to do the wine list.
Then, horror of horrors, they placed that fateful ad on Craigslist. They might have well said they were looking for the Sacramento version of Thomas Keller, because that's what they came up with.
Glasier, 34, may turn out to be one of the finest chefs to ever grace the Sacramento-area restaurant scene.
Talented, thoughtful and ambitious, he has taken the consultant's bright ideas on paper and made Maranello one of the most exciting restaurants in the region.
When I first visited, I had no idea who was back there cooking. But I immediately knew the food was special.
Scallops as good as I've ever tasted, seasoned with a hint of nutty sweetness and perfectly cooked. A sprawling, beautifully sourced plate of cheese and charcuterie. Short-rib ravioli with deep, meaty flavor enveloped by tender, housemade pasta that had been infused with basil.
We hadn't even gotten to our main course when I heard our waiter refer to "Chef Gabe."
"Do you mean Gabriel Glasier?" I asked.
I've known about Glasier since his days running his own place, Redbud Cafe in Cameron Park. He moved on to Slocum House, took the landmark restaurant to great heights, and then left for a corporate chef's job on the East Coast.
Now he's back and better than ever.
Glasier's style, philosophy and precision are evident on every plate coming out of the kitchen.
Glasier doesn't shy from flavors his are wide-ranging, intense, exciting and richly satisfying. He doesn't take shortcuts.
Let's look at how he does it. He's combined sourcing the proper ingredients, employing appropriate techniques, being exacting about the cooking times and temperatures and, most of all, tasting and retasting throughout the evening's service.
One night, a friend and I started with two appetizers so satisfying that we could have called it a night.
The sweetbreads wrapped in bacon were an example of taking fine products and making them extraordinary. Beef sweetbreads (the culinary term for the thymus gland) have an evangelical following in Sacramento. Glasier rightly credits Waterboy's Rick Mahan for showcasing them at his midtown restaurant as the soft, creamy and delicious food they can be if handled with skill.
Glasier's sweetbreads go through a lengthy process that cannot be tweaked or tightened. They are finished in the pan and carefully seasoned. The Nueske's bacon wrapping the sweetbread was meaty and tender, and some of the finest flavor I've encountered. If that's not enough, the dish is populated with beautiful English peas bright green and fresh.
The only crime is the sweetbreads were a special and are not available daily.
The salmon rillette, another special positioned as an appetizer, was as delicious as it was clever. The salmon was served cold out of a mold, and the focal point was this amazing fat cap that looked like fondant on a cake. Turns out it was brown butter that had been simmered at length.
The result was a tour de force: Take the crostini, spoon some salmon and a portion of the solidified brown butter onto it, top it with a pinch or two of the apple salad and take a bite. That butter coats your mouth as the flavors settle amid the creaminess and crunch. The only demerit is for the crostini (thin toasts). They were not crisp enough to give the kind of crackly crunch I was seeking.
The otherwise wonderful dish got even better with the wine we washed it down with sip after sip of an excellent and affordable Italian white blend, Orvieto Antinori "Campogrande" Umbria (a bargain at $19.50 for the bottle).
Chicken. It can be clean and simple and healthful, but mostly it is the elevator music of fine dining. So it's a revelation to put this protein in ambitious hands. Glasier learned as much in culinary school 14 years ago, when his instructor told him that the way to test a chef's mettle is to try his or her soup and chicken.
We tested. Glasier's mettle floored us. I pierced the stuffed breast with my fork and it oozed with steamy, melted taleggio cheese alongside tiny cubes of pancetta that had been rendered until crispy. Just think how the mild tang of the cheese works with the pork flavor and saltiness. What's more, our chicken came to our table with a deep-brown, crisp skin at the risk of an unseemly comparison, think George Hamilton after playing 36 holes without a hat.
The hanger steak, too, was top-notch and another test of a kitchen's acumen. This is a temperamental cut that can give great flavor and tenderness or, if cooked too far beyond medium, taketh away by becoming as tough as a chew toy for a teething puppy.
There is pizza on the menu, though in the company of some of the stellar entrees and appetizers, it seems marginally out of place. I would rate the pies good but not great. The crust was a tad one-dimensional and didn't have that lean, chewy textural component and pull that distinguish the best crusts. I found a distracting hint of sweetness and the overall tenderness seemed to suggest a touch of olive oil worked into the dough to some, like me, that is a crime against nature.
The desserts are an up-and-coming component, handled by 22-year-old pastry chef Katie Pagliero. We were underwhelmed by a tiramisu that challenged tradition but without any payoff flavorwise. I liked the pistachio cheesecake but didn't taste enough pistachio. I loved the panna cotta for its refined texture and gentle tone, and the chocolate mousse was outstanding.
So what else? The service is decent and on the rise. Young and green as they are, the servers need to find their footing and, though they are clearly prepped by Glasier, they could display their knowledge while showing some restraint (a nearby server imposed his opinion about desserts on us as he walked by; our server admitted she hates vegetables).
Also, we encountered no one who could give us a serious rundown of wines that work best with the beautiful cooking. Glasier tells me that is changing ASAP. He has taken over the wine program, expanded the list and will soon conduct tutorials with the young servers that include detailed notes on pairings.
In other words, this restaurant, already very good, is only going to get better.
It is too soon to tell where it will go from here. But those who seek out great cooking would do well to keep their eye on Gabriel Glasier. Just don't expect him to answer another Craiglist ad any time soon.
8926 Sunset Ave., Fair Oaks
Hours: Dinner 4:30 to 10 p.m. daily. Last seating is at 9.
Takeout: Yes, limited menu.
Full bar: Yes.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes.
Overall: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
Open just over four months, Maranello is already a must-visit restaurant for discriminating food lovers and a comfortable place for people seeking a neighborhood place with great prices. As it matures, it could become one of the best restaurants in the Sacramento area.
Food: 4 stars (excellent)
Gabriel Glasier, just 34, is already highly regarded from his days at Redbud Cafe and Slocum House. His flavors are intense and his thinking about the food makes his combinations delicious and entertaining. Sweetbreads wrapped in bacon, chicken stuffed with taleggio and pancetta, a seafood pasta, and the short-rib ravioli were all first-rate. Credit also goes to sous chef Thomas Daily and pastry chef Katie Pagliero.
Service: 2 1/2 stars (promising)
The first time I took my golden retriever puppy to the park, he tried to chase six squirrels at once. The servers here are like that young and eager and in need of restraint. They forgot our bread once, our silverware another time and made a few comments that made us feel like baby- sitters. But they are all quality people headed in the right direction.
Ambience: 3 stars (good) The large covered patio is great for springtime dining. The main dining room is low-key and pleasant, with large windows (but no view). The bar is brighter and bolder, with many photos of fine cars. Bonus points for having three Ferraris in the parking lot one night. The hum of the engine makes beautiful music.
Value: 4 stars (excellent) Rarely have we had such great meals at such reasonable prices. Most entrees are in the teens and low 20s. Pizza and pasta are both reasonably priced. The quality throughout is outstanding. And the wine list is filled with affordable bottles.