First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at email@example.com.
Restaurants are closing and, yes, new places have opened, including a bistro in West Sacramento poised to become a destination for food lovers, a midtown bar and restaurant that already is so packed we needed two visits just to get a table, and two smaller food businesses with potentially exciting approaches one serving gelato that is so much smoother than ice cream (and lower in fat) that it may astound you, the other doing artisan doughnuts with edgy flavor combinations such as an apple- bacon fritter and a chili chocolate frosted doughnut.
They're all part of the shifting landscape that is the Sacramento-area food scene.
2155 Town Center Plaza E110, West Sacramento
The Eatery is brand new, tucked away in a shopping center in the Southport area of West Sacramento. Don't judge the place by its website, which has little more than an address and phone number. These folks are too busy cooking and serving some seriously good food.
One look at the menu and, if you're anything like us, you'll be hard-pressed to decide what you don't want. It all looks good. Mussels, a flat iron steak, chicken, steak salad, a variety of sandwiches and creative desserts.
We started with something we assumed would be simple stuffed peppers and were impressed by how good they were. Breaded and fried, they were crisp on the outside, yet delicate and delicious on the inside. The tomato bisque was nothing out of the ordinary, but it was pleasant enough.
The other small plate "starter" was exceptional: three ample pieces of pork belly that had been precisely crisped on one side. The meat was tender and decadent and full of flavor. But it was the side serving of creamy corn polenta that wowed us even more, thanks to the intense flavor and the surprising addition of what appeared to be pickled watermelon rind.
As we began our meal, we noticed we were seated next to a party of 10. That may seem like good news for a new restaurant, but we imagined it was inspiring some panic in the kitchen. At a small bistro, getting the timing right for 10 tickets when you're still working out the kinks is a huge challenge.
There was impact.
Our capable server apologized a couple of times for the wait for our main courses and informed us there was a problem with one of the appliances in the kitchen. Our chicken dinner was disappointing. The sliced dark meat was good, but the color of the breast was an odd beige and the meat was too dry. We could tell by looking at it that it wasn't going to be great and the chef should have known, too. We order chicken at good restaurants only to see what a fine chef will do with such a plain canvas.
The braised short ribs more than made up for the chicken. They were so tender and the serving so large that they soothed like a thick wool blanket on a cold, rainy night. This dish may have been a little out of position on a sweltering evening in early September, but it will be welcome once the chilly autumn nights arrive.
The wine and beer list offered a decent variety of mainstream labels; the best part was that every wine was available by the glass or by the bottle. The worst part? My glass of red wine was too warm.
The desserts showed promise, including a s'mores offering that suggested skill and creativity. But the strawberry shortcake didn't work the cake was too dry and the strawberries and cream didn't work their magic and soak into the cake.
Still, there was enough going on at The Eatery to suggest it is on its way to being a hit. Working out timing issues in the kitchen and shoring up the precision with the cooking could make this aspiring bistro a big hit in the neighborhood and well beyond.
2724 J St., Sacramento
After such a pleasant experience at The Eatery, we re-tooled our expectations for this new bar and restaurant. It's not fair to compare two places that take vastly different approaches.
Barwest is vying to be a fun place to grab a drink, hang out with friends, meet new people, watch a game and, while doing all that, enjoy a burger and some wings.
Is it all that? So far, so good.
In fact, I have been amazed by the crowds most nights, including a Thursday when we tried to get a table indoors or out front, without success. We went back the next day at an off hour and had better luck.
The service was very friendly and both our server and the dude wielding the pitcher of water were paying attention.
The burgers were surprisingly good. The competition is tough in Sacramento, which has plenty of prized burgers. Barwest's burgers have good quality beef and several nice choices. My mushroom burger got it right. The fries were so-so. The deep-fried pickles were better.
We also tried the Buffalo fries, which turned out to be a really bad idea regular fries doused in hot sauce. That makes them hot, yes, but it also makes them limp and one-dimensional in flavor a dimension that needs to disappear.
The wings were of fine quality. There was plenty of meat and plenty of heat, even if we hedged our bets and went with medium-hot. We also tried a turkey burger called "Gobblenator" and a grilled chicken breast sandwich with bacon and avocado called "The Club."
Barwest is keeping it simple. There are lots of booths, lots of TVs and a compact menu that is mostly good. So far, that formula is working wonders. Let's hope someone steps up to make a go of the place next door occupied by Red Lotus, the innovative dim sum fusion place that won plenty of admiration but didn't attract enough customers on a consistent basis to keep the doors open.
1221 19th St., Sacramento
With the opening of this place, Sacramento has the makings of a small dessert zone. Within a block of here are the excellent Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates and popular TreyBCakes. With gelato made in-house from scratch, there are plenty of options for the dessert lover.
I've been here twice already and found the gelatos to be first-rate, though I'm still trying to determine my favorite flavor the subtle and beautifully understated mascarpone or the bolder caramel latte. There are several more to try before I can give you an honest answer.
If you're tired of frozen yogurt and want something with a touch of elegance, this may be the place for you. Gelato is made with milk, not cream, so it's easier on the waistline than ice cream. Yet the texture is so smooth and creamy you'll feel like you're getting a decadent treat.
Devine Gelateria has a patio in the back, but it would do well to include seating on the sidewalk out front for folks who might stop in while walking their dogs or those who simply want to enjoy a good spot for people watching.
2226 10th St., Sacramento
Oh, the madness. The first time I came here before 9 a.m. Doughbot had sold out of doughnuts. And this was opening day two weeks ago. That might sound like a home run. It's also a bit of a disaster. It was way too early to be out of doughnuts, but it also indicated there was a serious clamoring for something new and good and different.
Doughbot is all of those things, and we could add frenetic and chaotic and a little slow. The business is owned and operated by a husband and wife in their 20s. Their early efforts indicate how earnest they are. It also shows they're not being bankrolled by fat-cat parents. There is almost no décor and the concrete floor still has the glue marks showing from the old tile.
But the doughnuts are serious. Chemical aftertaste? That's what you get from doughnut shops that take shortcuts with prepackaged fillings loaded with preservatives. There's no sign of that nonsense here. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a bag of Giusto's flour from San Francisco. I saw this premium and pricey flour as a sign of quality and an awareness that good food starts with the best ingredients.
The doughnuts are, for the most part, working out well. The bacon and apple fritter was wonderful, and the raspberry frosted donut had an actual raspberry on top. When was the last time you saw fresh fruit at a doughnut shop? Exactly.
The chili chocolate doughnut sounded exciting. I assumed it would be chocolate-y up front with a slow shift to spicy heat on the finish, the way a premium bar of chili chocolate would taste. The spiciness could barely be detected; it should be far bolder to make it worth the bother.
If you want to applaud a young couple doing things the right way without a big budget, give Doughbot a try. Yes, there are creative flavor pairings for foodies, but there also are enough sweet and accessible options for the tentative palate.