Big portions of good food at fair prices. We found that rare triumvirate at the 5,500-square-foot Plates Cafe in the Depot Park commercial complex.
The former Army Depot commissary is huge, yes, but it's so well put together that you really don't notice. Well, not much, anyway.
Plates is a restaurant, yes, but it's also an "employment-learning program" run by the St. John's Shelter for Women and Children. It opened 18 months ago as a teaching ground for homeless mothers, who learn the basics of the culinary and hospitality industries.
The program trains 25 women at a time in various restaurant positions dishwasher, cashier, prep cook, line cook, baker, server, hostess and the like. The current sous chef is a graduate of the program.
"These women are homeless, but not helpless, and we give them a pathway," said executive director Michele Steeb. "Of the 17 who have (graduated), 14 were placed in jobs."
Though off-site catering is the majority of the business, "we can open the restaurant for special events at any time, and seat 300," she said.
Plates seated 215 diners on Nov. 3, when restaurateur-chef Randall Selland (The Kitchen, Ella) teamed with Spoto Napa Valley Wines and cooked on Guest Chef Night. The charge is $45 a person for family-style dining on the first Thursday of each month, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Coming Dec. 1 are the Red Hot Mamas and Rail Bridge Cellars.
The day we visited, staff members in the front of the house were smiling and relaxed, but focused and on task. The menu offers salads, sandwiches, hot entrees, sides and from-scratch baked goods ($3 to $9.75). The cookies and cheddar-jalepeño biscuits were terrific.
There's also a $5 weekly lunch special, like this: "Warm spinach salad with smoked bacon, hard-boiled egg, red onion, garlic croutons and balsamic vinaigrette."
We also tasted the soup du jour, a deep bowl of steaming-hot potato and white cheddar cheese topped with a white truffle oil float and chopped parsley ($5).
Our bowl of spinach fettuccine was mixed with fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, corn kernels, goat cheese, chili flakes and house-made basil-walnut pesto ($8). The from-scratch fresh pasta is handmade by Susan Korec of Sacramento, a.k.a. the Pasta Queen (www.thepastaqueen.com). Korec maintains a Pasta Queen kiosk at Plates. Her pasta and sauces also are sold at area farmers markets, Mama Ann's deli in El Dorado Hills and the Placerville Co-op.
WHERE: 14 Business Park Way (off Fruitridge Road) in Depot Park, south Sacramento
HOURS: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
FOOD: 2 1/2 stars
AMBIENCE: 2 1/2 stars
HOW MUCH: $
INFORMATION: (916) 381-2233, www.eatatplates.com
SOME OF THIS BRUNCH SUBLIME
We followed the smoky smell of cooked bacon from the parking lot into the main dining room of Maranello restaurant Sunday.
A server passed by, balancing two platters heaped with what looked like giant pieces of chicken covered in gravy.
We consulted our menus: "Southern-fried chicken breast, buttermilk biscuit, pork sausage gravy, two eggs any style, house potatoes." Added was the comment, "Of course, no Fair Oaks chickens were harmed," a reference to the free-roaming poultry population of the town.
We were there to sample Maranello's new breakfast-brunch, along with about 50 other like-minded diners. Executive chef Gabriel Glasier and his crew worked the kitchen, turning out waffles and pancakes, omelets and "comfort food" dishes that included maple-cured pork loin with potato pancakes ($6.75 to $12.95).
Years ago, Glasier opened and owned Redbud Cafe & Wine Bar in Cameron Park. Later, he was executive chef at Slocum House, a Fair Oaks landmark that closed in March.
We crowded our table with fat link sausages, deeply flavored bacon (crisper, please), a hazelnut buttermilk waffle with maple syrup (more bits of hazelnut, please) and chunky, tender corned-beef hash made from a bottom-round cut instead of the more traditional yet tougher brisket.
"I would come back just for this," said one brunch pal. Everyone nodded.
The show-stopper was the daily special two thick patties of crab and rock shrimp mixed with chopped capers, garlic, lemon and dill, bound with housemade mayonnaise. They were topped with roasted tomato hollandaise and two perfectly poached eggs.
"If there's one word for this, it's 'sublime,' " said a second brunch pal, and we all nodded again.
WHERE: 8928 Sunset Ave., Fair Oaks
HOURS: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. for Sunday breakfast-brunch
FOOD: 3 1/2 stars (for Sunday breakfast-brunch)
AMBIENCE: 2 1/2 stars
HOW MUCH: $-$$
INFORMATION: (916) 241-9365, www.maranellorestaurant.com
FABIAN'S BUMPS UP SERVICE
One of our favorite restaurants, Fabian's Italian Bistro, has a big change coming Tuesday full table service at dinner.
The scenario at the family-run business has been counter service for lunch and dinner since opening day in January. You know stand in line, order at the counter from the menu board, pay, find a table and await delivery.
"We'll keep the counter service during lunch because people like to get in and out quickly," said co-owner Christian Forte (with wife Mercedes). "But at dinner we'll switch to full service, which came at the request of our customers."
Also, look for more daily specials and changes to the permanent menu, as executive chef Tom Patterson introduces new dishes for the cool months ahead (chicken picatta is tops). Sunday brunch on the patio will return on Easter Sunday.
Fabian's Italian Bistro, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 11755 Fair Oaks. Blvd. in the Almond Orchard Center, Fair Oaks; (916) 536-9891.