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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can a palate be duplicitous? Can one's dining habits suffer from multiple personality disorder? Can folks sink their teeth into pulled pork, then turn around and nibble on grilled eggplant on gluten-free bread?
I think they can.
I think I did.
Those questions occurred to me as I compiled this latest installment of "First Impressions," in which I ate at and enjoyed an urban sports bar followed by a vegan joint. From (nearly) all meat to no meat, we happened upon a meet-in-the-middle midtown restaurant still working out the early-days kinks.
Is there a future for Republic (the sports bar), Baagan (the vegan eatery) and Red Rabbit (the midtown happy medium)? Let's see.
Republic Bar & Grill
908 15th St., Sacramento
We have been impressed by the curb appeal of Republic since it opened a few weeks ago. It's big and bright and nicely appointed.
Our first impression, however, was, in golf parlance, a whiff. From the sidewalk, you have to wade through a gantlet of smokers standing right outside the door. No escaping it.
I love smokers and wish them well. I just don't want to smell their exhaust. There's an alley with a Dumpster next to the building let's make it the smoking area.
Inside, UFC cage fighting was blaring on all but two TVs in the joint. Perfect. What better way to enjoy a Saturday afternoon meal than by gazing up at the 72-inch flat screen and witnessing two 136-pound dudes smash each other in the face while locked in a cage? I'm certain that's a question Craig Claiborne never had to consider.
And yet, the food is good. It's inventive. It's hearty. It's affordable. The man behind this culinary cleverness is Andrew Blaskovich, better known as Drewski, who has come to prominence over the past year as the hard-working and creative food truck vendor.
He cooks. He tweets. He relocates his food truck before the city's food cops give him a ticket. And he's hungry for more.
Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen is an example of all that's good and great about food trucks. For a small investment a nifty paint job, an oil change, air in the tires an enterprising chef can be on his way to fame or misfortune.
Blaskovich is good, he has followers, and now they can find him without keeping up with his Twitter feed. He still has the truck, but an expanded version of his menu is on offer at Republic.
After we ordered a couple of cold ones, we started with the "Captain Crunch chicken strips." I can't decide what takes more nerve, putting these on the menu or ordering them while watching cage fighting. Nevertheless, they work. Crispy and golden brown on the outside, tender on the inside. There's no sign of sweetness and you can't taste the not-exactly-slow-food ingredients like pyridoxine hydrochloride.
Even better was the "Luau quesadilla" featuring Hawaiian pork and pineapple salsa. Great use of flavors and textures.
The burgers are a handful. Once they're tweaked a tad, they're going to be really good. Everything worked except the patty it was bland and underseasoned.
The sweet potato fries had plenty of flavor, though ours may have been tossed with too much rosemary garlic.
The menu item destined for fame is the chicken & waffle sandwich. Sure, I'd like to see a bigger, better waffle, but it's waffles with fried chicken in the middle 'nuff said. And you get to dip it in an infused maple syrup that's both sweet and spicy.
It tasted amazing even as I looked up and saw some dude on the flat screen bleeding from three places on his face.
Baagan Vegan Cafe
910 Pleasant Grove Blvd., Roseville
Alas, there was no cage fighting here. No beer. No smokers outside.
This is a peaceful place. It's all about serenity and healthy food. You just have to find it in the maze of strip malls and look-alike shopping centers that is the new Roseville, and you have to get there before it closes at 7 p.m.
After trying several items on the menu, we'd happily return for more with our GPS at the ready.
The food is fresh and thoughtfully prepared. Remember when being a vegan meant you had to give up things like flavor for the sake of your ethics or health issues? That was at least 20 years ago, before books like "Laurel's Kitchen" showed us the way without meat. Being a vegan goes a big step beyond vegetarianism butter, eggs, milk are all a no-go.
Baagan isn't hard-core or judgmental. Full-time vegans will be very happy here. But there's nothing wrong with being an occasional vegan. It's a healthy choice whenever you can manage it.
The menu is small, but fret not. The special one day was the grilled eggplant sandwich. With a pesto spread and olive tapenade, it was a big winner. So was the veggie wrap, which shows off seasonal greens and fresh vegetables.
My quirky favorite was the "PB and J," which is the grown-up version of peanut butter and jelly with a hippie twist. First, it's almond butter made with sprouted almonds so they digest better. And you have a choice of jellies. I went with the kumquat jelly, which gave it a sweet but exotic aura. I got it on the optional gluten-free bread, which is made in-house. It all came together very well.
And lest you think of a sports bar and vegan eatery have nothing in common, I give you the very tasty peanut butter cup smoothie. It's made with almonds, cacao powder, coconut sugar and sea salt. And swirled to lovely effect on the inside of the cup is maple syrup mixed with raw cacao powder.
Red Rabbit Bar & Grill
2718 J St., Sacramento
This appealing work in progress has no affiliation with the giant red rodent hanging from the new airport terminal or the defunct Red Lotus that preceded this restaurant at this location.
We loved the prices (most entrees are in the mid-teens). We found the range of food offerings enlightening and entertaining, from a pork belly picatta and vegetarian spring rolls to fried egg burger and the oh-so-tender osso buco with polenta and baby carrots.
The osso buco was the best dish. Perfectly cooked, amazingly tender, and the polenta showed off how taste and texture can work in harmony. The carrots were of notable quality, too.
Problem was, by the end of our evening, we concluded the portions of the various dishes were a tad out of sync. This isn't fine dining it's fun eating. It's happy hour. It's lunch or brunch or dinner with friends. So there has to be some eye toward filling us up.
To keep the costs down, they may have shaved too much off the portions. We thought we ordered plenty, but we were still hungry when the waiter dropped off the check.
It's impressive that the osso buco is $16 and the marinated (but uninspired) salmon and spinach dinner is $15, but not if we're looking for In-N-Out Burger 90 minutes later.
Once they get that price/ portion ratio worked out starting with adding a couple more animals to the $8 lollipop plate Red Rabbit just might make it at an address that hasn't exactly been lucky for restaurants.