Lial Jones had taken only one bite of her Buffalo chicken salad when we interrupted her lunch at the Crocker Cafe by Supper Club.
Jones is the executive director of the Crocker Art Museum, where Matt and Yvette Woolston opened the restaurant-catering business Feb. 28.
"We're delighted they're here," Jones said. "We believe great food and great art go together."
Let's get some context: The original Crocker Cafe opened when the 125,000- square-foot, $100 million Crocker expansion was completed in October 2010. It was operated by Patrick and Bobbin Mulvaney, husband-and-wife owners of the estimable Mulvaney's B&L restaurant in Sacramento.
The Mulvaneys vacated the cafe in December because the catering side of the business hadn't met their expectations. The Woolstons replaced them in a new partnership with the museum, which includes the catering side of things.
The Woolstons are veteran restaurateurs and caterers who own Matteo's Pizza & Bistro in Carmichael. Though their Supper Club restaurant on Del Paso Boulevard is closed, the name was added to the Crocker Cafe. They will also use it when they begin hosting "pop-up" dinners around town in coming months.
Which brings us back to the cafe, whose "dining room" is actually a designated part of the massive museum atrium. It's set up with tables and chairs, and accented with artworks. One whole wall is glass, framing the original Crocker gallery across the courtyard.
My lunch pal was food blogger and recipe developer Kimberly Morales.
The cafe offers menus for table service (mushroom-Fontina cheeseburger, pork sliders) and counter service (Caesar salad, pizza), with some crossover. A third menu lists daily specials (hot salami and Brie, seared ahi).
We went inside the small cafe to order, settling on a tuna-salad sandwich from the grab 'n' go cold case, and a combo deal two cold salads (shrimp and rice, and black-eyed peas) with "mahogany" chicken, named for its dark color.
We also ordered vegan lentil-vegetable soup, three-citrus salmon and a bavette steak (a.k.a. flap steak), similar to a flank or skirt steak, but with more marbling.
We soon began. The standard-issue tuna salad on wheat bread was well chilled and topped with a crisp piece of romaine lettuce (Del Rio Farms). Though the vegan veggie soup had plenty of diced carrots and celery mingled with lentils, the broth was thin and the flavor a no-show.
"Some cumin would really help this," Morales said.
"Al dente" describes the piquant rice-shrimp and black-eyed pea salads, but "incredible" is the word for the luscious marinated and spice-rubbed mahogany chicken topped with perfectly balanced tomatillo- avocado salsa.
Steak doesn't get much better especially when a pat of blue cheese-infused butter is melting on top of the dark crust of pink peppercorn and cumin. The Angus beef was a bit beyond the medium-rare we'd ordered, but the deep flavors made up for it. Mashed potatoes were rich and light, and the broccoli raab (Ocean Mist Farms) tasted like it was just plucked (ditto for the bok choy with the salmon).
Pan-roasted line-caught salmon (Sunh Fish) was world-class, though we found the buttery citrus reduction more of a puckery distraction than a complement.
A rich square of house-made shortbread was a fit ending.
"My mantra is keep it fresh, know what you can do, and do it right," said Matt Woolston a few days before we cruised the menus ($4 to $20). "We serve seasonal food that can be done quickly, using local and sustainable ingredients. Also, I'm anxious to start doing wine-tastings and wine-and-food pairings with winemakers hosting special dinners (when the wine-beer license comes through within the next month). All of this is going to grow, but one step at a time."
Essentially, the Crocker Cafe by Supper Club is a legitimate new dining destination, not simply a museum cafe. And, no, you don't have to pay the $10 museum admission price to eat there.
What else, chef?
"We're reaching out to local businesses and have plans for a delivery service to the downtown area," he said. "We'll do some Supper Club-level dinners, maybe on Thursday nights when there's live music."
We'll be there. Meanwhile, three special exhibits at the Crocker are worth a close look: "Site 2801" (a futuristic take on Chinese terra-cotta warriors, through April 29), "Edgar Payne: The Scenic Journey" (impressionist landscape paintings, through May 6), and "Surveying Judy Chicago" (retrospective from the renowned feminist artist, through May 13).
CROCKER CAFE BY SUPPER CLUB
Where: In the Teel Family Pavilion of the Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
Hours: Same as the museum's: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays-Sundays; until 8:30 p.m. Thursdays. Closed Mondays. Using a day-permit liquor license, the cafe serves wine on Thursdays and hosts a happy hour 3-6 p.m., with special dishes and a full bar.
Food: 4 1/2 stars
Ambience: 4 stars (hey, it's in an art museum)
How much: $-$$
TWO CRITICS WALK INTO A RESTAURANT ...
Kimberly Morales joined me for this review, and wrote one of her own. She's a food blogger and recipe developer whose site, www.poorgirleatswell.com, shows "how to eat real food even if you're broke." She's a member of SacramentoConnect, the Bee's blog and community-news network.
Her review of the Crocker Cafe by Supper Club is posted at her site. Here's an excerpt:
"The big surprise for me was that day's special: mahogany chicken. While I'm a fan of chicken in my own home, it's not something I typically order in restaurants because I'm frequently disappointed. Rather than the rich, flavorful serving of dark meat I would choose, most restaurants usually offer some sort of chicken breast dish, which tends to be a dry, tasteless affair masked by a sauce or complicated side.
"The cafe's special, however, was everything a restaurant chicken breast dish should be: moist, tender and full of flavor from a nice marinade and a solid dry rub. The generous dollop of tomatillo and avocado salsa that topped the chicken served not as a cover-up, but as a delightful enhancement. It came with two sides, making it a nice value."