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.
In our latest installment of First Impressions, we're taking a look at two entirely different places. One is a hotly anticipated restaurant that just opened downtown, the other a new venture in the Arden-Arcade area. Glitches, misunderstandings, a broken computer system, a missing chef let's get this party started.
Blackbird Kitchen & Bar
1015 Ninth St., Sacramento
This new and cool downtown restaurant wasn't exactly holding up to the heat when we showed up.
The idea here is seafood, artisan cocktails, a clever wine list with plenty of international offerings, an emphasis on cool music, an urban vibe and lots of artistic touches, from the mural out front to the décor inside, with all its muted tones.
So we were eager. It was a Friday. It was crowded. When a host finally stepped to the front of the restaurant, his face was ashen, his eyes as wide as bottle caps, and his expression very nearly said, "Someone has been bludgeoned to death please help."
No one, alas, dropped dead during the unveiling of Blackbird. But the restaurant's computer system went kaput. The ensuing kerfuffle was pretty much a disaster.
We were all informed that it would be cash only and that everything would have to be done the old-fashioned way, including the panicking. The wait for dinner would be at least an hour.
We had neither cash nor patience. So we bailed.
Next day, we called Blackbird, asked about the hours, were told they opened at 4 p.m., that happy hour lasted until 6:30. So we showed up at 5:30 and tugged on the doors. Picture Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate."
Darn, I hate when the employee who answers the phone doesn't realize what day it is. It was Saturday. Why would there be a happy hour on Saturday? Exactly. They opened at 6.
Among the confusion, we got the sense that this was an ambitious new restaurant that shouldn't have opened quite so soon. The chef-owner, Carina Lampkin, concedes as much.
We also detected talent amid the chaos, along with enough foresight, savvy, style and elegance to think this might work and work well if it all comes together.
And above all else, we had excellent service from a waiter who was poised and knowledgeable, going about his business as if everything around him wasn't on fire.
If the kitchen continues to create the kind of beautiful food we enjoyed, Blackbird might need a double-barreled super-computer to keep up with the demand.
Seafood is the focus here, raw and cooked. Our piece of arctic char was a splendid thing rich in texture, perfectly prepared, and with a seared skin that was crisp and mildly smoky and delicious. To do fish that way shows class.
The arctic char, nestled at an angle in the middle of the plate atop romanesco, came surrounded by a delicately flavored foam. This modernist touch gave the plate a pleasing visual and textural component that worked with the thick, meaty tenderness of the fish. The romanesco was not as successful. It was under-seasoned and a touch bland.
At first glance, our large salad of beets and lobster smothered with greens seemed all arms and elbows big and gangly. While the beets seemed too large to be handled without a knife, they were perfectly prepared tender yet still firm and full of flavor, working nicely with the lobster and burrata. With a few tweaks, this will be a salad with plenty to crow about.
Two soups and both were good an asparagus that, thankfully, tasted like asparagus, and a chowder with mussels that had that smoky goodness but lacked the thick, rustic creamy mouthfeel we might have expected. It was slightly watery but still flavorful.
Desserts? Oh no. Maybe we weren't supposed to notice. There was but a single offering a chocolate pudding. Was this a fashionable new restaurant or a hospital cafeteria? Nevertheless, not bad.
But this is no longer a friends-and-family soft opening. This is the high-stakes real thing. Desserts need to happen here and in a hurry.
The limited menu is filling out slowly, with plans to open maybe for lunch when everything is up to speed. That could be May. It could be 2014.
So far, the place is full of potential, though Blackbird will have to show it can handle adversity, swarming crowds and a more extensive menu before we'll know for certain if this restaurant is as serious and as promising as it appears.
The Farmer's Daughter 3405 El Camino Ave., Sacramento
We got a table without a wait and the computer system here worked just fine. But food? It's complicated.
We were told by the man who greeted us that, ahem, due to a "snafu" in the kitchen, the offerings would be limited.
Hey, I do this for a living, so even though "snafu" suggested something horrible, I was going to eat whatever came out of the kitchen. For aspiring restaurateurs or would-be wordsmiths out there, however, it's probably best not to suggest that your customers will be risking their lives by ordering your food. I might have gone with "scheduling mix-up" over "snafu" because it turns out the chef was a no-show.
Assuming he or she shows by press time, your experience may differ from ours. Our first impression: weird. Our second impression: wacky. The décor is clunky and awkward, and the concept is more dazed and confused than a Maloof brother looking at a term sheet.
The idea is, seemingly, organic offerings soups, sandwiches and entrees like osso bucco or beef Burgundy, with a health food component on the side. There were two beverages bottled water and coconut kefir. The place roasts its own coffee. Why? I have no clue.
Then there is the holistic healing side of things you can get treatment for what ails you. The treatment includes magnets, acupuncture and, well, other stuff. None of these treatments is guaranteed to get your chef to actually show up for work.
I had two soups, three sandwiches and took a pass on the magnets and needles. The sandwiches were actually pretty good, if not a bit straightforward and dull, like what you had when you visited grandma. The turkey and roast beef were high quality, and the vegetarian sandwich was the best with plenty of flavor, a touch of sweetness from the roasted eggplant, and a nice mix of textures.
The soups worked, too, a mushroom and a chowder. I kept hearing the phrase "snafu in the kitchen" as I tasted, which may have left an off-taste on my beleagured palate.
If you are into weird encounters with or without food, this may be your kind of place. But I would suggest the Farmer's Daughter zero in on what it really wants to do, get a reliable chef and more food for us to love.
Short of that, find someone with a more precise vocabulary to explain what in the world is going on here.