Blair Anthony Robertson

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First Impressions: Indian food in Davis, a midtown spot reclaimed

Published: Sunday, May. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6AANDE
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 22, 2014 - 9:23 pm

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 brobertson@sacbee.com.

We're taking a look at three new places, each with its own kind of appeal. One makes excellent baguettes and elegant sandwiches. One is already bringing plenty of excitement to a formerly under-producing California Pizza Kitchen, and one stylish little place in Davis served us some of the best Indian food in memory.

Zindagi Indian Bistro

213 E St., Davis

Every once in awhile, I get to visit a new spot, taste the food and immediately realize I'm onto something special.

That happened just the other night at this new and promising spot in a town with plenty of decent ethnic cooking.

Its small, modern and comfortable interior suggests quality and sophistication. The food, however, says so much more.

Two words you must remember: papri chaat. This little appetizer is just $5, but it packs so much "wow factor" and complexity. It's made with chips, potatoes, garbanzo beans, chilies, yogurt and tamarind chutney – all that served in eight bite-sized pieces.

The textures are crunchy and then velvety on the finish, and the flavors are so soothing and thorough that I didn't want the dish to end. Would it be wrong to follow an appetizer with the same appetizer? It was one of the most enjoyable dishes I've had in recent memory, paired with a nice glass of German riesling.

How do you top that? You bring out the naan bread, which also was perfect – pillowy soft, pleasing to the eye, full of flavor and with just the right amount of tender chewiness.

Then came the main dishes, one of which was vegetarian (like the appetizer). I'm referring to an eggplant dish called "Bengan Bertha," which is made in a clay tandoor oven. Tender, complex, perfectly balanced – it made me think I might have stumbled upon my new favorite place for Indian food.

The chicken tikka masala is always a good test – and this version didn't disappoint. Not only did the tomato-based sauce have the telltale creaminess and luxurious mouthfeel, but there was an added dimension of lively but balanced spiciness.

We left with more questions than answers. Which was our favorite dish? Impossible to say. When will we be back? Very soon. And who is the maestro in the kitchen? Stay tuned for that one as we delve into the menu more thoroughly in the months to come.

Firestone Public House

(1132 16th St., Sacramento)

Midtown Sacramento didn't really embrace California Pizza Kitchen, best known around the country as a decent bet when you visit a mall. CPK is a chain, and unless your name is Chipotle, chains don't really thrive in midtown/downtown.

We've been waiting and watching as the much- anticipated successor, the locally owned Firestone Public House, took shape. It's a partnership between the folks behind de Vere's Irish Pub and Mix Downtown (and the nearby Cafeteria 15L).

It's no surprise that success has been instantaneous. This is one of the most visible and striking restaurant spaces going, and it was underutilized as a pizza chain.

Now it's a public house, whatever that means. Let's see: lots of TVs, lots of good beer, an eclectic menu and, at least so far, sort of a chain-y feel to the whole concept.

The personality and the purpose clearly are works in progress, beginning with a design motif centered around the lowly keg – lots and lots of cold, impersonal kegs, dinged and dented, masquerading as décor, apparently drawn up by someone masquerading as an interior designer. Kegs in the front windows. Kegs hoisted and stacked overhead. Yikes!

Fortunately, there is plenty to like about this place. The energy is wonderful, the employees are friendly, the food seems promising and the prices are reasonable.

We really liked the traditional take on fish and chips ($14.95) and the thick, tender pork chop ($18.95) with ultra-creamy mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus with cherry tomatoes, sautéed and sweet, scattered atop the slab of meat.

How could we describe the pulled pork nachos? Big and bland and in need of a do-over. As for the pizzas, it's too soon for a verdict, but so far, we're talking about a poor man's version of California Pizza Kitchen. If you're going to succeed as a chain pizzeria, you have to offer better pizza – or no pizza. Inheriting a pizza oven is not a good enough reason to impose so-so pizza on your customers.

Firestone also is open for lunch and Sunday brunch. The crowd will figure out what and who it wants to be in the weeks ahead. Will it be sports fans? Happy hour business folks? Pizza lovers? Will it grow into a destination for food and drinks?

Or will the crowd include the two dudes who parked what I assume are salvage- title Ferraris out front on the night I was there and then stood around smoking?

Something tells me Firestone Public House, notwithstanding its keg-centric decorating scheme, wants to be better than that.

Les Baux

5090 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento

I wonder if the person who helped develop the sandwiches here has the same aversion to lively flavors as the creator of the pulled pork nachos above.

The most important element of food is flavor, followed closely by texture. A couple of our sandwiches at Les Baux, elegant as they may be with perfectly baked baguettes, were simply too subtle for their own good.

The tri-tip sandwich with caramelized onions was our favorite, though two others – shaved ham with Gruyere cheese and a pork offering called "Saigonaise" – simply lacked enough pop when it came to flavor. The ham could have used more help, like mustard or maybe cornichons. The pork looked like a banh mi but lacked any of the spice. Sandwiches in east Sacramento have to compete with the often amazing sandwiches at Corti Brothers just up the street. These need to get better very quickly.

The potato leek soup was excellent – creamy texture with deep, nuanced flavors.

The bread, baked in house, can be very good, with just enough crispy crust, appropriate color and tender crumb. Les Baux offers other breads sold by the loaf, including a country white boule (that also could have had more flavor) and a beautiful dark rye I really liked.

Pastries have a touch of elegance, including a cinnamon roll and chocolate croissant (pain chocolat).

Les Buax is serious about coffee, making each cup to order using the "pour over" method. Good coffee takes time, so if you want your "tall" coffee pronto, this is not for you.

The setting is large and rather stylish, with a mix of modern lines and rustic warmth. It's a nice long room with good flow and light.

The hours are a challenge – 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.– meaning plenty of people will pull on the front door and be disappointed – especially when you don't have a website up and running yet.

Is it a coffee house? A sandwich spot? A destination bakery? A neighborhood hangout? We're hoping for a better idea of what it wants to be in the months ahead.

If they nail their sense of purpose and find a way to showcase flavors with those wonderful textures, Les Baux might be a special place someday.

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