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  • Allen Pierleoni

    Skinny fries and a rib-eye steak fill a plate at the Sutter Club.

  • Allen Pierleoni / apierleoni@sacbee.com

    Visitors to the Sutter Club's Grill Room can rest their eyes on a landscape by Gregory Kondos.

Counter Culture: The exclusive Sutter Club

Published: Friday, Sep. 7, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 33TICKET
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012 - 9:25 am

It being an election year, this column has tried for months to wrangle an invitation to dine at the White House and run a review. How come they don't return phone calls?

We did find some recent White House menus online, though, for a vicarious sampling. Starters have included lobster ravioli and pear with goat cheese. Entrees have run from dry-aged rib-eye steak and tuna tartare to bratwurst and chicken wings.

Average citizens won't be having lunch with the president any time soon. For that matter, they likely will never sit down at a table inside the exclusive Sutter Club here in Sacramento, either. However, I got a lunch invite to do just that.

So come along on a mini-tour of the iconic social club, which opened in 1889. It was named after California pioneer John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who completed building Sutter's Fort in the early 1840s. The club's motto: "Where history meets the present."

"Other names for the club were proposed," said my host, Tim Comstock, parking his 1998 Cadillac d'Elegance convertible ("It belonged to my dad") in the club-owned parking garage next door. "The Argo Club, the Argonaut Club, the Cosmopolitan Club. … It's not a business club. Its purpose is to provide a gracious social ambience for its members, (many of whom) are women."

Comstock is a fifth-generation Sacramentan and a 30-year member and past president of the Sutter Club. He wrote its centennial tribute book and is the author of the murder mystery "Reunion in Carmel" (AuthorHouse, $28, 252 pages).

"This is one of the few remaining places in America where I feel relatively young," he joked as we walked inside.

The classic four-story building was completed in 1930 and is a dramatic showplace of 20-foot wood-beam ceilings, hardwood and tile floors, framed vintage photos, dark wood paneling, grand staircases, wall-hung tapestries, stone fireplaces, antique furniture, two grand pianos and glowing lamps and sconces.

Museum-quality paintings are hung throughout. On one foyer wall is a huge oil titled "Cleopatra" by San Jose artist A.D.M. Cooper (1901). It once was owned by the late Newton Cope, a legendary man-about-town who built the Firehouse restaurant in Old Sacramento.

In the Library Room is the oil "Shoshone Falls, Idaho" by William Franklin Jackson.

"He painted it in the mid-1890s," Comstock said. "The club wanted to buy it but couldn't afford the $250, and Jackson couldn't sell it for less. So they gave him a membership and $200. Jackson went on to become one of the great Western artists."

In the neighboring Card Room, a group of highly animated men sat around a table, playing … what? High-stakes hold 'em or five-card draw, hundred-dollar bills flying everywhere? Well, no, it was dominoes.

The Bar/Club Room Lounge is like a movie set from a 1940s melodrama. The front and back bars are of aged dark wood, dominated by a gigantic mural created by artist Stephanie Taylor for the club's centennial. Among the crowd of people eating and drinking in the mural are some familiar personages, including Charles McClatchy, John Sutter, Hiram Johnson, William Land and Ronald Reagan.

Two restaurants serve members and their guests – the "less formal" Grill Room and the "formal" California Room. Regularly scheduled special dinners (often with guest speakers) are held in the California Room, including the recent Endless Summer Beer Dinner.

But don't think a nonstop revel goes on behind those closed-to-the-public doors. The club has become more family-friendly over the past 20 or so years, Comstock said, mentioning its back-to-school family bingo night.

It was time for lunch. On the way to the Grill Room we spotted an elevator with wood doors and an 8-foot-tall grandfather clock. Down the hall was a 9-foot-tall, 21-foot-long wood and glass display case filled with River Cats memorabilia (exhibits rotate every six weeks or so).

We sat in a booth inside the dining room and looked around. Huge windows, polished brass, dark wood, high ceilings, six wrought-iron chandeliers, impeccable service. For grandeur and class, few destination restaurants can match either dining room.

On a nearby wall was a spectacular painting by Sacramento artist Gregory Kondos. "He did it for us more than 20 years ago, and the price was extremely low," Comstock said. "He's wanted to buy it back several times, but …"

The Grill Room lunch menu ($5 to $17) shows salads (Cobb, crab Louie), sandwiches (Dungeness crab melt, clubhouse) and entrees (chicken schnitzel, corned beef hash and eggs).

Of more interest were the seafood items (bluenose sea bass, petrale sole and rarely seen scalone steak, a marriage of abalone and scallops) and the daily specials (pulled lamb, smoked salmon scrambled with tomato-caper-red onion salad, grilled Angus rib-eye steak).

We started with cups of split pea and bacon soup (lush flavors), a scoop of "the best" tuna salad (fresh and crunchy, slightly vinegar-y), well-marbled grilled rib-eye (equal to those served at upscale steakhouses) and a New York steak sandwich on ciabatta (a delicious handful). The skinny french fries were crisp and addictive. On the dessert menu was a Henry Weinhard's root-beer float.

Over coffee, I asked Comstock where the 800-strong club membership comes from.

"Much of it is from the legal side, accounting, real estate, construction and agriculture," he said. "There's not a lot of industry in Sacramento to have captains from. The club is very apolitical and has never actively reached out to politicians, though every governor has been an honorary member."

What's the club's attraction for him? "It's just a very nice respite from the rest of your life."

Later, I talked with executive chef Jack Kalustian, who arrived at the Sutter Club 12 years ago from the Newport Harbor Yacht Club.

"(The kitchen) has to go in many directions at the same time to accommodate our membership," he said. "We have to be far more versatile than any free-standing restaurant.

"We serve typical (dishes) in the Grill Room, but last night we did an Argentinian-themed dinner for 130 people (in the California Room). It was like putting on a show."

Hmmm. For a show of a different kind, perhaps the Sutter Club would consider hosting the president and his entourage for dinner. What would the menu look like for that one?

The Sutter Club is at 1220 Ninth St. (at Capitol Mall), but don't bother knocking. More information: www.sutterclub.org.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Allen Pierleoni



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