When Revolution Wines came to town and set up shop about seven years ago, it was an exciting even momentous occasion in local culinary circles.
Here was a fledgling urban winery, tucked away in a building accessed from an alley. It was new and urban and cool, doing its thing 90 minutes from Napa Valley in one direction and 90 minutes from Amador County's booming wine scene in the other.
The little winery grew up and out and over to S Street two years ago, in relatively spacious, splashy digs. The new location gave Revolution a chance to expand its vision, too, from a winery offering tastings and retail sales to one with a full-service bistro providing sit-down meals.
By then, its reputation had reached new heights, winning a significant award at the 2010 California State Fair wine competition for its port. It was Revolution's first port and the first time the winery pitted its wines against 2,700 others at the State Fair.
I'm not about to nominate its restaurant for a gold medal just yet, however.
The setting on S Street is lovely, the idea sound, and some of the wines are, indeed, winners, including a red blend dubbed "Celeste" and a balanced, food-friendly zinfandel.
Often, as I passed by the new location, I would think, "We really need to stop in there again. It looks so inviting."
It had been many months since we first tried the bistro, and my recent visits reminded me why we had not stopped in more often the self-imposed limitations placed on the restaurant tend to impose limitations on the dining experience.
There's not enough there there. Not yet, at least.
The menu is small, and though some of the dishes have a creative flourish or edgy underpinning, the thinking and execution don't go far enough to distinguish the cuisine.
After several meals, as tasty as some of the food may have been I began to wonder if the kitchen did more smoking and pickling than actual cooking over heat.
Revolution is up against some serious competition. The restaurant category in which it finds itself casual setting, serious food with meals under $20 is replete with bona fide heavy-hitters such as Juno's Kitchen and Selland's Market-Cafe.
Unlike those places, however, Revolution provides full table service. During one recent visit, we proceeded to order six or more dishes. I watched in admiration as our server listened without flinching or writing anything down. Was this some kind of Harry Lorayne memory trick? Or had she simply forgotten her pencil? She returned moments later to confess: She got about half of what we said.
On another visit, a server (with pencil) forgot a different fundamental to bring the check sooner than later. I eventually had to go inside from the patio and ask to pay for our food. On balance, other servers showed enthusiasm for and command of the food and wine. But sometimes the overall service scheme seemed disjointed, even confused.
Then there's the wine. You have to really dig Revolution Wines always. Except for a few beers by the bottle and soft drinks, there are no other options. That's fine at a tasting room that serves cheese and crackers and Marcona almonds, but these limitations, as much as they make sense from a winery standpoint, place a strain on restaurant customers when the list is all-Revolution, all the time.
Obviously, Revolution is in a unique predicament but a predicament nonetheless.
For a place bent on showing its wines in the best light, that, too, doesn't happen often enough at Revolution. It has a nice cheese plate, but the cheese selection doesn't work well with any of the red wines. Same with the superb bruschetta with pickled red onions. Were we warned? Steered to another wine choice? We wish.
Were there bright spots that show how good this place can be? Certainly. The plate of beautiful little heirloom tomatoes with dollops of bright-white creamy burrata cheese, crispy prosciutto with a dominant peach purée was a delight for its ability to balance the acidity of the tomatoes, the sweetness of the purée and the subtle tang of the cheese.
The BLT was also impressive, with peppery bacon and excellent heirloom tomatoes again, with a side of delicious purple potato salad. But it was still a deli-style sandwich that could have done more.
The French dip sandwich didn't work, despite a rather tasty sauce, or jus, because the roast beef was just thin strips of ordinary, not-so-tender meat.
The smoked trout was a tough one, as in, how are we supposed to eat it? Is it a sandwich? A salad? A snack set atop some bread that was way too tough?
Desserts were mixed, too. A peach crostata with honey was tasty and accurately baked, but the custard-y clafoutis with cherries was surprisingly bland and it took 30 minutes without any type of warning from our server.
Then there was the charcuterie and cheese plate. From our earliest visits to this bistro, this was what we remembered so fondly, especially the crunchy sweet-and-savory bacon brittle, made in house. Where'd it go? Out with the former chef, who we recall was expecting a baby.
The new plate is not as good and the components could best be described as dropped rather than plated. The charcuterie itself is still high quality. The bacon brittle has been replaced by housemade crackers (crispy and tasty on one visit, a tad stale on another).
Cheese, charcuterie, sandwiches, a salad or two. Here's a kitchen crying out to do more and reach higher.
We saw the potential for flair and flavor on the pasta plate even if it seemed derivative by now tagliatelle with Parmesan cream sauce, bacon and pesto, topped with a bright egg yolk, which, like the now-coveted papardelle with egg at Ella Dining Room & Bar, oozes through the dish and coats everything in its path with a modicum of creamy decadence.
But the high bar pretty much stops there and rather abruptly. Is there a seafood dish that would stack up to the likes of this pasta entree? No. Is there something with red meat that's more interesting than a drenched and drab roast beef sandwich? No.
Is there a way to have a more dynamic menu, more ambitious cooking and a more engaging way of connecting the wines with the food? Certainly.
If Revolution Wines aims a little higher, cooks a little better and shores up all the little things out front that detract from a pleasing experience, this could emerge as a bistro of some note.
It will never be revolutionary, but as this place continues to develop, let's hope its vision and aspirations take us down that path in the weeks and months ahead.
Revolution Wines Bistro
2831 S St., Sacramento
Hours: noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: wine, beer, soft drinks
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Takeout? Not recommended
Noise level? Quiet to moderate
Overall : Two stars (out of four stars)
With a charming setting, this urban winery with the rising reputation has staked its claim in the restaurant business, too. While the food has some high points, the menu could be more ambitious and sophisticated to cater to the demands of the savvy wine crowd here.
Food : Two stars
We see the potential, including an impressive pasta dish and an heirloom tomato salad that scored for its sweet and savory notes. But it's a menu dominated by sandwich options and the sandwiches simply aren't interesting enough to hold up over multiple visits. How the food works with the winery's inventory could be a more prominent part of menu planning moving forward. We enjoyed the wines, including a red blend called Celeste, the chenin blanc and zinfandel.
Service: Two 1/2 stars
Here's a service staff in need of an overall and consistent game plan. While it's charming and informed on occasion, sometimes it's disjointed and confused. Servers know the wines well and can discuss details and tasting notes with customers.
Ambience: Three stars
Great location on a corner that used to be dead. Some cool design elements with a cozy, casual vibe. The patio is shared with Temple Coffee next door. It's a pleasant place, too, except the time we sat next to a middle-aged, fixed-gear-riding hipster puffing on a clove cigarette. We're told the patio is nonsmoking, but there's no rule against poseurs.