Everyone's searching for excellent food at bargain prices, and that's what the Oak Cafe delivers. It's the student-run restaurant on the American River College campus, and what comes from its kitchen is as good as the fare at many high-end dining spots. That's saying a lot, but it's true. And get this: Lunch is only $15.
We sat at a patio table outside the 40-seat restaurant and near the bakery (stromboli, quiche, panini). Two three-course prix fixe menus were on offer, and we sampled both.
"How can they manage this at the price?" asked lunch pal Ed Kumasaki, surveying our dish-crowded table and cutting into a perfectly cooked pan-seared skirt steak.
"The culinary students are unsalaried, so the overhead is lower than at conventional restaurants," noted lunch pal Bruce Parks, who runs the online bakery www.tartsandtruffles.com. He was disassembling a succulent chunk of grilled sturgeon.
Meanwhile, I demolished a bowl of silken tomato soup a gazpacho, really garnished with a fragile, crisp squash blossom artfully stuffed with herbed cheese and olives. Next was a ramekin of rich ratatouille, the eggplant-based dish with tomato, onion and garlic.
The boss dropped by our table. Brian Knirk is the department chairman of ARC's Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Program, a two-year course.
Are his graduates finding jobs? "Yes, for example at Ella, Grange, Waterboy and Biba," he said. "Others are in the prepared-foods areas of Taylor's, Selland's, Nugget and Whole Foods markets. One recent graduate started Tuesday in the pastry department at the (Michelin star-holding) Gary Danko restaurant in San Francisco."
Note that prominent chef Billy Zoellin is a graduate of the program. He segued from Mulvaney's to the Golden Bear and is now the chef-owner of Bacon & Butter in midtown. Oh, and one more alumnus: celebrity chef and Food Network show host Guy Fieri.
Here's how it goes at the Oak Cafe: The 400 or so students enrolled in the program work under the supervision of their chef-teachers and are responsible for all aspects of the restaurant's operation, from ordering inventory and prepping it to cooking the food and serving it. Everything is made from scratch; the menu changes weekly and offers a wide range of cuisines and cooking methods.
Teresa Urkofsky is the faculty instructor who develops the diverse menus, but the production is a team effort. For instance, Judy Parks teaches baking, aided by instructional assistant Trudy O'Brien, and James Chavez manages the kitchen.
"We have an interest in sustainability and local sourcing, and we work within the guidelines of the Seafood Watch program," Urkofsky said.
The cafe operates in sync with school semesters, and serves lunch only on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays certain months of the year.
This year's remaining themed menus involve a cornucopia of good-sounding dishes, including pork tenderloin with biscuits and gravy (today's the last day of that rotation); chicken curry (Oct. 3-5); wild mushrooms and pan-fried trout (Oct. 10-12); spareribs (Oct. 17-19); and braised short ribs (Oct. 24-26).
After that come weeks of "tasting finals."
"For those meals, the students do the menu planning," Knirk said. "One week might be Italian, another might be French."
That series of lunches will be Wednesdays through Fridays beginning with the Oct. 31-Nov. 2 cycle and will continue each week through Dec. 7 (excluding Thanksgiving week). The lunch program will resume Feb. 7-9.
The big news for the Oak Cafe operation is a major expansion from 3,000 square feet to 16,000 square feet. Groundbreaking is set for May or June 2013, with the grand opening planned for January 2015.
We finished lunch with a chocolate-blackberry ice cream "sandwich" and a peach tart dolloped with cinnamon-dusted whipped cream.
On the way out, we took a quick tour of the kitchen and the adjoining teaching laboratory, which functions as a prep area. We counted 40-some students and teachers dressed in white chef attire, in a scenario of controlled chaos.
Do too many cooks spoil the broth?
Certainly not in this case.
Party time in Stateline
Harrah's and Harveys in Stateline, Nev., at Lake Tahoe certainly know how to throw a party. The proof is in the hotel-casinos' Lake Tahoe Food and Wine Festival, over the top in a good way. Now plans are set for the third annual soiree, Oct. 5-7, which judging by the lineup of events, celebrity chefs and wine experts looks like more of the same.
Bet on a long list of food-and-wine pairings and tastings, themed dinners, cooking demonstrations, panel discussions and seminars. Among the highlights will be "Around the World With Pinot Noir and Chardonnay," "Sushi, Sashimi and Sake Tasting" and "Decadent Desserts and Drinks."
Taking starring roles will be the Food Network's "Chopped" champion, Michael Gowland; celebrity chef Nathan Lyon, host of PBS' "Growing a Greener World"; Mark Estee, executive chef of the four-star Campo restaurant in Reno; and Caymus Vineyards founder Chuck Wagner.
The centerpiece of the festival will be the Epicurean Expo in Harrah's special-events center. Top chefs from Harrah's properties around the nation will gather to prepare their specialties. Fine wines from Napa Valley (and beyond) will be poured, and interactive entertainment will be nonstop.
To buy tickets and for more information: www.ltfoodandwine.com.
Where: American River College, 4700 College Oak Blvd., Room 506, Sacramento
Hours: Lunch seatings are 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Reservations required.
Food: 4 stars
Ambience: 3 stars
How much: $$
Information: (916) 484-8526, www.arc.losrios.edu/chef