Faced with the realities of limited space in the newspaper, I had no choice but to hold back some of the many details about Enotria in my review, which ran Sunday. Owner David Hardie enlisted the help of restaurant consultant Kathi Riley, along with general manager Michael Coyne II and dining room manager Emily Turner have done a remarkable job over the past year in taking Enotria to new heights. In fact, Riley has quickly become something of an under-the-radar restaurant wizard. She was the consultant at Maranello in Fair Oaks, helping bring aboard the Gabriel Glazier, an excellent chef looking to get back into a Sacramento area kitchen after doing some corporate cheffing on the East Coast. Riley also played a key role in the recent hiring of Pajo Bruich to head the kitchen at Enotria. With these two homeruns alone she has become a significant player in the local restaurant scene. And yet, she's not a big self-promoter. She doesn't have a website (though I'm told one is being developed) and you have to know somebody who knows somebody just to get in touch with her. Can't wait to see what she comes up with next.
While my review sought to capture the essence of the tremendous food and wine experiences available at Enotria, I was unable to go into as much detail as many of our serious foodie readers would like. In the blog format, we're not killing trees and we're not as confined by space limitations. So here goes. By the way, the menu will soon be changing, with a wider range of options, courses and price points.
First, we'll start with some of elements of Bruich's finest dishes and his thoughts on creating a menu that is at once challenging and accommodating, accessible yet adventurous. Some of his dishes, like the pork belly, started out as one thing and, when that didn't work, became something else. In fact, Bruich says the original idea for the pork belly dish with pickled peaches was to do something highlighting a bacon custard, only to realize it didn't have enough substance to hold up as a full course in a dinner setting. So he went from there.
The squid dish (picture above) is a tour de force of modern technique, simple-seeming textures derived in very complex ways and an overall sense of plunging your palate into the heart of the sea. Our server on the night we ordered this dish, by the way, was able to walk us through the ingredients and cooking techniques as if she had made it herself. I believe it's about a three-day process. Bruich's kitchen begins by pureeing squid with squid ink. I know what some of you are saying: that's just weird. And others: that's just gross. But wait. The puree becomes a paste that is mixed with tapioca flour to make a dough, which is placed in Cryovac bags (those airtight clear plastic bags now commonly associated with sous vide cooking), rolled thin, then steamed to set the proteins in the squid. The cooked dough is then cut into shapes and dehydrated. When the order goes into the kitchen during dinner service, the squid pieces are deep-fried, creating a wonderfully puffed up texture that is at once crunchy and chewy; they looked like chicharones. Elements and flavors of the sea continue throughout, with salmon roe, crème fraiche and a kimchi with a deep fermented flavor note.
Now, how does one go about finding a wine for a complex and elusive dish like the squid? It was a significant challenge, but a welcome one, for the excellent sommelier Matthew Lewis, who powered through all 32 wines by the glass at Enotria, plus three dessert wines, looking for something - anything - that would work. There is a great spectrum of flavors and textures in each bite, from the outer crispiness of the deep-fried squid to the creaminess of the crème fraiche and the salmon roe; it's salty and smoky; it tastes of bacon and kelp, among other things. Then Lewis went in a different direction, and began trying the dish with sake. Here's where Enotria has so much potential. Bruich's food can be challenging, and in this wine-focused setting, Lewis is certainly up for the challenge of making the wine complement the food in memorable ways.
Take the mushroom dish.
"Working with this food has been really interesting to me, really challenging. They're certainly some of the most counterintuitive pairings I've ever put together, meaning that when I looked over the menu and saw 'mushroom,' I thought to myself, 'OK, well, we're going to do a Pinot Noir.' Tasting it with Pinot, I realized that's absolutely wrong and not the right way to go. We eventually ended up pairing the mushroom dish with a Sancerre (Reverdy-Ducroux Beau Roy). It has a little earthiness, a little hoppiness, almost like what you would find in a beer, but it also has that incredibly tart acidity and minerality that is Sauvignon blanc from that particular region of France," Lewis said. "There's a pineapple fluid gel in the bottom of that dish and the wine really makes it pop, really brings it to the forefront in a way that might have otherwise gone unnoticed."
When it comes to the steak tartare dish (above) Bruich didn't want to do an ordinary take on this classic and Lewis didn't want to do a predictable pairing. What we end up with is a tremendous melding of food and wine in which each, like a happily married couple, highlights the personality traits of the other. This is a dish you really have to see. It arrives on the plate and it resembles what might be a seafood course, as it is covered with a caper relish and topped with these rather mysterious frozen pearls of mustard and yogurt made with liquid nitrogen. Those are some unusual flavor notes for Lewis to address in his pairing. He went with a Cabernet Franc (Domaine Richou Les 4 Chemins Anjou, which was one of my favorites during my recent visits to Enotria.
"I adore Cab Franc from the Loire Valley that is distinctly French, meaning it has a nose that not every California wine drinker likes; it definitely presents of tobacco, of cigar, of leather, savory spices like sage and cumin with a nice bright red fruit core to it," Lewis said. "I think this wine is so charismatic...The beef tartar is really representative of Pajo's food in that the dish is so full of rustic, charming flavors just like the wine but presented in a completely novel way. You have stone-ground mustard, you have horseradish. But the mustard has been frozen into a sorbet and shaped into Dippin' Dots, and the horseradish is freeze-dried so it melts in your mouth."
Then there's Edward Martinez, the pastry chef who recently left a starring role at Hawks in Granite Bay to join Bruich at Enotria and start dreaming up some impressively cutting-edge creations. He's also handling the bread program, which features individual-sized boules of pretzel bread, pain au lait and bacon challah. The breads remind me of what they're doing at Michelin one-star Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, only there the breads are trickled out one at a time throughout dinner, almost like a playful interlude between courses. At Enotria, the breads are served all at once in an attractive metal holder. I was curious about the pretzel bread. Turns out, Martinez is poaching the dough in beer. Right now, it's the high-end (and pricy) Allagash, "but I'm still trying to figure out the right beer. I want a more malty flavor," Martinez said.
After poaching, the bread is baked at 375F in a convection oven. The flour is a high-protein bread flour from Giusto's, the kind you might use for making chewy bagels.
"There's quite a bit of chew on it," Martinez said of the pretzel bread. "I like the chewiness, but it has a nice soft center." The bread is topped with Maldon sea salt.
Butter? It's not ordinary either. Martinez churns the butter, beginning with fresh cream and goats milk, then adding maple syrup and fleur de sel. It's a delicious for the bread - and the bread is so good it almost deserves its own wine pairing, though Lynn and I did quite well eating it with our flights of Champagne and Riesling.
Though the four-course dinner with wine pairings (or the soon to be launched seven-course option) is plenty of food, I recommend that serious food lovers try the charcuterie and cheese plate, either prior to the start of dinner or on a separate visit to the wine bar. It is a tremendous accomplishment in its own right, including pork jowl, duck prosciutto and a delicious lardo flavored with a sweet and sour sherry gastrique and fleur de sel.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.