Paul Martin's American Bistro talks a good game and is very sure of itself, which tells us it hasn't taken a close look at the competition.
The fact that the restaurant is routinely crowded suggests that the competition isn't close by.
When we called to make reservations for dinner, the person who answered the phone asked if we were celebrating a special occasion. When we arrived for dinner, our intense/perky server asked if we had been there before. When we shrugged and shook our heads, she looked at us as if we were undernourished, deprived philistines. We sensed a carefully scripted sales pitch coming.
Wide-eyed and a tad rehearsed, she went on to give us a rundown of the whole Paul Martin's approach to food. Riveting stuff: They get their fruit and vegetables from farms; some of those farms are nearby, even if none of them rang a bell; some of the food is organic; the meat is cut by hand, not by lousy machines that don't do a good job of cutting stuff; nearly everything is made in-house.
She hadn't even finished talking, and already Paul Martin's American Bistro was our favorite restaurant of all time. Special occasion? This was the special occasion.
There was just one problem it was mostly talk.
What, for instance, is an "American bistro?" A regular bistro is usually a family-run operation where the chef or the chef's family takes your order, makes you feel at home. The food is often earnest, interesting and pretty tasty.
An "American bistro," I have come to conclude, is something that comes out of one of those marketing brainstorming sessions. It sounds cool. "Paul Martin's" may be the creation of Paul Martin Fleming of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, but there's nothing personal or familial about this American bistro. "Paul Martin's" is now a registered trademark.
One recurring lesson here is that local, sustainable and organic are not synonyms for "flavor." Farm to table is one thing, but it's not an excuse to stop creating and cooking. With several dishes we tried during our visits here, the operative word was underwhelming, if not bland.
There is little effort to be edgy or dynamic with flavor profiles or flavor combinations. The dishes are big on catchy descriptors, there's a "brick" chicken, a "cedar plank" salmon, a "blackened" rib-eye with "housemade mashed potatoes." What? No references to "local" water, house-made ice cubes and hand-cut lemon wedges?
The menu items are top-40 tunes we can hum in our sleep; this could be called Casey Kasem's American Bistro. Chicken, salmon, halibut, steak, burgers, fries, more chicken, a smattering of salads with chicken or salmon.
On plate after plate, we encountered mainstream mediocrity at premium prices and packaged as something special, with our server interrupting us repeatedly to remind us how delicious everything was. They made it sound like the second coming of Bouchon instead of what it seemed to be an Applebee's with better adjectives.
I ordered the flank steak. I'm guessing the marinade was hand-whisked. I ordered the steak medium-rare, because I wanted to reveal myself as a serious foodie. Nevertheless, our server went on to talk to me like I was 11. "OK, medium-rare, which is warm and dark pink toward the center, right?" After serving the steak, she returned within seconds to ask me how everything was tasting. It was clear I had yet to take a bite, so she answered for me. "Delicious."
The steak came covered with arugula, which possessed none of those spicy and bitter notes of really good, fresh and local arugula. There was also something called grilled maple-bourbon sweet potatoes, which were syrupy sweet and very Applebee's. This was a decent steak, but underwhelming as a thoughtfully conceived and balanced dish for $24. The blackened rib-eye is $34.
The three-course buttermilk fried chicken is a special on Tuesdays. You get a salad, the main course and a dessert for $20. The dessert was a dried-out, cakey cookie called the "hot blondie" served with house-made ice cream. The chicken was middle of the road not the equal of the excellent fried chicken we've had in recent months at Mama Kim's, Formoli's and Frank Fat's.
Surely the Argentina- inspired chimichurri chicken would provide that jolt of flavor we were seeking. I mean, how can you slather a bright green mix of parsley, onions, garlic, oregano, olive oil, etc. onto a piece of Petaluma chicken and still have it come out dull? Ask Paul Martin's. There was no zip, no heat, no high notes to this dish.
And the exotic-sounding "wehani rice?" It was under-seasoned and bland, too.
Our server kept telling us that the menu would be changing soon and that strawberry shortcake would be offered in the coming days and that the huckleberry dessert was unavailable because huckleberries were out of season. So how does one explain the plethora of cherry tomatoes on my chicken dish? Which local farm is harvesting tomatoes in April?
The most interesting dish we tried at Paul Martin's was the "house-made" polenta. It took an act of faith to order this because it was $18 for what sounded like a $4 piece of cornmeal with grill marks. And yet the dish was impressive, with an abundance of seasonal vegetables and two slabs of polenta with some depth to the flavor and a pleasingly coarse texture, served with a slightly sweet, tangy and creamy tomato sauce. This dish had multiple colors, an array of flavors and shapes, all with a sense of harmony.
The high notes didn't last long. Desserts were underwhelming and limited. The chocolate cake and its glistening frosting, served with brandy-soaked cherries, looked more impressive than it tasted. The banana cream pie, apparently using non-local bananas that were hand-mashed in-house, was reasonably tasty.
Early into our first visit, so dazzled was I by the everything-made-here braggadocio, I was curious about the bread. "Is it baked here?" I inquired. I could picture the organic sourdough starter bubbling to life in a bowl on the windowsill, the team of devoted bakers coming in at 3 a.m. to shape the dough by hand, the well-worn wooden peels sliding each crackling loaf out of the oven. How awkward. Turns out the bread is trucked in from Acme in the Bay Area.
Our server told us that the chef at the Roseville Paul Martin's bakes really good bread, but that the company, in the interest of being consistent with the American bistros in El Segundo, Irvine and someplace called Westlake Village, buys the bread from the same source so it all tastes the same. If Paul Martin were an actual person instead of a registered trademark, he would be a real buzz kill.
If our overall reaction to Paul Martin's sounds harsh, it's because we were led to believe one thing, only to encounter something less impressive.
To assign an overall rating to this restaurant, we have to look at the competition in the casual-upscale category, and that looks sort of like Will Ferrell in his Speedo standing next to Michael Phelps. The list includes the Waterboy, Magpie, Formoli's, Boulevard Bistro, Hook & Ladder, Thir13en and, if you want a true bistro experience where the food is delicious and the two waiters happen to own the joint, the one-and-only Moxie. All of its eccentricities are local and sustainable.
The meals at Paul Martin's were not a disaster. They were simply uninspired and ordinary, over-sold and overpriced. Its biggest mistake is serving OK food in a category where the real bistros are serving superior food house-made, with passion, and without so much hype.
Paul Martin's American Bistro
1455 Eureka Road, Roseville
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat
Noise level: Loud
Overall Two stars (out of 4 stars)
The food simply isn't interesting or tasty enough to live up to the packaged spiel about being local and sustainable. If you're all about a low-carbon footprint, why locate in the midst of suburban sprawl at a strip shopping center accessed exclusively by car? While the room is full of energy and almost always full the overall experience comes off as too much marketing and too little soul.
Food Two stars
Persistently bland, consistently forgettable, endlessly safe. Farm to table is a great concept until you allow sourcing not cooking to take the wheel. You'll have a decent meal, but if your expectations are high, you may well be disappointed. The wine list is focused mostly on regional selections, though that doesn't seem to translate into any bargains.
Service Two 1/2 stars
Well-trained, attentive and, yes, overly eager and intrusive.
Ambience Two 1/2 stars
It's a little bit of luxury, a touch of romance and lots of noise. The outdoor seating smartly walls off the view of the parking lot only steps away.
Value One 1/2 stars
The food is overpriced for the quality of the cooking. The wine list is overpriced, too. Not a lot of value to be found here.
Noteworthy: If Paul Martin's feels like a formulaic chain eatery, it may be because Paul Martin Fleming is one of the originators of the carefully packaged P.F. Chang's China Bistro. The concepts appear to be popular with many, especially in chain-centric suburbia.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.