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Let’s start with the name. In the weeks before this new restaurant and bar opened, Noah Zonca, the chef and partner, told me it would be called The Dime. OK, maybe the official name on the business license would be Capital Dime, but everyone would call it “The Dime.” It hasn’t really turned out that way. If I had a dime for everyone who called it The Dime, I would be dimeless.
Nomenclature notwithstanding, Capital Dime has become the new hot spot in town since it opened a few weeks ago. It’s urban. It’s hip. It’s stylish. It’s noisy. It’s filled nightly with people who are stylish and noisy. And everything on the compact menu is $10. Except when it’s not $10.
Will this budget-meets-quality-cooking concept be enough to keep people interested after the novelty wears off? And more importantly, do midtown restaurantgoers actually give a hoot if something costs $10 or $8.50 or $12.95, as long as it’s good?
How do we explain the enviable crowds and enthusiasm? For one thing, Zonca has a lot of restaurant street cred. He was the chef de cuisine at The Kitchen, where the concept is blow-your-budget-on-super-quality-cooking (a meal for two with wine and tip, and maybe an extra splash of sake, can easily set you back $450).
In other words, Zonca, 37, spent his formative years blowing people away at the most expensive restaurant in the city. Once founder and culinary impresario Randall Selland stepped away from the spotlight following a skiing injury, Zonca stepped up and became the star at this performance-style restaurant.
Capital Dime is supposed to take Zonca’s smarts, his palate, his contacts with purveyors, then pare them all down to make New American cuisine that’s seasonal, accessible, tasty and affordable. He’s no longer onstage. There are no one-liners and no hefty bills. Nearly everyone can afford to visit.
Our experiences so far have been a mix of hits, misses, home runs, ho-hums and flubs. Hey, it’s brand new, and this joint has plenty of moving parts that need fine-tuning. One thing is certain: Zonca knows how to season his food. Bland is not an option here.
The restaurant’s identity is still taking shape. For instance, will it become an after-work meeting place? Is it the spot for quick and easy lunches? Dinners with creative flourishes and artisanal touches? A bar for hanging out with friends?
Menu: Since our first visit, the prices have already shifted. Our $10 “Damn Good Cheeseburger,” as it’s listed on the menu, has already gone up three damn dollars since we dropped by the first week. Compared with the very stiff competition in this town, I would call it the “darn I wish it were a bit bigger and better cheeseburger” and price it at $7.50.
The one-page menu is divided into easy-to-comprehend parts, including $10 “Dime Plates,” which are generally small plates or starters suitable for sharing; $10 “rabbit food,” including a superb panzanella salad made with heirloom tomatoes; $13 sandwiches (and the burger) that include choice of fries, salad or soup; and $15 “plates” offering salmon, chicken and pasta.
We asked about dessert and were told the chef ain’t going there, not with Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, Trey-B-Cakes, Yogurtagogo, and Devine Gelateria close by. So, when we want something sweet and want to keep this party going, we’re supposed to leave and spend our money elsewhere? Perhaps not the best damn business idea.
Ambiance: This used to be the digs of L Wine Bar and it continues to sport a modern look with touches of industrial elegance, high ceilings, hard surfaces and unfortunate acoustics. There’s a large patio out back, but really, who wants to sit back there when all the urban energy is taking place out front? There are some new tables on the sidewalk, which are great for people watching. There’s also a nice bar, where you can have a drink or eat your meal.
Drinks; There is a full liquor license and plenty of creative options for cocktails, including a local hit called the O.G. White Linen with gin and elderflower liqueur, and the Venezuelan Old Fashioned with rum instead of bourbon. These cocktails are $10, which is pricey. Zonca likes to tout the “50 under 50” wine list, though the menu seems to call for an emphasis on wines by the glass. Not sure I would order a $45 pinot noir to pair with my cheeseburger. The beer list is small but interesting and evolving, with an emphasis on craft beer selections, including an excellent Belgian farmhouse ale. There is no happy hour, but draft beer starts at $3, which should make many people happy.
Service: Zonca serves as the host and sometimes the server. He’s intense. Granted, it was the first week and he was probably overeager. He mentioned that if we didn’t see what we wanted on the menu, he could probably make anything. We obliged. How about that awesome lobster mac and cheese we had at The Kitchen? OK, almost anything. Sashimi? Um, a slice of pie? No? Maybe underpromising would be a better strategy at this point.
First impressions: The shrimp tacos are delicious. The pastrami sliders are just ordinary, possibly because ours were served with nothing but a bun. The watermelon salad with shrimp was outstanding — it showed finesse, elegance, a range of subtle flavors. And the pan-roasted salmon was beautifully seasoned, perfectly cooked and, even though the piece of fish was on the small side, one of the best-tasting salmon dishes we’ve had this year. The steak frites suggested something akin to a French bistro-style dish; instead, the steak tasted more like teriyaki, and we found the flavor jarring and unappealing.
Conversations can be stressful if you’re sensitive to noise. We sat near a large table of friends and found the noise jarring at times. The setting is otherwise wonderful, showcasing midtown Sacramento at its energetic best.
Try it if: You’re curious about Zonca and his food, want to be in the thick of midtown energy and prefer to do it on a budget.
Forget it if: You’re a foodie looking for edgy menu choices and a wide variety of options, or you’re noise-phobic and can’t read lips.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob