I’m sitting at Orphan, a bustling east Sacramento breakfast and lunch eatery, looking down at a plate of perfectly cooked pumpkin pancakes. The morning light catches a wisp of steam billowing up from the table.
Big and fluffy and golden brown, they smell terrific. Mixed into the batter are little pieces of candied pecans, scattered here and there. There’s a light dusting of cinnamon. And when I dig in, the flavor and texture are just right – sweet, gently spiced and soothing, with crunches here and there from the pecans, all with a clean finish on the palate.
I take another bite, followed by a sip of excellent coffee that was just prepared as an individual “pour-over” serving by a charming woman with green hair.
We also have a plate of roast beef hash, which eats more like a steak-and-potatoes breakfast (and perhaps should be re-named). Still, it is nicely seasoned, has ample amounts of tender beef served in long strips, and cottage-style potatoes done right. My two eggs are nicely poached and very fresh. The only shortcoming is the under-toasted rosemary bread; tasteless and a little too much like sandwich bread.
I’ve returned to this restaurant, which I once panned as a bastion of banal, flavorless food, not to confirm what I said four years ago, but to look at it with new eyes. That review will be recalled by many readers for the quirky, if not entirely odd behavior of the owner, Christopher Pendarvis, who clearly has his own way of doing business, including how he conducts job interviews in the middle of the restaurant.
Pendarvis had promised to have me thrown out if I ever returned to Orphan. While I was in no hurry to go back – see food, bland, above – I continued to monitor Orphan from afar. When I heard it had improved, I wanted to know more.
One visit became two. Yes, I was having a good time, and possibly relieved that Orphan 2013 seemed nothing like the Orphan I encountered in its original iteration in late 2009.
While Orphan has, indeed, grown up into a reliably good restaurant with polished service and consistent cooking, it also faces stiffer competition than it did during those early, awkward days.
Bacon & Butter, Hook & Ladder and Red Rabbit entered the game and have not only infused the local dining scene with plenty of smarts and good cooking, they have raised the level of weekend brunch.
I returned twice more. At one point, Pendarvis himself looked right at me and seemed to scowl, though he did the same thing to other customers.
For lunch, you can still order breakfast items or go in the sandwich direction. We loved the health-conscious “zen breakfast” featuring grilled tofu, egg whites and steamed spinach, a dish that takes a balanced and simple approach to flavor.
The burrito with chicken was substantial and nicely assembled, including seasoned black beans and an overall eating experience of heft and rich flavor. Orphan makes three dishes featuring scrambled eggs, including an avocado scramble that had large slices of creamy avocado, scallions, tomatoes and melted Monterrey Jack cheese.
But the eclectic, slightly New Age-y menu, to my way of thinking, has an unfortunate omission. There is not an omelet to be found, and that’s a missed opportunity for a kitchen to show off its skill and commitment to technique.
Clearly, Orphan had improved. But my work was not done. I wanted to break the news to Pendarvis that I had returned and planned to upgrade the restaurant’s overall rating.
Pendarvis and I have an odd, entangled history that has included some high-decibel phone conversations. I was dreading calling him and decided to handle it the way I handle going to the DMV, filing my taxes or visiting the dentist – by procrastinating. I washed the dogs. I rearranged my refrigerator. I got out my Miracle Fold contraption and made perfect squares out of T-shirts.
Years ago, I called him up before I began writing that initial review. I identified myself and got a terse, “Don’t talk to the media.” I was taken aback. Huh? Was I calling Sean Penn? Or an unheralded restaurateur?
But I knew I had to call again. Surely, he would be encouraged when I told him I thought the food was flavorful, the service polished and friendly and the overall experience more than a little bit positive.
But, no. He wasn’t having it.
“I would rather you not write about anything I do. I don’t need a review,” he replied. “I don’t need a half-million people to come to my restaurant. I need two or three thousand.”
He went on to opine about newspapers (doesn’t read ’em), me (we won’t be hanging out any time soon), his multiple old Porsches (I told him I liked his Porsche and he said, “Which one?”) and Orphan (“The best breakfast restaurant in town”).
Orphan is good. But how good?
To make sure I had my benchmarks in order, I arranged to eat at Red Rabbit and Hook & Ladder on consecutive weekends, then pull off a risky “brunch double,” a feat the civilian population would never attempt. I would eat at Orphan (the pancakes, the beef hash, the coffee), then hop on my bike and ride directly to Billy Zoellin’s Bacon & Butter in midtown 10 minutes away.
Please do not attempt this yourselves. I am a professional, have nothing better to do, and I had fasted for 24 hours in anticipation of the volume of food I would consume.
At Bacon & Butter, I had an omelet loaded with seasonal vegetables and melted cheese served with cottage potatoes.
The hash dishes there are exciting and teeming with flavors. There’s more technique in play, a greater sense of farm-to-fork seasonality, and a more dynamic use of those farm-fresh ingredients. The menu seems to move and change with the weather.
By the time I left Bacon & Butter, I had my benchmarks clear. Orphan had elevated its game, but so had Sacramento’s dining scene.
As a neighborhood eatery, Orphan is doing many things right to earn a loyal customer base.
But as a destination for the best and most exciting breakfasts around, it fits comfortably into the second tier of the establishments we have now.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.