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Creativity on the menu for Dine Downtown Restaurant Week

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 - 10:43 am

Ten days. Twenty-eight restaurants. Three courses. $31.

It all adds up to the ninth annual Dine Downtown Restaurant Week – a chance for Sacramento food lovers to discover new restaurants and revisit old favorites. From Wednesday through Jan. 17, participating eateries are offering special prix-fixe menus in addition to their standard lunch and dinner fare. Tax, tip and beverages aren’t included, though some spots have wine-pairing specials.

What can $31 buy you? At The Firehouse, it might start with a lobster-roasted parsnip bisque, followed by Scottish salmon over bacon-cranberry cauliflower ragout, with a classic crème brûlée finale. At Biba, it could be a feast of butternut squash soup, ricotta gnocchi and braised lamb shoulder.

While some restaurants, including Frank Fat’s, The Red Rabbit and The Melting Pot, plan to offer familiar favorites from the daily menu, others have created original dishes specifically for Dine Downtown. As entrees alone can run $25 to $30 at many of these places, the $31 meals are considered a deal. At Restaurant Thir13en, a main course of diver scallops with celeriac purée and bacon confit sounds like a steal, as does The Porch’s buttermilk-fried catfish over pimiento cheese grits.

Oliver Ridgeway, executive chef at Grange, is enthusiastic about his Dine Downtown menu, which he created just last week. “You don’t want to say, ‘This is my $31 menu,’ ” he said. “You want to showcase what you can do.”

For appetizers, Ridgeway will prepare a polenta soup with house-cured bacon and romesco and a brassica salad with pepato cheese. Diners can choose between a beer-braised pork shoulder with heirloom beans and salsa verde and a root vegetable pot pie for the main course. And for dessert, “Eskimo pie sandwiches” – a nod to pastry chef Jodie Chavious’ Alaskan roots – and meyer lemon meringue pie will be on offer.

“We’re obviously not going to be serving rib-eye,” Ridgeway said. “But you take your cost-effective cuts, like pork shoulder, and put a lot of love into them.”

Ridgeway participates in Sacramento’s Restaurant Week every year, as he had in his previous cities of New York and Santa Fe. In a sense, it represents the ultimate 10-day marketing tool. “You get new people in the door and hope they come back,” Ridgeway said.

Fans of Ella Dining Room & Bar can look forward to a new, all-vegetarian menu for Dine Downtown – a logistical boon for the kitchen as they can use many ingredients already on hand, and also just “a cool idea,” said executive chef Ravin Patel. The restaurant unveiled its first vegetarian Dine Downtown menu last year and received favorable feedback.

“People were really surprised at how great vegetables could be,” Patel said.

There’s a potato leek soup with smoked olive oil and a salad of mixed chicories and mache lettuce. There are desserts featuring blood orange curd and bourbon butterscotch.

But Patel said he is most excited for the main courses: a rich heirloom bean cassoulet and hand-cut fettuccine with wild mushroom ragout, ricotta salata and black truffle.

The fettuccine is made by Dave Brochier, also known as “Pasta Dave” from Taylor’s Market. “His art is pasta, and we like supporting a local artisan and friend,” Patel said.

In addition to vegetarian choices, many restaurants, such as Il Fornaio and Mayahuel, are also offering gluten-free options.

While leaving customers satisfied is certainly an objective, Dine Downtown’s ultimate goal is to build community and a bustling downtown, said Kachet Jackson-Henderson, marketing manager at Downtown Sacramento Partnership.

“It’s a big boost to downtown’s economy,” she said. “People come to dine, but they’re more likely to explore downtown after.”

The event generates more than $1 million in restaurant sales and parking revenue, according to estimates from the Downtown Sacramento Partnership.

The typical Dine Downtown participant is tough to pinpoint, but Jackson-Henderson said they’re often young foodies who Instagram all their meals or empty-nesters who treat the week as a special excuse to go out.

“Dine Downtown brings in a different crowd, which is something to embrace,” Ridgeway said. “I think people look at Grange sometimes and think they can’t afford to eat there. But when they come eat and experience the service, they might realize it’s reachable.”

The ambition is, simply, to get more people supporting local businesses, to attract the folks who leave downtown as soon as the workday ends or bring in food fans who rarely set foot in the grid. It’s all about helping the city center thrive.

So whether to participate is hardly a decision for Ella anymore, according to Patel.

“We feel like we need to do it,” he said. “It’s a win-win for us and for downtown.”

Jackson-Henderson said Dine Downtown has steadily grown over the past nine years. “Every year, more and more restaurants have seen the value and want to get on board,” she said.

About 75 percent of the participating restaurants are returners, with Capital Dime, Hook & Ladder, Foundation Restaurant & Bar, and Hock Farm Crafts & Provisions among the newcomers.

Dine Downtown regulars may notice a markup from $30 to $31 for the three-course meal this year. That extra dollar will benefit the California Food Literacy Center, the Sacramento-based nonprofit dedicated to educating people on how their food choices affect their health, community and environment. And that single buck goes a long way – it costs $4.11 to provide one week of food literacy education for one child.

“It’s an added bonus,” Jackson-Henderson said. “Getting food education in schools is very important. And by dining downtown, you’re helping kids make smarter, healthier choices.”

Read more articles by Janelle Bitker



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