Midway through my second visit to this new downtown restaurant, I began to ponder a philosophical question.
Is so-so really so bad?
I mean, nothing about the experience at Foundation Restaurant & Bar was blowing us away. But nothing was making us think we were in the middle of a dining disaster, either.
A restaurant like this, which opened in October and succeeded the 4th Street Grille after it ended a 21-year run, might seem like an easy place to assess, lacking as it does in the personnel and commitment to flawlessly execute a top-tier, casual, fine-dining concept. But balancing its shortcomings and virtues is a far more complex exercise.
If you’re seeking the exactitude and elegance of the food and service at Ella, or the consistently high-level cooking at The Waterboy, or even the solid expression of farm-to-fork flavors at Hock Farm, will you be disappointed by what you’re getting at Foundation?
Yes and no.
Your expectations and how you reconcile the price point are going to make the difference at this restaurant, which is near the Downtown Plaza and the Capitol and tends to draw government suits, travelers and those living downtown.
It is difficult to recommend Foundation as a destination for foodies. The cooking is simply not skilled or nuanced enough to invite serious food lovers to embrace what’s happening here, given the competition mere blocks away. These diners typically seek both adventure and comfort. They want precision. But they also crave inspiration – something unexpected that elevates a dish and makes it memorable.
Multiple visits convinced us that Foundation was not going to wow us with its cooking: a New York strip steak, cooked beyond our requested medium-rare, with that lingering hint of liver on the palate; undercooked scallops wrapped haphazardly with bacon and nested on a bed of unadorned spaghetti; a slightly dried-out and chewy pork chop; and a robust and satisfying pan-blackened chicken dinner that merely lacked a pop of flavor.
It’s a mid-pack restaurant through and through, from a menu that does little to distinguish itself from others, to service that doesn’t do enough to elevate beyond the designation of “order taker.”
Further, there are few signs that Foundation is a Sacramento restaurant. Apart from the inclusion of Rubicon’s classic “Monkey Knife Fight” beer and its participation in Sacramento BaconFest with a couple of specials, we never picked up on that truly local vibe – an owner or manager making the rounds and connecting with guests, an overall personality that defined the restaurant’s style and mission, or some sense that the place was truly tied to the city.
Foundation, with its large bar and nicely appointed open dining area, felt a tad sterile and more like a chain than we expected.
And yet, all is not lost here. While foodies are probably not going to abandon their go-to spots to embrace this place, the restaurantgoer with different goals could well be satisfied with the experience here.
Take the service. Our waiter on two occasions showed up, said his piece and continued to mind the store until our meal was over. And though he never took it to the next level, many people don’t demand that or even care for that level of involvement. They don’t want banter. They don’t desire a rundown of the chef’s techniques. And they certainly don’t want to hear about bunch farms and purveyors until their eyes roll back in their heads.
To its credit, Foundation seems to know its place in the pecking order. The prices are impressive when you assess portion size and quality.
That pork chop, decent as it was, would have been a bigger disappointment at $25 or $29, where we often see it priced at the big-time joints. But at $17, you might overlook the modest shortcomings and the less-than-stellar technique and allow yourself to enjoy it much more. Same with the steak – a serious misstep if it were around $30, where you might see it priced at Mulvaney’s or Grange and anticipate near-perfection, but not so bad when it’s $19.
My favorite main entree here was perhaps the most unusual, the paella with salmon. And although I enjoyed the smells and flavors of this dish, with cubes of tender salmon enveloped by rice that had elements of savory and salty seafood with hints of sweet, connoisseurs of this dish would argue that we were actually eating a mere rice and seafood dish masquerading as a Spanish classic. The rice didn’t hold together the way we expected it to, and there were none of those extra-tasty crispy bits created when the rice cooks and nearly burns in spots in the hot pan.
Still, unless you’re a serious, tire-kicking foodie, you’ll probably like this flavorful paella.
One of the better efforts we saw from the kitchen here was during the recent Dine Downtown promotion, when Foundation offered a special prix-fixe three-course dinner. We had the steak with a shallot/bourbon demi-glace, with the beef nesting on mashed potatoes next to a serving of braised Brussels sprouts.
It was a solid performance that showed some finesse, as the sauce, the colors and grouping of textures and the deft plating gave us a peek at the potential. Again, the $31 price worked in Foundation’s favor.
Desserts seem to be an afterthought here and are disappointing. The pedestrian cheesecake with a raspberry sauce, a tough and chewy slice of brownie “pie,” and an under-flavored apple crisp with vanilla ice cream all fell short of the rest of the menu.
Both the beer and wine selections, along with cocktails, show a partial commitment to what’s happening locally and regionally without really digging in and embracing either the new craft beer explosion or the ongoing expansion of quality wines within an hour’s drive of our city limits.
But the solid but unexceptional performance here leaves us of two minds.
Foundation cannot yet qualify as a main event restaurant. But neither will I steer you away if your expectations are more focused on value and familiarity. While the cooking may need an upgrade and the menu could be more creative, the relatively appealing prices might lead you to conclude Foundation understands this.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.