Since he opened his modest little eatery in 2002, William Rolle has emerged as the witty, absolutely lovable, very French and very successful proprietor of Cafe Rolle.
These days, this casual lunch and dinner joint in east Sacramento is something of a local treasure, with a reputation that seems almost too good to be true. It’s normal for there to be a lengthy wait to get a table for weekday lunch. For dinner, served Wednesday to Friday, the place is often packed and teeming with energy.
The restaurant has achieved, in certain circles, practically legendary status. Many of Monsieur Rolle’s most ardent fans insist that a visit to Cafe Rolle is the next best thing to ducking into a Paris bistro or happening upon a quaint cafe in Provence and coming face to face with French country cooking at its best.
But is this reputation deserved?
Many people think so. Cafe Rolle recently became one of two local restaurants on Yelp’s top 100 list for the entire U.S. (The other is The Kitchen). The cafe also has been featured on the hit TV show “Diners, Drive-in and Dives,” that Food Network mainstay featuring the gregarious Guy Fieri and the conceit that he tools around the country in a spiffy old convertible discovering one hidden gem after another.
I visited Cafe Rolle on numerous occasions in recent weeks, expecting to find simple French food done well – in other words, cooking that would confirm the hype bestowed upon this place. I instead encountered something else. In French or in English, it was not my kind of flavor town, the sauce was not money, and I was hardly stricken by the chicken.
I cannot fault the proprietor for his restaurant’s outsized reputation. It is hard to imagine he asked for it or expected it. But clearly there’s a gulf between perception and reality with Cafe Rolle, where the chef’s skill set comes across as limited and the food inconsistent and haphazardly presented.
For our first early dinner visit (note: the cafe closes at 7:30 p.m.) we ordered across the menu: smoked salmon with crème fraîche seasoned with dill and duck pâté with cornichons as appetizers; salmon with tomato sauce and chicken with a Dijon and white-wine cream sauce as entrees.
My companion and I had hoped to be reminded of something very French and very good. Just last year, my friend, a serious student of fine cooking, had visited excellent bistros in France and Belgium. I remember the photos and descriptions he texted to me from overseas. And many of us recall visits to similarly charming French bistros where the food and experience were something special.
But this was far from a Francophile’s dream. If eating here was like a journey to Paris, it was more like the food we’d encounter on the plane ride there rather than what we’d find on a cobbled alleyway in the 6th Arrondissement.
The plating was cafeteria-like, the flavors were sometimes off kilter and the overall experience suggested either a lack of care or an absence of high-level cooking technique. The plate with my chicken was so hot when it arrived that the sauce had started to burn along the edges (on the other hand, my partner’s plate was properly warmed). The steamed squash was dried out in places, soggy in others, and its moisture formed puddles on the plate, mixing with the cream sauce and creating a watery mess.
The salmon appetizer was our first source of concern. It is cold-smoked, meaning it looks and feels raw. That’s fine, perhaps, though we would prefer a smoked salmon with a firmer, drier mouth-feel. Either way, there wasn’t much flavor to the fish beyond the smoky note. The crème fraîche with dill was simple and direct and added marginally to our enjoyment of the dish.
The duck pâté was less impressive. We anticipated a duck mousse with that telltale richness and depth of flavor, but this rendition was muted and lackluster. The texture, too, seemed too light and airy, as if a fair amount of filler had been used. The cornichons were fine. Sourced from a jar, these tiny pickles had a briny flavor and crisp crunch.
The dinner menu offers few entree choices. The main courses are salmon, chicken or prawns. The salmon is available in three preparations – essentially a different sauce – a la Provencale (tomato sauce with bell peppers and a smattering of dried herbes de Provence); a la creme (crème fraîche and dill); or a la Dijonaise (a mustard, white wine and cream sauce). The best of these sauces is the Dijonaise. It is bright, creamy, mildly spicy and, if you enjoy mustard, very Dijon.
All dinner plates come with the same side dishes – the au gratin potatoes and the zucchini. The potatoes are sometimes properly cooked and sometimes not. On our first visit, several slices were as chewy as Naugahyde. Beyond that, by smothering the food with tomato or Dijon sauce, the chef fails to bring a sense of proportion and balance.
The salad that accompanied the entrees also fell short. The greenery was passable, if not terribly fresh and wilty in spots. Canned corn was scattered about the plate. The dressing had been drizzled over top at the last minute. Why not serve the salad properly tossed and dressed with just a touch more effort and precision?
After that dinner, it seemed clear that Cafe Rolle’s inclusion on Yelp’s top-100 list was not an accurate representation of the quality of its cooking. Why should that matter? Say what you want about the clout of user-generated ratings at Yelp, Zagat or OpenTable, but they play a role in shaping the habits of customers, especially those who come from out of town.
Knowing that visitors to Sacramento might seek out Cafe Rolle as a top-notch restaurant is not only unfair to many restaurants that execute at a much higher level, it’s potentially embarrassing. Cafe Rolle is not a great restaurant or even a very good one. With ever-reliable, far superior and comparably priced Selland’s Market-Cafe directly across H Street, it’s not even the best eatery on the block.
This is not the first time the charm of a French chef has mesmerized a segment of Sacramento. For several years, La Bonne Soupe in downtown Sacramento was rated the second-best restaurant in town by Zagat, trailing only The Kitchen. La Bonne Soupe owner Daniel Pont served nicely made and beautifully seasoned soups as well as unexceptional sandwiches packaged as something quaint and French.
Pont became a celebrity. Tourists routinely stood on the sidewalk and snapped pictures. But when he sold the sandwich joint and opened a dinner-only bistro in Folsom, he showed that his cooking acumen was not nearly as impressive as his reputation. Still, Pont’s food was better – more refined, more balanced, more flavorful – than Rolle’s.
Our second trip to the east Sac cafe was for lunch, and we found that to be a much safer bet for diners, with a menu that focuses on enjoyable but hardly extraordinary sandwiches and potentially charming small plates or appetizers, like the melted Brie on slices of baguette or the marinated shrimp with lentils.
The “croque pesto salmon monsieur” – one of the daily lunch specials – is a nice sandwich, with a generous portion of that smoked salmon, heated this time, served on crusty French bread with a pesto sauce. It comes with that same salad and drizzled dressing.
Another solid sandwich is the “croque lamb monsieur.” This is a hot offering with plenty of tender meat (even if I couldn’t readily identify the flavor or texture as lamb) garlic mayonnaise and Gruyere cheese (The croque monsieur, for those who don’t know, is a common grilled sandwich in France, traditionally ham and cheese).
The hot Brie sandwich is simple and luxurious, highlighted by the addition of walnuts and pesto.
It’s clear that lunch is Cafe Rolle’s sweet spot. You’ll have to wait for a table if you show up at noon. And the acoustics in the dining room are so jarringly bad that I apologized twice to my lunch companion. Turns out, he liked the food more than I did.
We later returned again for dinner and the presentations only confirmed what we concluded the first time. Despite what some might assume, this is not a place that showcases French bistro cooking at its best.
Nevertheless, one of the most appealing aspect of the eating experience here is the wine service. This is not a place for wine snobs. There’s only a handful of offerings but they’re interesting and affordable, including a Côtes du Rhône red blend of grenache and syrah that’s a lively, medium-bodied everyday kind of wine.
Desserts, too, are limited. Once you get past the pleasant crème brûlée, or the pleasant crème brûlée with fruit, you are left with the chocolate mousse, which tastes like instant pudding. There are no tarts or cookies or pastries reminiscent of France.
Is Cafe Rolle the restaurant Sacramento wants to hold up as an example of our wonderful culinary scene? Probably not. Did William Rolle ask to be held in such high esteem? Probably not. Will this inspire all kinds of highly divergent opinions on Yelp, Twitter and beyond? Yes, indeed.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.