First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Sacramentans, day-tripping to Old Town Auburn is a 30-mile drive to a charmer that still reverberates with a Gold Rush vibe. After all, Auburn itself is a California Historical Landmark (No. 404).
We were there last Saturday for lunch at its newest restaurant, Bistro 103. It’s housed in the former K. Tsuda grocery store, which was opened in 1918 by Katsuichi “George” Tsuda and his wife, Tomo. It was later run by Tsuda family members until it closed in 2007, then reopened as a mediocre deli and closed again.
Patty and John Dooley opened Bistro 103 in that space in February after a 3 1/2-month remodel that preserved the best parts and improved the worst. For instance, a handsome bar replaced the messy prep area, and a vintage brick wall was rescued from behind a white wall that served as a sandwich board.
“I was in corporate America forever and decided I wanted to be my own boss and open the kind of restaurant we like to go to,” said Patty Dooley. “We like a ‘Cheers’ feel, where it’s homey and you know the owner. We like fresh, and we like menus that change seasonally. The year-round farmers market is right across the back parking lot from us. We thought a lot of other people would like those things, too. Now we’re crazy busy.”
Menu: It’s varied and open to the kitchen’s experimentation and changes. Special requests are welcomed. Mac ’n’ cheese and beef sliders join beef stew and a charcuterie platter of cured meats, cheeses, honeycomb, walnuts and house-made lemon marmalade. Mushroom risotto and pepper steak are big sellers.
With spring here, the shepherd’s pie and the super-popular lamb vindaloo have made way for replacement candidates that include include pasta primavera, salmon cakes, bruschetta topped with seared trout, and a salad with beef strips.
Price point: Compared to the menus at other Auburn restaurants, $3.50 for house-made chips, $9 for mac ’n’ cheese and $12 for a BLT with avocado could seem a bit high. But the food quality, freshness and portions make up for that. Also, with three culinary school-trained chefs rotating through the kitchen, the dishes reflect plenty of expertise. The half-sandwich with soup or salad and chips is a good deal for $8.
Ambiance: The dining room and bar area are set pieces from history, with faded red brick-and-mortar walls and high ceilings. The original iron doors and by-the-pound scale from Tsuda’s “in the day” are displayed, along with a mounted photograph of the founder at work. The Edison bulbs and updated pendant lighting fit right in.
Drinks: The bar pulls craft beers from six rotating taps; one tap is dedicated to suds from the Auburn Alehouse, and Bistro 103 is the only restaurant-bar allowed to serve it. The drafts join bottled beers and ciders, and a “broadening” wine list of about 20 whites and reds includes a fine Paris Valley Road cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles.
Service: Personal, conscientious – and chatty if you want.
First Impressions: Good and destined to get better. The restaurant already has a corps of loyal locals, and the buzz is spreading beyond town.
We sampled excellent grilled-cheese minis (white cheddar melted on toasted baguette points), mushroom soup (an earthy, gloomy-gray, super-thick bisque chunky with mushroom slices) and three sandwiches – chicken salad (big pieces of breast, walnuts and raisins in need of more mayo), pulled pork (just the right touch of tasty barbecue sauce) and roasted red pepper with meaty portobello mushroom, mozzarella, feta and tomato-pesto spread (wonderfully textured and alive with zippy heat). We were glad to see the salt and pepper shakers on the table.
The chewy artisan breads are sourced from the local Baker and the Cakemaker, with ciabatta from Grateful Bread in Sacramento. We loved the thin, crisp, lightly salted house-made chips from purple potatoes and yams. “We don’t do french fries,” Patty Dooley said, a reflection of her food philosophy.
Try it if: You’re in town and want a meal outside the usually “looks better than it is” fare at the more touristy places.
Forget it if: You’d rather not spend $25 on lunch for two.