Lunch is for libertines at Brasserie Capitale, the 3-month-old French restaurant at 12th and K streets in downtown Sacramento.
On one midweek visit, our meal (involuntarily) lasted two hours, including a 30-minute wait for a tarte tatin (or caramel apple tart) dessert.
Granted, France is known for its liberal employment laws. But even there, a two-hour lunch break might result in a pas de pink slip.
Our second lunch visit, on a Saturday, involved a rum cake so boozy it threatened, for a moment, to alter the nature of our weekend plans.
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One might conclude that Brasserie Capitale, the new venture from Aïoli Bodega Española owner Reda Bellarbi and his son, Aziz Bellarbi-Salah, should be a dinner-only destination. But this casually elegant brasserie, with its velvety red banquettes, striking pewter-topped bar, tin-tiled high ceiling and airy feel that’s enhanced by dining-room doors that open on to the patio and K Street, is too lovely in the daylight for that.
The breeze from outside and strains of accordion from the restaurant’s sound system so relaxed us on our first visit – that weekday lunch – that we didn’t consider the time until dessert became noticeably tardy. When it arrived, the tarte offered an almost smoky caramelized taste that nicely offset its sweetness. But not so nicely that it erased the wait. Not when our server didn’t appear overly concerned about us sitting there, waiting, in a nearly empty dining room.
The delay was especially unfortunate because the dishes that came before dessert had impressed. The steak tartare offered a precise balance of flavors that included saltiness (capers), biting sweetness (red onion) and heat (Tabasco). Brasserie Capitale’s tender, flavorful mussels come with a white wine and cream sauce well-suited for sopping by the grilled bread served alongside them.
The second lunch featured better service and even better food. Perfectly seared scallops topped corn cooked with cream and butter and reminiscent (in a good, comforting way) of the canned creamed corn of my youth. Except this corn was still fresh enough to offer a hint of crunch. Blistered tomatoes offset its sweetness with acidity, and a balsamic reduction added brightness.
Créme fraîche tanged, and rye crostini heartened thick pieces of buttery salmon in the cured-salmon appetizer. The rack of lamb disappointed, however. We ordered it medium rare, but it arrived very rare. The lamb was of such obviously high quality that it still was tender. But lamb so rare unnerves me, because it evokes that famous cinematic Jodie Foster-Anthony Hopkins exchange about spring lambs. I was unsettled further when considering the dish’s $34 cost and the nearly tasteless cooked squash served alongside the lamb.
Good thing the rum cake contained so much nerve-soothing alcohol. The cake was light and topped with cream that tasted freshly whipped. Both mixed well with rum, as it turned out, and the overall effect of the dessert turned out to be mild – more indulgent than disruptive.
French cuisine is a natural fit for Reda Bellarbi, who grew up in the one-time French colony of Algeria, speaks French and ran the Del Paso Boulevard French restaurant Port/e Rouge in the 1990s with then-wife Jennifer Sparks. Their son Bellarbi-Salah speaks some French as well, and uses the long version of his father’s surname. He is Brasserie Capitale’s general manager and previously managed his father’s The Grand wine bar and the (now-closed) Aïoli in Davis.
This restaurant, housed in the office building space that formerly held the Broiler steakhouse, aims to evoke “something you would find on those grand boulevards” in France, Bellarbi-Salah said. “If we want K to be the great boulevard it used to be, let’s put that kind of feel into the place.”
Bellarbi-Salah shows his father’s famous gift for hospitality. One night a few weeks ago, we passed by Brasserie Capitale after visiting the nearby Esquire Imax theater. When we stepped on the patio for a better look, Bellarbi-Salah beckoned us in for a tour, even though at that point he did not know us from Alain.
I didn’t see Bellarbi-Salah during our overlong lunch, but I was facing the patio, away from much of the action. Regardless, he can’t be in the brasserie at every moment. The K Street operation includes Café Á Côté (the former Gallagher’s Irish Pub) across the 1201 K St. lobby. The cafe matches the brasserie’s decor and serves its food when the kitchen is open, and also quick lunch and late-night bites. The cafe, which holds its own full bar, opens at 7 a.m. Monday-Friday and stays open after the brasserie most nights.
Brasserie Capitale has already undergone a big staffing change. Former Bistro Michel chef Scott McNamara, on board when the brasserie opened in May, left in early July, Bellarbi-Salah said. Chefs Stan Moore (Clark’s Corner, Tuli Bistro) and Rachel Kelley (Revolution Wines, South) now run the kitchen.
Whoever actually cooked the weeknight we visited for dinner did a superb job with the confit de canard. The duck was crisp outside, moist and tender inside. The duck-liver paté also stood out. Though smooth in texture and light on the tongue, it offers just enough sharpness to remind you it’s liver.
Service at dinner was fast and highly attentive but not as informed as we would have hoped. The brasserie’s wine list is almost exclusively French, and this means Sacramento patrons might need guidance. But when we asked our server to recommend a bottle to accompany our duck confit and (unremarkable) steak frites, he excused himself to consult someone else, returning a few minutes later to recommend a Bordeaux.
My companion, a French speaker who has worked in the wine business, instead ordered a lighter wine from the Rhone region. Wine can be such a personal thing. More conversation at the table about preferences might have helped, though our server, whose performance was otherwise flawless that evening, should get credit for not just trying to wing it.
Once Brasserie Capitale gets past its growing pains, it should become just as entrenched a presence on K Street as Ella, Esquire Grill or Mayahuel. The food’s already practically there, and the setting is so inviting that it’s a treat to spend a few hours in this brasserie. At least when that’s the plan.
1201 K St., Sacramento. brasseriecapitale.com. 916-329-8033
- Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.
- Beverage options: An expansive list of French wine. Bavik beer on tap. Cocktail list includes the of-the-moment “French 75,” with gin, house bubbles, simple syrup and lemon, and the “Green Beast,” with absinthe and cucumber.
- Vegetarian friendly: Yes
- Gluten-free options: Yes
- Noise level: Moderate
- Ambiance: Relaxed yet elegant, with high ceilings, plush red banquettes and floor tiles repeating a lovely Mediterranean pattern. The airy feel increases when the dining room’s big glass doors are opened for an indoor/outdoor effect.
Overall ☆☆ 1/2
The decor is lovely and the food mostly first-rate at this K Street French restaurant, but we encountered issues with service, and to a smaller extent, execution of dishes. The foundation is solid, and one gets the sense, from our visits and from the consistency of Aïoli Bodega Española, which is owned by the same family, that wrinkles will be smoothed over time.
Impressive, with the mussels, scallops, duck confit and duck-liver paté as standouts. Though the meat in the steak frites was prepared well, most of its taste lay in the herb compound butter atop it. The meat in the rack of lamb, though tender and of obviously high quality, was too rare when it arrived at our table, and the squash served with it was nearly tasteless.
A workday lunch became a marathon when dessert took half an hour to arrive.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
Prices are mid-range for an upscale restaurant, but two of the most expensive entrees, the steak frites ($27) and rack of lamb ($34), disappointed.