Long before there was Biba Ristorante and Ella Dining Room and Bar, before there were all kinds of cool and creative bistros and crowded ethnic eateries scattered around town, there was a bustling and beloved restaurant on Second Street called Saddle Rock.
Many people dined there. Some people are reputed to have died there. There were fistfights and gunfights intermingled with hearty feasts and dizzying booze binges, beginning with the Gold Rush and running for more than a hundred years.
Saddle Rock is considered to be Sacramento’s first and longest-running restaurant, which explains why the new, inspired-by-the-original Saddle Rock plans to have a menu that reads like a blend of the 18th century and 2016.
Tentatively scheduled to open on June 13 on one of the busiest blocks in midtown, Saddle Rock promises to teach us about the city’s colorful, often progressive and sometimes tawdry culinary legacy while digging deeper into the region’s thriving farm-to-fork reputation of today.
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The mix of old and new is intended to be stimulating and colorful, though with any luck the brawls and duels will be superseded by cellphones, selfies and social media posts.
“There was so much urban legend and folklore steeped around Saddle Rock,” said Michael Williams, the new restaurant’s general manager. “There were murders and people trying to sell off their wives to pay off their debts. One of the owners said he saw a UFO. The restaurant was a great equalizer. Everybody could come to the table or go to the bar and sit down for simple sustenance or a grand celebration.”
While the original in Old Sacramento was open for more than a century and often served food 24 hours a day to gold miners, gunslingers and all kinds of townsfolk, the new version at 1801 L St. will start with lunch and dinner and will emphasize craft cocktails at the bar, with late-night hours on weekends.
A preview of the first draft of the opening menu suggests this casual fine-dining restaurant will have food unlike anything else in town, possibly jarring to those familiar with the tried-and-true category known as new American cuisine. Think of it as new-old American cooking rooted in the Central Valley.
There will be pickled eggs served with smashed black-eyed peas and rye toast; oyster bread and dill butter; savory flapjacks made with charred corn and corn smut (the fungus known in Mexican cuisine as huitlacoche); beef Wellington with watercress and poached egg; Sacramento-style cioppino with crayfish, sturgeon, catfish and oysters; and with a nod to the influence of Chinese immigrants on local cuisine, you’ll find the very Californian dish of chop suey with soba noodles and local carrots, cabbage and green beans. For dessert? Griddle-fried bread topped with Sierra berries and whipped sour cream.
Saddle Rock is the latest restaurant experience dreamed up by Chris Jarosz, a Pennsylvania native who introduced himself to Sacramento foodies with his popular Wicked ’Wich food truck before opening the dark and divey hamburger joint, Broderick Roadhouse, in West Sacramento. Broderick Midtown and the casual fine-dining restaurant Localis are also part of the Jarosz stable, along with the 5,000-square-foot restaurant The Patriot, headed by chef Allyson Harvie, opening this summer at the Milagro Centre in Carmichael. More Brodericks are in the works under a licensing agreement, including one opening soon in Walnut Creek.
Jarosz came up with the Saddle Rock concept while doing research on another project, but he eventually realized the idea of a legacy restaurant could connect with Sacramento food enthusiasts looking to embrace what is old, new and essential about the regional food scene. To make the concept come to life, Jarosz has enlisted restaurant veteran Williams as general manager and creative force Matt Masera to run the kitchen. Masera recently left a successful stint at Mother and Empress Tavern, chef Michael Thiemann’s pair of highly touted K Street restaurants, and Jarosz jumped at the chance to bring him into the fold.
“I’m really excited. He has this fresh perspective and it’s going to be cool for people to see,” said Jarosz. “We’re going to see some really cool things coming from this guy.
“He’s got such a broad, broad range of talents. The way he translated what we wanted to do with Saddle Rock, he really put together a menu that fit the transition from old to new and the type of demographic we wanted to shoot for, as well as putting together food that will appeal to the masses.”
Masera started as a pastry chef and learned under the guidance of Ginger Elizabeth Hahn of Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates before branching out as a savory chef. Don’t be fooled by his time at Mother, a vegetarian restaurant. Masera is a longtime hunter and meat eater, and his new kitchen will showcase a variety of meats along with an array of vegetable dishes.
In prepping to launch the restaurant, Williams and Masera have not only rolled up their sleeves but dusted off the history books, using the past to inspire them about what food they will serve and how the restaurant will look and feel. All the while, they have been careful to ensure the whole thing doesn’t come off like a kitschy theme restaurant.
“The great thing with our staff is we geek out on this. Everybody on this team is excited about the history, that sense of place,” said Williams. “With Saddle Rock being open for more than a hundred years, it lends itself to the idea of Sacramento being the indomitable city. It flooded. It burned down. They had to raise it and put everything on stilts. But it kept coming back and kept growing.
Everybody on this team is excited about the history, that sense of place.
Michael Williams, general manager of Saddle Rock
“There are so many periods of this hundred-plus-year span. We’re celebrating the entire spectrum. We’re honoring the concept, the history, the progression of Saddle Rock.”
Much of that responsibility has been placed in the hands of Masera, who keeps a notebook to jot down tidbits that might grow into ideas and evolve as dishes.
Masera was not the original choice as chef, in part because it was not yet known he was looking to try something new. Jarosz’s original chef was 26-year-old Kevin O’Connor, an exciting but in some ways unproven talent best known for his underground dinner series and a stint at Blackbird. O’Connor left the project just weeks before it was to open. As luck would have it, Masera became available just as Jarosz was putting out feelers for a new executive chef.
Masera immediately went to work to create a menu. Asked about his creative process, Masera began thumbing through his notebook, showing his meticulous penmanship and abundant tidbits of information.
“It starts with cataloging flavors in your head,” he said. “I’ll know the texture and flavor and color of something, and I’ll know it will go well with something else or contrast nicely with another ingredient. Cooking is an art form. You have to make sure there is color and vibrancy and depth and drama.
“You can dream all day, but it has to be fundamental and it needs to work. There has to be an element of technique in there that is executable on a scale that doesn’t need five cooks to do it. There is definitely editing involved.”
You can dream all day, but it has to be fundamental and it needs to work.
Matt Masera, executive chef at Saddle Rock
Williams and Masera have been collaborating often as they ready Saddle Rock for its opening. The space is already well known to midtown restaurant goers since it thrived as L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen and then flopped as Capital Dime. Jarosz’s Broderick team tried to rescue Capital Dime, an eatery originally conceived as a menu where everything cost no more than $10. When nothing seemed to click, he closed the restaurant and has been paying rent for months on the shuttered space as he’s looked for new ideas.
The new Saddle Rock will have the familiar bar of L Wine Lounge up front, along with lounge seating where guests can enjoy cocktails and small plates. For more involved dining, there will be tables upstairs toward the back of the space, as well as on the patio in back. A new “parklet,” with outdoor seating in front along L Street, will also be open.
Masera says he’s still putting the final touches on his opening menu, which will change with the seasons and what area farms are growing. He’ll have dandelion greens in a salad, pickles and cheese in a jar, a whole roasted trout sprawled across a dinner plate. There will be steak with summer corn succotash, and catfish nuggets served with preserved lemon and summer chilies.
While it’s too soon to tell what will catch on at the 21st-century Saddle Rock, the food, the cocktails and the concept promise to connect today’s foodies with Sacramento’s rich culinary past.
Opening date tentatively set for June 13
Address: 1801 L St., Sacramento
More information: facebook.com/SaddleRockBar