Dining review: Sacramento's Kupros Bistro changes course, loses its edge
03/06/2011 12:00 AM
08/10/2011 12:48 PM
We were there on the second night it was open, sitting upstairs on the spacious balcony during a bustling Second Saturday in midtown, enjoying the warm night air of late summer 2010.
The streets were alive, people were everywhere, and once I got past the incongruous reggae music blasting our way – oh, and the unfortunate view of an empty funeral home parking lot – I was almost ready to declare Kupros Bistro my new favorite restaurant.
A beautiful bar featuring a signature stained-glass ceiling. A major renovation of a rundown Craftsman house (despite installing ugly ceiling fans).
The owner spent nearly $500,000 to create a viable restaurant and pub in a building that had been ready to keel over. Good times were coming, no doubt.
The chef was John Gurnee, whose cooking made Mason's on 15th Street one of the premier restaurants in town before its owners decided to revamp the menu, making it simpler and less expensive to meet the demands of all those spiraling economic indicators.
That left Gurnee looking for a job. He didn't stay idle for long.
At Kupros, Gurnee was exciting and edgy and inventive. His food had an identity, a style, an attitude – including his take on a French-Canadian comfort-food-from-hell called poutine.
With that, Gurnee took the traditional fries, gravy and cheese curds, and created a dish that seemed like it was on its way to becoming a local legend – like the whole pig roasting streetside at Mulvaney's or the pastrami sandwich at Bud's Buffet.
Gurnee's oxtail gravy was made from scratch, and its flavor was amazing. Then he piled on braised oxtail meat, all shredded and tender. It, too, was amazing.
And there was more. Yellowfin tuna meticulously prepared. Potted rabbit. A trophy burger vying to be the best in town, made with grass-fed beef from a special breed of cattle in South America, then custom-ground just for Kupros.
I went back. And went back again. This place was good and leaning toward great.
Then there was a come-to-Jesus meeting with the chef. The food cost too much, and labor costs were too high. Translation: Chill out on building all that flavor the old-fashioned way, and let's speed up the process. Does anyone one really care if the beef is from Argentina?
When I called to find out what happened to our star chef – my new best friend on 21st Street – Kupros manager Mike Barton confirmed my fears.
"He was let go, simply based off his numbers – the food costs and labor costs," Barton said. "His style of food was very ahead of the game. It was more San Francisco than Sacramento right now. It was a little too advanced for the market we are in right now."
Don't be offended, Sactown foodies. From the outset, I had urged adventurous diners via Facebook to give Kupros a good look. Perhaps they didn't respond in time. Part of it may have been the identity of the place – I'm not sure Kupros knew what it wanted to be.
Now we have the Kupros of today, and the priorities have clearly shifted. The last time I heard any buzz about the place was when Gurnee was still in the undersized kitchen on 21st Street – not working his magic, as he does now, at Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco's financial district, part of the Tyler Florence Group.
The food at Kupros is no longer exceptional. It's decent. Some is good. And some, like our duck confit salad or the Caesar salad second course with our $45 ho-hum four-course beer pairings dinner, was nearly tasteless.
The ribs that followed the Caesar salad? Flavor-challenged.
The big half-pound burger we tried to wolf down at lunch should be subtitled "Saved by the Bun" – we could barely taste the beef. Yes, the bun was grilled and crunchy and delicious. I would actually recommend this burger to vegetarians, except that not tasting meat isn't the same thing as not eating meat. Oh, well.
Rabbit sugo? Which way did that wabbit go? The dish was an appetizer masquerading as an entree – undersized, overpriced and, once again, too bland to be memorable. The coq au vin was simply an unfortunate interpretation of a classic French dish using red wine: a dry chicken breast plunked atop a serving of parsnip purée (which we liked). We wondered where the red wine had gone – or any sauce, for that matter.
By then we were expecting the battered and fried eggplant to trigger nary a sensation on our taste buds – and we were not disappointed. Except for more cheese curds and some nicely seasoned tomato-based soffrito, this dish was as bland as TMZ without Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan.
The prix-fixe dinner for Beer Week was a great idea and a tad daring, but the food didn't rise to the occasion. Further, this was a good chance to showcase Kupros' beers, but there was no explanation for why Kupros selected the particular beers to go with the food, served in 3-ounce glasses per course.
A dinner like this could have been educational and entertaining. They could have provided specifics about the beer – some history, some different approaches to brewing, a note or two on the array of flavors and range of textures in quality beers. Instead, we played a guessing game, had a pretty good time and walked away thinking, at best, that we will have another Blanche de Bruxcelles very soon.
Memories of the food flittered away not long after our feet hit the sidewalk.
Why so timid? Why so reluctant to create dishes that no one else is doing? Why were those ribs nothing better than what we could find at any chain restaurant off any interstate?
And most of all, what happened to my poutine?
Now there's a question this Canadian transplant never thought he'd ask. The poutine has been downsized and, to be fair, is still pretty darn good – it's just not really darn good. It comes in a cute cast-iron pan, has plenty of decent gravy smothering the French fries and enough melting cheese curds to make you forget your troubles.
This is the reality of the pub and restaurant business. To have a successful restaurant, you have to start in the kitchen. The chef is driving the bus. The food is the identity of the place.
But that wasn't the right route for Kupros, which decided to scale back its food from edgy "gastro pub" to traditional pub with American bistro cuisine – manager Barton confirmed as much.
But in this case, scaling back has meant stripping away all signs of excitement or risk coming out of the kitchen. This certainly takes much of the attention off the menu and turns Kupros' focus, rather assertively, to being a nice place for a meal and an appealing place for a beer.
That beer list is excellent – 12 beers on tap and 14 in bottles. The cocktail list changes with the seasons. And the folks who work at Kupros are very friendly.
The large square-shaped bar is still a work of art, the kind of place that some might make a second home, à la "Cheers."
But as a restaurant, it's not so memorable. Not anymore. Given its locale – within walking distance of at least a half-dozen very good restaurants – you either have to really nail the cooking or take a big step back.
Now it's a good bar with decent food leaning toward being a great bar with decent food. And that's OK, too.
1217 21st St., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. brunch and 4-9 p.m. dinner Sunday
Overall:2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Kupros started out with a bang when it came to food – inventive, different, delicious. Then it scaled back and sent its star chef packing. Now the focus is more on its great beer list and cocktails as well as a great atmosphere.
Food: 2 stars (fair)
It's hard to get excited about a menu that doesn't really showcase lively flavors or interesting cuisine. The basic offerings are fine, but the approach comes off as timid. Let the flavors be the star, and this could still work.
Service: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Lots of pleasant people work here. Do they know the menu as well as they should? One of our servers asked us what ingredients were in the potato salad. But friendly and attentive they are.
Ambience: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
Kupros invested plenty to bring this rundown building back to life. The bar is stunning. The upstairs dining area is cool. When it's busy, the place has plenty of life.
Value: 2 stars (fair)
How do you set a price on uninspired or underseasoned food? Bring up the flavor and we will feel happier paying the bill.
About This BlogBlair Anthony Robertson is The Sacramento Bee's restaurant critic. He also writes the column "Beer Run." In addition to visiting the area's breweries, restaurants and coffee shops, he enjoys riding his road bike, playing golf and hiking with his dogs. Reach him at email@example.com or 916-321-1099. Twitter: @Blarob
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