The Rind offers high-end, well-executed comfort food in a not-always-comfortable setting.
That setting also can be exceptionally cozy, its dim lighting and casual vibe enveloping you in a cocoon of intimacy more common to places in the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco than midtown Sacramento.
The 4-year-old, cheese-centric cafe’s food, about which I always heard good things but did not try until recently, is even better than anticipated. Creative variations on grilled-cheese sandwiches and mac ’n’ cheese deliver that satisfaction specific to childhood favorites modified to suit adult palates.
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So you can see why I wanted to overcome my initial, negative impression of the Rind, neighbor to Buckhorn Grill and Ginger Elizabeth in the 1801 L St. shopping center. That impression resulted from the person who greeted me at the door emphasizing just how limited seating opportunities would be for my party of one.
The high, four-seat tables near the restaurant’s entrance apparently were out of the question for any party smaller than three. I was pointed to the lone seat available at the bar, in between groups of man-spreaders. Or there was a two-seat table in back. The two-seater was offered with some reluctance, as if it were a hidden gem and instead of a table right in front of the bathroom.
The bar it was. There I received terrific service from staff members who included my initial greeter, suggesting the entry process is stressful for all. But during dessert, a server asked if I could move down a stool to accommodate a party of two. I moved, for what turned out to be one guy with an empty seat next to him – at least for the 10 minutes it took to finish my dessert and settle the bill.
My discomfort partly arose from being denied the ability to settle in to the dining experience. It also came from the scorekeeping the seating issues had inspired. What did I care if some guy’s companion did not show up? Such matters seem petty. Yet here I was, feeling competitive – and apparently showing how I felt, since my server told me she would not charge me for dessert, as thanks for moving seats.
Scorekeeping spiraled into shame, at having redefined “First World problems” with every pointed look at that empty bar stool.
I felt especially bad since I had loved dessert, a cheesecake with intriguing savory notes introduced by mixing Laura Chenel chevre with mascarpone and cream cheese. And the dishes that had come before it had been near-perfect. Though the Rind’s menu is small and reflects a tiny kitchen lacking a professional grill, there is variety within its sandwich, salad and mac ’n’ cheese offerings, and among the cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, listed on a wall display, from which a diner can choose for a cheese plate.
The sandwich I tried that first night, “T-Brie-D” grilled cheese, comes with Marin French triple crème Brie, prosciutto, sliced Fuji apple, salted caramel sauce and hints of cayenne, and seems to have it all – sweetness, heat, salt and most important, plentiful cheese. But the flavor picture was not complete until I tasted the roasted-tomato soup. Infused with thyme, oregano and basil, this soup is equally bright and herbaceous.
Sandwich and soup together cost $19, or about $17.75 more than my Kraft-Wonder-Campbell’s childhood lunches did. Yet the only misgivings I harbored about returning to the Rind involved seating. Even those were mild, since smooth second and third restaurant-review visits often eclipse a rocky first one. The critic’s practice of visiting a place multiple times stands in direct opposition to the adage of not getting a second chance to make a first impression.
Except in this case. The Rind was the same every time: good food, eaten in a seat I did not prefer, since I was either alone or with one person, and it appears to take a trio to get a great seat here.
Rind co-owner Sara Arbabian said she instructs staff on nights she expects the place to fill up to seat people according to party size. On less-busy nights, the policy is not as strict. And even on a busy night, a smaller party can sit at a larger table if it is the only one available. I visited at the wrong times, apparently.
Seating issues are not new to the Rind, Arbabian said. The cafe for which she serves as cheese maven and menu planner has done a brisk business since opening in 2013. She and her husband, Rind co-owner Steve Tatterson, are working to alleviate matters by building a patio next to their place. The Rind once took reservations, but Arbabian said people seeing empty tables reserved for parties yet to show prompted more complaints than the current system.
Seating snags obviously do not keep fans from returning to the Rind. I decided to visit after noticing how packed the place always was, in contrast to its nearly empty (and now-closed) neighbor Saddle Rock. Plus, whenever people I knew mentioned the Rind, they would use the same hushed, appreciative tones regarding its grilled cheese sandwiches that Ginger Elizabeth fans use in describing macarons.
We enjoyed the Rind’s Teleme More sandwich, in which dried-fig sweetness and solidity offset the tang and ooze of washed-rind Teleme. The Twisted Classic, with Black Diamond 5-year-aged cheddar inside Grateful Bread sourdough and also shredded and mixed with butter into a top coat, sates a desire for a more traditional, fig- and apple-less grilled cheese.
The Rind’s Not Your Mom’s Mac balances Black Diamond cheddar, Gruyère and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano while allowing for notes of nuttiness and sharpness to emerge at times. The pasta retains a slight, welcome firmness here and in the cheeseless (and vegan) “Masquerader Mac.” The latter’s puree of sun-dried tomatoes, almonds and sunflower seeds offers so much depth and spark that the dish does not seem like a substitute for anything.
The Rind offers a nice, oft-changing draft beer list, chosen by Tatterson. The Figueroa Mountain Brewing Pilsner our server recommended to go with our T-Brie-D and tomato soup suited the cheese’s mildness yet stood up to the meal’s spicier and more acidic elements.
On another night, we ordered a highly versatile $38 Il Torchio Sangiovese blend. The wine teased out the fig sweetness in the Teleme More sandwich, highlighted the snap of the romesco dressing on the Rind’s well-crafted Basque salad, and rounded out the flavors in the Chocolate Mousse-Carpone dessert. It hit a wall only with the Twisted Classic sandwich, the cheddar sharpness of which drew out the wine’s more bitter qualities.
The only misses among items we tried were a flat lager and an overly chilled burrata-and-tomato appetizer. This success rate almost makes one want to reassess the Rind’s seating issues, in the context of the many similarly tiny, highly touted cafes in bigger cities – Boston, Chicago, San Francisco – in which I happily have squeezed into less-than-ideal seats, next to fellow tourists also drawn by high Zagat or Yelp scores.
Maybe the Rind is not irritating. Maybe it’s just exclusive.
1801 L St., Suite 40, Sacramento. 916-441-7463, www.therindsacramento.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Compact, international list of wines by the glass and bottle. Dessert wines by the glass. Sake. Six beers on tap. Bottled beers.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: Moderate, though the music from the sound system can be too noticeable at times.
Ambiance: The small space is warm and intimate, with wooden wine racks providing much of the decoration. The Rind also always smells great – the olfactory equivalent of a grilled-cheese sandwich with tomato soup.
The food is top-notch and service attentive and knowledgeable, but seating can be an issue.
Food ☆☆☆ 1/2
The cheese-centric menu is limited, but we liked nearly everything we tried, from grilled cheese sandwiches to mac ’n’ cheese to cheesecake and roasted tomato soup.
Service ☆☆ 1/2
Highly professional, though there were some moments when we did not feel especially welcome – mainly in regard to seating.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
Many would scoff at $12-$14 grilled-cheese sandwiches, but they are expertly crafted, hearty and come with greens. The Rind’s exceptionally tasty desserts are generously portioned and fairly priced at $8. But price level is slightly higher than the comfort level merits.