Thumb your nose at restaurant chains if you wish – just don't ignore them.
The best-run chains can teach us important lessons: The concept, whatever it may be, is easy to understand, the staff is well trained, the food is consistent and the experience is reliable.
The problem? Reliable can be synonymous with sameness, which is a step away from boring and impersonal. Concepts and menus created via focus groups can suck the soul right out of a restaurant.
I visited a new locally owned little neighborhood bistro, where a husband-and-wife team are poised to take the lessons they learned at chains and apply them to a place they can call their own.
Edmund and Melissa Jade Abay met while working at P.F. Chang's in downtown Sacramento. Now, married with three kids, they thought, "Hey, let's give up the paid vacations and benefits, go into debt and open Pocket Bistro," a restaurant in a strip mall in the Greenhaven/Pocket area.
Really, it's people like this who make the restaurant business exciting and essential.
Will they be able to merge the fundamentals they learned at chains with their dream of running a cozy, singular and creative neighborhood hangout?
Based on my visits: yes and no, with enough yes to give me hope.
The food, much of it delicious, shows hints of a flair – including an outstanding and unusual chicken piccata and an Asian-inspired skirt steak that made me savor every bite. The wine, especially the house red and white, just $3.50 a glass, was sophisticated enough to keep us happy.
Some elements of the service need work, and the room, ironically, lacks the warmth and personal touch that is essential for a neighborhood bistro.
Pocket Bistro doesn't have those pretend-local photos you see at a place like Applebee's, but it needs something that creates a genuine sense of place. The lighting could be improved. The furniture is basic restaurant warehouse tables and chairs.
The vibe at Pocket Bistro during my visits could be summed up as a room looking for a personality. But it offers enough personal touches out front and enough creativity and skill in the kitchen to suggest this place is going to adjust, improve and thrive. It opened Dec. 22 and is still finding its A-game.
I often hear from people from that part of town who say they want a restaurant just like this – affordable and informal, with a full bar and food that is at once accessible and different enough to keep them on their toes.
We'll get to the food in a moment. But let's start with a first impression that should not happen.
We walk in, we're greeted with a tense smile and the first thing we hear about are problems.
We didn't come here to hear your problems. We go out to restaurants because it's sort of a fantasy world – we ask for things and they show up, people are extra nice to us and we don't have to clean up after ourselves. We sign our name on a slip of paper, we step outside and go back to the real world where not everyone is so nice.
The host told us there would be a 25-minute wait. But we saw plenty of empty seats. She didn't offer any options other than to take a seat in the reception area. I suggested we could sit in the lounge and eat there. She said the kitchen was so backed up that the wait for entrees would be lengthy. She advised we should order appetizers before burdening the kitchen with a dinner order.
As business models go, shooing away hungry customers is not a way to pay the rent. We persisted and, turns out, the wait was no longer than any other decently busy restaurant.
We ordered the fried calamari and it arrived in mere minutes. Delicious. Then we ordered the steak and the chicken. They got there while we were still enjoying our first glasses of wine. Perfect. That so-called problem with timing that nearly sent us to our car was never a problem.
Edmund Abay knows what he's doing in the kitchen and his wife has a nice touch with the customers out front. Together, they make a formidable pair.
One of their young servers was also a treat. He was engaging and really into the food. He was the one who described how the chicken piccata was breaded and flash-fried, then finished in the oven. This dish was a visual treat, too.
The 10 ounces of chicken is not pounded flat, as tradition dictates. It is a big, thick airline breast, meaning the first joint of the wing is left intact for decoration.
Chicken is generally on menus for the fussy or health-conscious eater. But even devoted foodies can find something to like about this dish, which is adorned with a sharp beurre blanc caper sauce, and served with zucchini, carrots and mashed potatoes infused with white truffle oil.
Imagine being a chef at P.F. Chang's or, later, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, as Abay was, and wanting to try something different only to realize that consistency means you cook it the way corporate says to cook it.
"Your hands are tied with creativity," he told me of his years paying dues. "I wanted to get out of the corporate culinary world, have interesting specials and play with the food."
How far do you want to take it? A bistro usually features cooking that sticks with classic ingredients and standard techniques, though there's no rule saying it cannot be done really well, or that you're not allowed to take risks.
The skirt steak, for example, is a fine dish that didn't have a distinctive personality. It was simply good, delicious even, though there was nothing about it that took me in a new direction. Those Asian-inspired flavors of ginger and green onion and red chili flakes were on display in perfect balance, and the meat was tender. A flavor surprise, a new twist, is not essential, though it would've been appreciated.
Pasta pomodoro is another simple dish with a marinara sauce that is infused with garlic, resulting in a bright, fresh flavor with strong, earthy undertones. The clam chowder was a winner, too, thanks to simplicity done right. If you're not going to reinvent this old standard, then do it the way Abay does – use good heavy cream, be generous with the clams and give it a smoky layer of flavor by slipping in some quality bacon.
The chef has an eclectic background that reflects the community in which he lives and works, and is emblematic of what we might describe as California's cuisine – Asian-influenced, broad-minded and open-ended. He is Filipino and he grew up watching his mother's passion for cooking at home. His cooking repertoire is European, Asian and whatever else inspires him.
On our visits, we never saw Edmund step out from the kitchen, though he told me he does whenever possible. Interactions with guests – chatting about the food and the neighborhood – would serve him well.
It's also important to have the folks working out front represent his bistro properly and be able to deal with chaos. With all the restaurant options in Sacramento, the first impression we got could have been fatal, seeing as how we pretty much had to talk our way in.
To see how a chain might handle it differently, I went to the source – P.F. Chang's at the corner of 16th and K streets. If there were problems, I wasn't privy to them. I sat and watched the action, a choreography in which every employee knew his or her role. The greeting was friendly and my server had a nice touch of personality – when I asked him how he was doing, he responded, "Oh, you know, I'm living the dream."
Living the dream is precisely what the Abays are doing with Pocket Bistro. They're on their way to making it a lasting success.
Nail down consistency and hone customer service, give more warmth and charm to the room, and keep pushing the creativity in the kitchen. Delight us, surprise us, comfort us.
The result just may be a bistro with a distinct personality and its own formula for lasting success.
6401 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Sunday. Closed Monday.
Full bar: Yes.
Vegetarian friendly: Limited.
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Open since December, this bistro is off to a solid start, with the focus on the compact menu featuring a solid cooking repertoire.
Food: 3 stars (good)
Chef Edmund Abay worked at P.F. Chang's and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, but left so he could do more-creative cooking. We'd welcome even more. So far, the chicken piccata is a highlight and several other dishes like the steak and clam chowder are nicely done.
Service: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Our mixed results suggest some of the staff members need more work. One of our waiters was engaging and knowledgeable. One of the owners also handles tables. Our greeting, however, almost sent us looking elsewhere.
Ambience: 1 1/2 stars (subpar)
Better lighting and a warmer all-around feel to the room and furniture would help give this bistro more charm. It doesn't feel as inviting as it should.