First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently sampled three new restaurants. All started with high hopes and some good ideas. Yet, all three face significant challenges as they struggle to find an identity, an audience and, ultimately, a path to success.
A good bit of that challenge will center on getting the menu right. One place has already revamped its menu and abruptly changed chefs, and the food is now significantly more casual, though not necessarily better. Another place might need to do more with its menu, not less, to draw diners to a challenging location downtown. And one place may have its menu in entirely the wrong language.
La Bonne Soupe (920 Eighth St., Sacramento)
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With the language issue, I'm referring to the newly imagined La Bonne Soupe, the place on a not-so-glamorous block downtown that developed a cultlike following over the past six years.
The inimitable Frenchman Daniel Pont used his manners, his skills as a chef and an abundance of understated charm to inspire people to flock to his ramshackle bistro and wait in line for an hour or more for lunch.
It was a love fest, and never mind that the food was overrated. It was soup and sandwiches – good ones but not great ones – all adjusted to suit Monsieur Pont's highly trained palate.
Recently, the 72-year-old Pont found himself in excruciating pain trying to work his one-man show, and he wound up selling his business, to the collective dismay of his loyal followers.
So, who in his right mind would buy La Bonne Soupe when La Bonne Soupe was not about the soup as much as it was about a mystical Frenchman serving the soup?
Edward Stoddard is who. And boy oh boy, is he trying to fill some big chef's clogs.
Stoddard bought the business and the name, but he didn't get Pont's recipes. That's not a bad thing. If customers watched closely, they would have noticed the soups were not made from scratch, that the smoked salmon came out of a package and many of the ingredients were nothing extraordinary.
But Stoddard is a New Yorker, and an upstate one at that, meaning he can't even cuss out an ungrateful customer in gruff but poetic Brooklyn-ese. He does not speak French, yet the menu is in French, or at least it has plenty of French words and attempts at French grammar.
For the new business to make it, the soups and sandwiches will have to be twice as good to get a line half as long. Trying to imitate Pont – without the accent and absent the mystique – could be a fatal mistake.
If La Bonne Soupe is going to be successful, it needs to reflect the heart and soul of the owner-chef. That's what rang so true with Pont and why no one questioned his food. He made it seem as if it would taste great. I would rather see Stoddard be the New Yorker and middle-aged skateboarder that he is rather than try to be the Frenchman he is not.
Stoddard's food, so far, is mixed. A couple of his soups are good, especially the wild mushroom. The French onion tasted overly beefy, there were not enough onions and the crouton, if there was one, was too small to hold up the slices of cheese on top. The sandwiches are much weaker than Pont's, though Stoddard is using the same par-baked bread he toasts in-house. The construction lacks precision. Too much aioli on one, not enough meat on another, and the balance of flavors needs honing.
One sandwich, featuring shrimp, was inedible. The shrimp had spoiled, which should have been obvious from the strong odor, which I could detect before the plate even hit the table.
That has nothing to do with a language barrier. The chef must manage his inventory and not make those kinds of careless mistakes.
Pause Lounge & Kitchen (1465 Eureka Road, Roseville)
I really admire the owners of this place, the brothers Lucas and Jake Elia, ages 23 and 21, respectively.
What they have accomplished for their ages is impressive. They are smart, talented and passionate. They are already the proprietors of Bloom, an excellent coffee shop.
Two years ago, in a story I wrote on the rise of independent coffee shops, Lucas Elia told me, "We are trying to make the best coffee we possibly can."
Coffee, for many, is an obsession, partly because there are few variables and they are relatively easy to control.
Food, however, is much more challenging. Food has to be sourced properly and cooked skillfully. And before that, it has to be imagined as if from a dream. How can the food make a restaurant stand out without alienating the target audience?
Sadly, Pause continues to struggle with this question. I have already given Pause two looks – one with the old menu and original chef, another with the new menu and new chef.
My first first impression? Fair. The next "first" impression? Worse than fair, better than bad.
The first time, I had a piece of "local" halibut that suggested the restaurant was overreaching with the locavore menu nomenclature, because most of the best halibut I've had comes from the deep waters off Alaska, not the rapids of our American River.
When I asked about this "local" fish, the server went back to the kitchen and returned with our answer: Pier 36 in San Francisco. OK, so that was lame, and the fish didn't acquit itself, either – overcooked and as bland as battleship gray.
Several other dishes were underseasoned. The most interesting dish back then was a crab beignet, presented with a dipping sauce. Cool. But there was too little flavor and the centers were gooey (undercooked), like rookie-league pancakes. Not cool.
Now comes the new menu. Our personable and hardworking server, when asked, described several items on the menu, using words ranging from "excellent" to "amazing."
I'm just glad he wasn't hooked up to a polygraph.
The coffee-glazed ribs were excellent. Tender, meaty, tasty.
But the "amazing" fried chicken – yes, fried chicken – was perhaps the worst I've ever had. Amazing? No. Astounding? Yes. The batter was thick, dull, dry as sawdust, underseasoned and, the topper, our chicken was practically raw in the center.
Is it possible our new chef came from a raw bar rather than nearby (and highly touted) Hawks? Our hanger steak, too, was also nearly raw in the middle. When we sent it back, it returned to us overdone and nearly tasteless.
The room and the furnishings are the saving grace. Stylish, cool, smart. They're a reflection of the owners. The food, however, is in search of an identity.
The menu reads nicely. But so far, it does not show well.
Blue Prynt (815 11th St., Sacramento)
This place may be the furthest along of our three contenders. It also faces the toughest challenge – its location.
Sure, it's only a few blocks from the city's thriving restaurant scene. But it's nestled away on a sleepy street that dries up after 5 p.m.
Blue Prynt is the dream of 30-year-old owner-chef Jason Lockard, who spent seven years as executive chef at Brew It Up, which is only a few blocks away.
Lockard doesn't like hype, pretentiousness or high prices. His menu is a reflection of that. Good, honest American cooking, with a few twists.
"I don't want to have a shtick. Our thing is quality without the price and without the attitude," he told me by phone.
But goodness, if ever a place needed some hype, it's Blue Prynt.
Lockard is a hardworking, earnest guy, but with this location, Blue Prynt will have to be more of a destination restaurant than a feel-good restaurant. It's a neighborhood restaurant, but nobody lives in the neighborhood.
Maybe he doesn't need a shtick, but he at least needs a bullhorn, something to draw crowds.
To become a destination, you have to have food on the menu that is not being done everywhere else. So far, the Blue Prynt menu is not special enough, even if we enjoyed some satisfying dishes.
The bruschetta seemed promising – with plenty of refreshing avocado to go with the Roma tomatoes – but the bread, of all things, was the weak point. It wasn't good enough to be the focal point of the dish. Too much like sandwich bread.
We found the French onion soup intriguing – because there was no cheese. But while the soup was tasty, leaving off the cheese made it less interesting, not more. Please name me a dish in which melting, gooey cheese doesn't make it better – or at least more fun.
The "chicken cordon blue" is a dish headed in the right direction. Nicely prepared chicken brimming with Black Forest ham and, (see cheese, melting) molten Gruyère. It's served with a wild rice pilaf and Thai basil ratatouille that makes a compelling statement for flavors that both soothe and inspire, a fusion of East and West.
The fish and chips, too, sported some distinctive flavor notes by using cayenne and cumin, served with pretty good french fries. We also enjoyed a couple of sandwiches, including a filet mignon offering that, again, could have benefited from better bread.
Lockard knows his stuff when it comes to cooking,but he's not yet doing enough to lure folks out of their restaurant comfort zones.
People like to be around other people. If they're going to go out, they want to be part of something exciting.
Lockard is showing he is a skillful, if understated chef. If he takes his game up a notch or two, people are going to start seeking out his food.