Grange, the restaurant at the Citizen Hotel, touts itself as a farm-to-table experience whose menu changes almost daily.
You'd never know it from its website – it changes whenever someone gets around to it. The posted menu on the day of this writing is more than a month behind. The chef's blog, once a mainstay when Michael Tuohy was at the helm, is missing in action.
No big deal, but this is 2012 and websites can be a meaningful way to connect with the dining community.
Tuohy was the chef who opened Grange three-plus years ago. With his passion for food and his smarts about the politics of food, his impact was immediate.
Enter Tuohy's replacement, a well-traveled, classically trained Briton named Oliver Ridgeway, whose first six months have taken some getting used to. Was he carving out a new identity, carrying on with what Tuohy started, or fitting into a concept that now felt a bit corporate?
Ridgeway prevailed in a rigorous tryout process that included edging out his now-second-in-command, Brad Cecchi, the executive sous chef who handles the charcuterie, among other things, with such aplomb.
The story the new chef was hoping to tell through his food was a little fuzzy in the early months. What was he all about? The food on the plate suggested he was still getting a feel for the city, the restaurant, the mission.
My first meal under Ridgeway was excellent, though I don't remember much from the farm – it was all about the sea. The salmon was a thing of beauty – thick, rich in color and "undercooked" to perfection. Crispy skin on one side gave the fish an extra textural component, yet it was cool and tender and succulent in the middle. It showed exactitude and maybe a touch of moxie.
The carne asada dish that day was something special, too, showing that this chef took to heart his time cooking in New Mexico. The Southwestern flavors were intense, exciting and thorough.
A restaurant in a hotel has plenty of moving parts and is susceptible to inconsistencies. Several weeks later, we encountered them – our quail was far too salty, much too dry and nearly unpalatable. The charcuterie plate was mostly superb, though the pickled vegetables seemed laden with vinegar and had an overly harsh, puckering tartness.
Yet the sturgeon dish was a success – a lean, delicately flavored piece of fish wrapped with lardo and crisped in the pan. It created a caramelizing effect and an extra dose of fatty mouth feel while locking in the juices. I was beginning to wonder if Grange was fast becoming a seafood restaurant.
A couple of months later we had our answer – maybe. Steelhead ($28), halibut ($30) and a plate of mussels ($14) all were done with such precision, while the vegetables were either lost in a medley or noticeably underseasoned.
The mussels, especially, were a revelation. Instead of the classic preparation, the Grange version presented a vivid spiciness and heat, with wonderful pieces of chorizo and a broth that gave us a sense of complex Sante Fe flavors brought to the Pacific.
The pork chop at Grange was a winner, though there are so many places doing the thick-cut Mulvaney's-like chop these days that the dish is only memorable if it's screwed up.
The desserts are due for an upgrade with the hiring of pastry chef Jodie Chavious, formerly of Taylor's Kitchen. Before her arrival, we had mixed feelings – loved the idea of the sticky toffee pudding ($8), and it turned out to be a rich, intensely flavored treat, though a rather inelegant one. The butterscotch pudding, a Tuohy holdover, is cute and humble, though this $8 menu mainstay may be overstaying its welcome.
Service is an ongoing issue at Grange. When the restaurant opened, it sometimes felt like panic mixed with ennui. Under Ridgeway, service is much more polished, but it's still not what we see at the area's top restaurants such as the Firehouse, Biba, Taste, Hawks, Ambience, Ella or Mulvaney's.
Sometimes it's the little things, like when a server points out the quality of the stemware – which encourages us to hold it toward the light, revealing multiple water spots. Sometimes it's a matter of style, like the server who described everything as "amazing" or "outstanding" or "incredible."
Grange is not amazing. The food is good and sometimes very good. The service can still range from very good to pretty good, with routine table maintenance sometimes falling short.
The room is beautiful – an elegant urban oasis full of crisp modern lines, excellent light and touches of rustic/industrial details. Still, some elements don't distinguish themselves. Those big, appealing windows look out toward the most blighted, underachieving block on the downtown grid instead of the park and City Hall.
The kitchen is supposedly an open design, but it's also partially concealed, meaning you can glimpse the tops of the chefs' heads, but you can't really see what they're doing with the food.
The wine list is a creative accomplishment and a real treat to explore, with the wines divided into regions, like chapters in a book. But it's hardly user-friendly when I'm trying to zero in on a bottle for dinner. The inventory is lacking, too. It's all about the West Coast, with no bottles from Europe or South America.
The loser is the diner, all for the sake of this local/ regional Alice Waters-type concept. We get it – the food comes from good farms. Given how common that is these days, the message could be toned down without losing a sense of the mission.
Now would be the time. With his talent, vision and personality, Ridgeway has the potential to remake Grange as his place without losing all of the good that Tuohy started.
926 J St., Sacramento
Hours: Open daily at 6:30 a.m., closes Monday to Thursday at 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m., Sunday at 9 p.m.
Full bar? Yes
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Overall three stars (good)
The competition is stiff at this price point, and while Grange's farm-to-table food and elegant room offer plenty, the overall experience falls just short of the top-tier restaurants in the region.
Food three stars (good)
After six months as the chef, Oliver Ridgeway has shown flashes of brilliance, many moments of good cooking and occasional lapses that suggest consistency is an issue. Several fish dishes have been tremendous, the house-made charcuterie is a winner, and the roast chicken was very good.
Service two 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Restaurants at the top make it look so easy. It's not. The wine service doesn't stack up to places like the Firehouse or Hawks, and overall details with timing and table maintenance, while mostly good, show occasional stumbles. Overselling or hyping the food can be off-putting.
Ambience three 1/2 stars (very good)
It's one of the prettiest, most elegant rooms in the city, with tall windows, pleasant light and good flow. But some of the elements don't add up, from the windows that look out toward blight to the "open" kitchen that doesn't show us anything.
Valuetwo stars (fair)
Dinner for three during one visit was $260. From a $42 steak to a $15 hamburger, it's a tad too expensive for the level of cooking and sophistication found here. Fridays are a better bet, when all bottles of wine are discounted 50 percent.