I have a dangerous job, I hope you know. Besides having to write unpleasant things about unpleasant people who own and operate sharp instruments, I am obligated to eat enough rich, fatty food to make my primary-care physician cringe.
Recently, I enjoyed a respite from those health woes when I settled in to explore the offerings at a new and promising Asian fusion restaurant in Folsom, nestled in a strip mall next to a cupcake shop.
Folsom Palace approaches Old World dishes with 21st century ideals, among them the notion that restaurant food need not come with a warning from the surgeon general.
There's no MSG. They use less oil and salt in the cooking. The ingredients are fresh. The flavors are clean and true and often vibrant. Beyond that, the restaurant surprised us with its wine and beer list, offering several options for pairing our food with adult beverages.
Folsom Palace is the work of restaurant veteran Bill Zheng and his wife, Jenny, who moved to Folsom from the Bay Area for the good schools. Their four children all attend Folsom High School.
During our visits to his restaurant, I spotted Bill Zheng stepping out from the kitchen several times to visit customers and enthusiastically explain his concept.
"This is the 21st century. People want healthy food and they want to live a long life," he told me when I caught up with him later by phone.
Zheng is passionate about his approach and Folsom restaurant-goers should be eager to embrace what he's getting at.
All the goodness was evident from the outset. The appetizers at Folsom Palace are appealing, including vegetable pot stickers and crisp, light spring rolls filled with crunchy red cabbage, carrots, celery and mushrooms. But we were most impressed by the Korean- style beef strips ($8.95) – the thin cut of meat was extraordinarily tender, and the sauce had a gentle sweetness and saltiness that accentuated the flavor of the beef.
The soups, too, were very good, including a "hot and sour" soup with shredded pork, and a "West Lake beef" with Shiitake mushrooms, egg, green onion and ample cilantro. They are available in three sizes. Twice I ordered the small, and it was too much for two people.
I wondered if the emphasis on healthy, restrained cooking would ever show up as uninspired flavors on the plate. On occasion it did. The beef-and-broccoli dish, for instance, was simply too simple and bland to win us over. And the chow mein was nicely cooked but under-seasoned, rendering the dish too dull. "Healthy" need not be synonymous with "ho-hum."
Still, there were several times during our visits we discovered classic flavors that stood tall in this health-conscious kitchen. If you want plenty of sizzle and lots of spicy heat, don't miss the "Mongolian beef in iron plate" ($13.95). It's delivered to your table in full sizzle. And we welcomed the lively, balanced seasonings of the sauce along with the tender beef and crisp rice noodles.
Yes, the beef is very good here, but those who seek plenty of vegetables in their diets will do well, too. The wealth of colors on the "combination vegetable" dish ($9.95) was impressive, giving us a large plate with a variety of textures and flavors – zucchini, broccoli, carrot, oyster mushrooms and much more, all glistening in the light of our table by the front window.
Seafood is a highlight as well. The "Canton style salt and pepper sea bass," even though it was breaded and fried, wasn't oil-sodden and was still very light. Same with the prawns, which also showcased the telltale clean, crisp finish on the palate that we found on several of our favorites. No greasy coating in our mouths; no odd, off-putting aftertastes on the way home.
Folsom Palace is still new enough that most restaurant-goers have yet to discover its charms. There were plenty of open tables during our visits, which always began with a friendly, enthusiastic greeting. The charm and attentiveness we found throughout our meal is not enough for us to award full marks for service, though. When I asked, for instance, what Canton-style cooking meant, our server was at a loss to explain it.
More understanding of the cooking and the concept will go a long, especially given Bill Zheng's zeal for updating and refining Asian cooking for health-conscious American tastes.
Don't let the name, Folsom Palace, scare you away. You can call it a palace if you like, but it's still a medium-sized eatery in the middle of a strip mall. And the reference on the menu to a "high class restaurant" should make you think you can't bring the kids here after a soccer game.
It's an earnest, aspiring and appealing restaurant, but it's not too fancy for its own good.
1169 Riley St., Folsom (916) 983-8880 www.folsompalace.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Beverage options: Wine and beer license
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Noise level: Moderate
Overall: Two 1/2 stars
The emphasis is on modern, healthy cooking without sacrificing the flavors of many age-old Chinese and Asian fusion dishes. This enlightened approach carries over to the décor, the attentive service, the music and, like it or not, the large flat-screen TV showing sports.
Food: Three stars
You'll do well picking seafood dishes, vegetable entrees and a variety of smartly prepared appetizers, including spring rolls and pot stickers. Our favorite dishes so far included General Tso's chicken, the hot and spicy Mongolian beef and the ultra-tender Korean-style beef strips (an appetizer). The few misses on the menu usually resulted from underseasoning.
Service: Two 1/2 stars
Still finding its footing, the service staff is exceptionally friendly and attentive, though occasionally our questions about the cooking were not answered clearly or accurately.
Ambience: Three stars
OK, so it's not a palace. Yet this casual but upscale restaurant is nicely decorated and comfortable, if not classy. Instead of clichéd décor and canned music, this place takes a more refined approach, right down to the classical music.
Value: Three stars The appetizers are mostly under $10, entrees are mostly in the mid-teens and vegetable dishes are $9.95. All of the portions are ample. Beyond that, the quality of the ingredients must be factored in.