The pizza flopped. But only literally.
Toppings overwhelmed the thin crusts of Putah Creek Cafe’s brick-chicken and Mediterranean pies the evening we tried them. The slices drooped from horizontal to vertical the moment they came off the plate.
Yet the flavors were striking. The chicken pizza – cooked, like all Putah Creek’s pizzas, in a large, wood-fired brick oven that sits outside the cafe in Winters – held generous amounts of mozzarella and provolone (perhaps too generous, judging by the flop) and chunks of juicy, slightly smoky chicken from a bird that had been roasted whole in the same oven.
The Mediterranean pie covered much of the flavor spectrum, merging peppery Italian sausage, a snappy tomato sauce, salty feta and sweet, caramelized red onions.
These pizzas were so tasty they encouraged extrapolation: So much planning clearly went into the toppings that equal thought must have gone into the crust. Whatever went wrong with the pizzas we tried – likely an ingredient-distribution issue, since the crust did not taste under-done – probably was specific to that night.
It’s called the benefit of the doubt, and Putah Creek Cafe had earned it through two previous visits – one breakfast, one lunch – and the stellar dishes that arrived before the pizzas that same evening, including a shishito pepper-tomato appetizer that ably merged heat and tangyness.
There’s culinary cleverness at play amid the wood paneling, oil-cloth table coverings and general country-kitchen atmosphere of this 27-year-old upscale diner housed in a late-19th-century building (and onetime bank) on Main Street. Though the restaurant built its reputation on hearty breakfasts, it also serves delicate, innovative salads, pushing its fare past satisfying to memorable without abandoning a basic comfort-food aesthetic.
Care is evident in the chunks of bacon punctuating the waffles in the weekend brunch menu’s chicken-and-waffles dish, and in the double roasting of that chicken for the dinner pizza. It’s also apparent in the refreshing quinoa and cucumber that lie, semi-hidden, beneath big, juicy pieces of beef (from the cafe’s brother restaurant across the street, Buckhorn Steakhouse) in the lunchtime tri-tip salad.
The menu’s thoughtfulness should not surprise, since the cafe’s owners, John Pickerel and Melanie Bajakian Pickerel, helped create an empire that includes several Northern California casual-dining Buckhorn Grills (including one in midtown Sacramento) as well as Tri Tip Grills in New York City.
But despite the weight behind it, including Guy Fieri’s endorsement in a 2011 episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the cafe still feels like a personal find, for its food and for a vibe that’s genuinely homey, not self-consciously “rustic.”
John Pickerel said he gets that a lot: “Everyone’s always discovering us for the first time.”
The cafe, open at 6 a.m. every day, makes for a wonderful summer day-trip destination on its own, or a stop on one’s way to Lake Berryessa or other parts of Napa County. The morning sun brings gorgeous light to the restaurant, situated on a corner. Everyone and everything glow.
The dining experience at the old-school counter, near the cash register (one pays at the register here, diner style), was more communal than anticipated one Saturday morning. Two people who were waiting for a seat (separately) approached to ask about the dish I was eating, an eggs Benedict special with smoky brisket. I recommended it for its high-quality, expertly prepared meat. Same goes for the crispy-ended carnitas on the huevos rancheros.
Locals fill the booths on weekdays. Out-of-towners come mostly on weekends, when the cafe serves what Pickerel calls “edgier comfort food” aimed at the “Diners” crowd. (The cafe serves breakfast and lunch daily and dinner Thursday-Sunday).
Once and forever Fieri’d, the cafe spikes in business each time the Food Network re-runs the “Diners” episode, Pickerel said. Other factors also have led to some menu tweaking in recent years.
Long a destination spot for Sacramento and Bay Area residents because of the Buckhorn and the Palms Playhouse, Winters has grown hipper the past few years. Local wineries, Berryessa Brewing Company and the smaller-plate restaurants Ficelle and Preserve draw out-of-towners as well.
Kids who left Winters for big cities are moving back, Pickerel said, bringing discerning taste with them. The cafe, always close to farm fields, has renewed its emphasis on farm to table. Last year, Pickerel hired Frank Carney, formerly of Sacramento’s Grange restaurant, as general manager. Carney helped revive the cafe’s garden, which provided the shishito peppers and Sun Gold tomatoes in our appetizer.
Carney recruited chef Darren Thompson, who since has left, but not before contributing memorable small plates to a cafe known for big, heaping plates. (Longtime Putah Creek Cafe chef Fred Reyes recently returned after a two-year absence to assume a corporate-level role. Kitchen manager Enrique Quezada oversees day-to-day cooking.)
Putah Creek’s popover appetizer, coated in truffle butter and sprinkled with chives, is simple, delicious and costs just $4. The $7 pepper-loaded shishito dish, though, might be the real bargain at a cafe where prices are reasonable but not as low as the diner decor suggests.
The peppers were soft from pan roasting but potent in flavor. The rule for shishitos is that one of 10 is hot, it was more like three of 10 in this batch. Goat cheese countered the peppers’ heat and tomatoes’ acidity.
Ruby-port marinade lends a clove taste, and unexpected dimension, to beets in a salad that includes texture-enhancing pistachio “soil” – nuts that have been ground up with olive oil and then roasted. Sliced prosciutto adds a saltiness that counters the clove taste.
It seemed the wrong time of year to try a few dishes. The corn pie, which incorporates egg, cornmeal, fresh corn, green chilies and sharp cheddar, rides a scrumptious line between quiche and tamale pie. It cried out for a cup of chili on the side, but that option is not available during summer. It will return in the fall, Carney said.
Perhaps the cioppino, among the most expensive menu items at $27, also should wait for chilly weather. The crab in it did not taste especially flavorful in late June. But a deep seafood-and-tomato broth keeps it on the still-something-to-recommend-it list, with the pizza.
Of the many dishes we sampled, only the gnocchi appetizer was a true disappointment, its consistency too dense, its Parmesan cream sauce sweet where it should be salty.
So that’s a firm no on the gnocchi, but a give-it-a-try on everything else.
Putah Creek Cafe
1 Main St., Winters. 530-795-2682. www.putahcreekcafe.com
- Hours: 6 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; 5-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4:30-8:30 p.m. Sunday
- Beverage options: Highly local wine list; bottled beers.
- Vegetarian friendly: Yes
- Gluten-free options: Yes
- Ambiance: Farmhouse-esque, with wood paneling, brick walls and a oil-cloth table coverings. The light is beautiful on sunny mornings.
Sophisticated takes on comfort food are served in a genuine country restaurant that counts Yolo County farmers among its clientele.
Chicken and waffles, on the weekend brunch menu, is a sweet/savory delight. Beet and tri-tip salads contain unexpected tastes and textures. The wood-fired pizzas were tasty but floppy when we tried them.
The servers were efficient and friendly without being overly familiar. This is always preferable to “Hon, what can I getcha?” forced folksiness.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
The cioppino did not taste as if it should cost $27.