It’s all about balance.
Seven months on the job as The Bee’s restaurant critic is not much time. But it’s enough to figure out that the key to any good dish is how it marries flavors and textures. Or enough to observe how a sandwich can defy laws of physics, as the burger at Sacramento’s South does when its light brioche bun stays intact despite the dense mass it holds.
All the items on my top-10 list of dishes for 2015 held things together beautifully.
I’m highlighting dishes instead of restaurants because it seems the most fair option. I often review new places only three or four months after they have opened, when almost all still have issues with service or overall execution. Also, it’s never decor or service that one tends to go on about when recounting a dining experience to a friend. It’s the food.
Also out of fairness, and balance, only two soups appear on this list. If I had my way, all food top-10 lists would be awash in broths. But not everyone shares this view. So I will save some soup recommendations for a roundup planned for early 2016.
Here’s a countdown of the top-10 dishes I ate in Sacramento-area restaurants in 2015:
10. Poke with salmon, yuzu ponzu sauce, jalapeño, persimmon and macadamia nut, at Fish Face Poke Bar
This dish carries the longest name on the list because Fish Face, a new counter-service, Hawaiian-salad spot from Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine chef Billy Ngo, lets diners pick their own combinations of protein, sauce and other ingredients. The yuzu ponzu sauce’s slight sweetness, offset by vinegar and lemon snap, enlivens already sushi-grade-fresh raw salmon in this dish – the most daring, and best, of the several combinations we sampled at Fish Face.
The macadamia adds crunch and creaminess, and the jalapeño heat before the persimmon brings back the sweet.
$14.50. 1104 R St., Suite 100, Sacramento. 916-706-0605. www.fishfacepokebar.com
9. Mac ’n’ cheese, at Cask & Barrel
Chef Gabriel Glasier is doing exciting things at the former Enotria restaurant on Del Paso Boulevard. He’s turned the bar area into a 40-seat restaurant and showcase for flavor-packed meats that he first smokes before bagging and cooking them sous-vide.
Glasier incorporates modernist techniques in crafting starters such as a new iteration of the classic “Hangtown fry” that includes red-pepper “glass” created via cornstarch and a dehydration process.
Glasier’s mac ’n’ cheese is a little bit fancy, too, because he does not use cream in it. Yet his mac ’n’ cheese – made with wheat beer, aged sharp cheddar and bacon crumbles – tastes creamy anyway. And a lot like beer. That beer aspect, which lends an unusual depth of flavor and a slight, intriguing sourness to the dish, is what puts this mac ’n’ cheese over the excellent versions I tasted at Empress Tavern, Magpie Cafe and South this year.
I know this retro dish’s time in the culinary sun was over six years ago. But try telling that to my taste buds.
$8. 1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento. 916-922-6792. www.caskandbarrel916.com
8. Scallops, at Brasserie Capitale
I gave this gorgeous K Street French restaurant – from the team behind midtown stalwart Aioli Bodega Espanola – a mixed overall review in August, primarily because service at the then-3-month-old restaurant was still a work in progress. But I awarded the food three out of four stars, because of lovely dishes such as the expertly prepared duck confit and steak tartare and, most of all, because of this excellent dish.
The day-boat scallops, when we had them, were served with slightly crunchy corn bathed in a delicious cream and butter sauce, with blistered tomatoes and a balsamic reduction adding a bit of spike. The accompaniments change seasonally, but the most important component – perfectly seared scallops – does not.
$22. 1201 K St., Sacramento. 916-329-8033. www.brasseriecapitale.com
7. Burger, at South
Though this list focuses on individual dishes, food and vibe are inextricable in a few instances. This is the case at South, a Southern-food, counter-service restaurant housed in the former Cheung Hing Co. grocery store at 11th and T streets.
Married owners N’Gina and Ian Kavookjian used personal elbow grease to transform the big-windowed building into a spot that’s whistle-clean and artfully decorated yet still imperfect enough, around the edges, that one feels immediately more relaxed upon entering. A sound system partial to classic R&B and hip-hop enhances this effect.
Many dishes impress, from hush puppies to fried chicken to wonderfully creamy mashed potatoes with rich mushroom gravy (that last one a relatively new addition to the menu).
Yet nothing beats the burger, the ingredients on which are plentiful but so well distributed that no one flavor or texture dominates. Smoky, fatty bacon confit and tangy Havarti cheese sit tight on a perfectly seasoned chuck patty that tastes most prominently, and comfortingly, of char.
House pickles add kick, as does a lettuce slaw that’s been tumbled in house mustard-barbecue sauce. I tried more-innovative burgers this year, but their salty, fat and acidic components were not meted out as carefully as they are here.
$13. 2005 11th St., Sacramento. 916-382-9722. www.weheartfriedchicken.com
6. Enfrijoladas de Pollo, at Cielito Lindo
Place matters again here, because chef and Mexico City native Ramiro Alarcón is working culinary wonders in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken building on J Street in East Sacramento. And the restaurant’s young life already has included a fire that closed it for months. The unlikeliness of the place, and of his comeback, make you want to root for Alarcón.
But only because his food is so distinctive. The enfrijoladas de pollo, or chicken enchiladas with chipotle bean sauce, are a good example. Though Alarcón is known for his moles, this sauce is something different. It’s creamy like mole yet more savory than sweet, its smoky, slightly sharp flavor contrasting with the soft texture and sweetness of the corn tortillas beneath it. The perfectly cooked shredded chicken within the tortillas carries its own heat. Chorizo atop the enchiladas adds a nice hit of salt.
$12 lunch (except Thursday, when the enfrijoladas are on special, for $10), $14 dinner. 3672 J St. 916-736-2506. www.cielitolindo.us
5. Fried chicken, at Empress Tavern
Location factors in here too, but this time in a more luxurious, almost transportive manner.
Everything tastes a little better at an underground restaurant with brick archways so glorious and lighting so luminous that descending the stairs into it offers something akin to a religious experience – if your religion looks the other way on gluttony.
Empress co-owner and executive chef Michael Thiemann piles 16 pieces of chicken on a plate as part of his $80 “honey hot” fried chicken “family dinner” for four that also comes with a big, tasty butter-lettuce salad and two sides.
The chicken’s sweetness and heavy crunch created an almost candied effect outside, yet every piece, including the breasts, was moist and tender throughout. I never thought I would like sweet fried chicken, until Thiemann prepared it so perfectly.
$80 (“family dinner” for four), 1013 K St. (lower level), Sacramento. 916-662-7694. www.empresstavern.com
4. Tan tan ramen, at Zen Toro
Sometimes the route to an extraordinary dish can be circuitous, even serendipitous.
A chef friend who accompanies me on many restaurant visits had mentioned several times how much she likes Zen Toro’s tan tan ramen – information I filed for sometime far in the future. The restaurant has been around too long for there to be any impetus to review it.
But one night we were in Davis to review another, new-ish restaurant, and on a whim, made a second stop, at Zen Toro. There, I tasted the best ramen I’ve ever had and subsequently decided to do a roundup of cheap eats in Davis – mostly so I could write about the ramen.
The meaty taste of the broth, made from pork bones and scraps, satisfies deeply before you factor in its sesame nuttiness and chili-oil spicy heat. Fresh-tasting ground pork and the ramen noodles both offer a slight bit of chew, turning the act of consuming this soup into an experience that’s comforting without being passive.
$9.50. 132 E St., Davis. 530-753-0154. www.zentorosushi.com
3. Sopa verde del campo, at Cielito Lindo
“Verde” is everywhere in this soup. The spinach and cactus influence the broth’s flavor to such a degree that the soup tastes “green,” as if green were a flavor instead of just a color.
The “green” label also fits on a wholesomeness level, since this soup, which also contains crunchy corn kernels, is vegan and otherwise good for you. But it carries enough epazote zip to be exciting as well as nourishing. Its only rival, among soups at Sacramento-area Mexican restaurants, is the sopa Azteca, also at Cielito Lindo. $6 cup/$9 bowl.
2. Free range turkey, at Empress Tavern
Think about when you last ate turkey. Likely, it was within the past 48 hours. Was that turkey moist throughout, even the white-meat parts?
Not likely, unless you ate it at Empress, which cooks free-range, organic Diestel turkey on its rotisserie until white and dark meat are equally moist.
Because we’re so used to seeing turkey beneath thick gravy and next to stuffing, its presentation at Empress, on a white plate with a bit of cranberry sauce and green onion atop it, seems unadorned. But it’s far more artful than that.
Empress chef Thiemann has covered the meat with a reduced poultry stock – with just a touch of gravy added for that comfort-food effect – that draws out instead of smothers the natural turkey flavor. $25
1. Farm plate, at Localis
Christopher Barnum has ruined me for anyone else’s vegetables.
Since sampling Localis chef Barnum’s always-changing crudité plate (its contents are culled from local farms), with its thoughtful use of apple slices and pomegranate seeds to give its vegetable components more dimension, and Barnum’s variance in pickling elements based on whether the vinegar recipient was a turnip, carrot or beet, other salads and vegetable plates never measure up.
The vegetables on Barnum’s plate offer careful doses of sweetness, saltiness and brightness while sharing an overall freshness. Barnum, who immediately announced himself as one of the city’s top chefs when he opened his locavore restaurant in the old Tuli/Trick Pony space this past summer, is known for inventive dishes that incorporate exotic-leaning meats and seafood (quail, octopus, rabbit). But he also sparks a great desire to eat one’s vegetables. At least when he makes them.
$11. 2031 S St. Sacramento. 916-737-7699. localissacramento.com
Carla Meyer: 916-321-1118, firstname.lastname@example.org, @CarlaMeyerSB